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Guy Gavriel Kay – Sailing to Sarantium

May 7, 2008

64. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay (1998)
Sarantine Mosaic, Book 1

Length: 533 pages

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Started: 05 May 2008
Finished: 07 May 2008

Summary: To say a person is “sailing to Sarantium” is to mean that they are at a turning point in their life, heading towards a reshaping, and a future of consequence. For Sarantium is the holy city, center of the world, beloved of god, the seat of beauty, wealth, refinement, and power. Crispin, a mosaicist from the Western reaches of Sarantium’s influence, is summoned by the Emperor of Sarantium to leave behind his home, the graves of his wife and daughters, and to come to the City to consult on a mosaic so large that it dwarfs imagination. However, the message comes to late for him to take ship, and so he must journey overland, through a world of the old gods who have not entirely submitted to Sarantine rule, and if he survives that, he must still face the intrigues and politics of the most powerful players in the City itself.

Review: Sailing to Sarantium falls about in the middle of pack of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work that I’ve read so far, although I’m reserving final judgment until I read the sequel, Lord of Emperors. It’s clear that he’s setting up quite a lot of elements in the first book that are going to pay off later, and I’m certainly interested to see where it all leads. However, that same “setting up” comprised much of my problems with this book. In other series/trilogy/duologys, even in Kay’s earlier work, each book has its own arc while still fitting into the overall storyline. Here, however, there are few or no pay-offs, and everything feels like it’s set-up. This had the effect of distancing me from the work – Kay’s been good at making me cry in the past, but I wasn’t emotionally involved in the work this time at all. I was still absorbed in the book, and it was compulsively readable, but being intellectually interested in what happens next is not the same as emotional involvement with the characters. It’s not through any fault of the writing or characterization, though – Kay’s writing is as flawless and as resonant as ever, and his characters are so much like real people that it feels as though you’ve met them already. I think my problem was entirely with the pacing… which, if the second book pans out, isn’t really a problem at all. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Engagingly and beautifully written, but not enough happened to make this one of Kay’s better works – at least not on its own merits. It’s good enough that I’m absolutely going to read the sequel, and I’ve got no doubts that it will redeem my reservations about this one.

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First Line: Thunderstorms were common in Sarantium on midsummer nights, sufficiently so to make plausible the oft-repeated-tale that the Emperor Apius passed to the god in the midst of a towering storm, with lightning flashing and rolls of thunder besieging the Holy City.


  • p. 7: “An apprentice in the linen guild had been knifed in a dockside caupona two days before and was newly buried: a perfect chance for those with tablets to seek intercession at the grave of the violently dead.” – a generic term for a variety of types of ancient Roman restaurants and hostels.
  • p. 131: “He could lease a small two-wheeled birota and a horse or mule to pull it, but that would mean an outlay, over and above what the Permit allowed him, and they were notoriously uncomfortable, in any case.” – a two-wheeled cart, usually drawn by three mules, used for transporting commercial goods and one or two passengers.
  • p. 150: “The yellow-haired girl had oiled him, not very competently, and was now scrubbing his back with a rough cloth, for want of any strigil.” – an instrument with a curved blade, used esp. by the ancient Greeks and Romans for scraping the skin at the bath and in the gymnasium.
  • p. 392: ““Tell the Lady Styliane we are plased with her her gesture and by the… celerity with which she chose to send it to us, keeping a hard-working scribe awake so late at night as a messenger.”” – swiftness; speed.
  • p. 412: “The mental image of a dome alchemized into that of the Empress, eliding the memory of a queen’s touch.” – To cut short; abridge.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2008 12:41 pm

    Sailing to Sarantium is my least favorite Kay, and Lord of Emperors is my favorite. What that says, I don’t know. Certainly, it didn’t have the emotional connection of The Lions of Al-Rassan, or most of his other work. I’d rank it above Fionavar (sorry, Fionavar fans) but below Arbonne, Tigana, Ysabel, Last Light, Lions, and Lord of Emperors.

  2. May 16, 2008 12:51 pm

    I haven’t read Ysabel or Last Light of the Sun, and Lord of Emperors is currently sitting on my nightstand waiting to be read, but otherwise, our ranking looks exactly the same.

    You’re dead on about the emotional connection, as well… I’m not a particularly easy crier, but Kay’s work will do it – a little in Tigana, a fair bit through most of the end of Fionavar, and quite a bit at the end of Lions (like a baby!). Sarantium, on the other hand, got more of an “oh. huh.” emotional reaction from me.

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