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Guy Gavriel Kay – Lord of Emperors

June 2, 2008

72. Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay (2000)
Sarantine Mosaic, Book 2

Length: 560 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Started: 27 May 2008
Finished: 02 June 2008

Read my review of the first book in the series, Sailing to Sarantium

Summary: Crispin the mosaicist has come, under imperial summons, to the capital city of Sarantium, and there has been given charge of creating a mosaic larger and grander than anything he could ever have aspired to. Much as he would like to, however, he cannot simply retreat up his scaffolding to his work; the city swirls around him, rife with depths and complexities, currents both personal and political and frequently both. A time of change is coming – rumors of a war being planned against Crispin’s homeland, his exiled queen friendless and alone in the great city, violence in the streets and in the stands of the Hippodrome, a pagan doctor and spy arriving from the lands to the east, and above and below it all, the smooth and treacherous subtleties of the most powerful imperial court on earth.

Review: I can understand why, from a publisher’s point of view, the Sarantine Mosaic was split up into two books – a reader is more likely to take a chance on two 550-page books than on one giant 1100-page one. Yet, from the point of view of a reader, I wonder if that was a mistake. I read these books relatively close together – about a month apart – but I can instantly tell that they would have been better, and I would have been more involved, had I read them sequentially. That’s part – but not all – of the reason why I think I didn’t connect with this book as much as I have with much of Kay’s other writing. The other part is that I never really connected with any of the characters. This book felt a little more distant to me than some of Kay’s others… it concerns itself with broad, cataclysmic, history-making changes rather than with the more personal revolutions of many of his other books, and I felt the difference. At least for me, the personal is more powerful than the political, even when the political is built out of the personal, as it is in Lord of Emperors.

The format is all in short sections from a wide variety of viewpoints. This style isn’t unfamiliar territory for Kay – he uses it to some extent in all his books – but it’s employed here to much more dramatic effect. There is a reason this duology is called The Sarantine Mosaic, and it’s to do with the writing as much as with the profession of the main character. Little glittering chips of scenes, some of which are nearly incomphrensible on their own (several would have gone straight over my head had I not already read The Lions of Al-Rassan), but put together form a shining, detailed whole. There’s a definite flair to the writing, but the mosaic-style approach and the lack of a strong main character to get attached to (Crispin’s around, but his viewpoint does not command a majority of the scenes) led to my having a harder time getting emotionally invested in the book.

The writing, though…. Oh, the writing! Kay’s a phenomenal writer, of fantasy and of literature and of fantastic literature, able to conjure mature, complex, multi-layered characters, intricate plots, and vivid environments with an elegance that’s difficult to describe. There is a touch more supernatural presence and magic in this one than in several of Kay’s other works (Lions and A Song for Arbonne had very little, if any), although less than in Tigana or even in this novel’s predecessor, Sailing to Sarantium. The result is something that’s not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, but some amalgam of the two, driven by a powerful narrative voice and a joy to read. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not my personal favorite of Kay’s work, but an excellent book nonetheless. If you’re going to read this series, though (and if you enjoy fantasy, or any well-written, mature fiction, I highly recommend you do), buy both and read them together – too much of the power of the story gets lost, otherwise.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

First Line: Amid the first hard winds of winter, the King of Kings of Bassania, Shirvan the Great, Brother to the Sun and Moons, Sword of Perun, Scourge of Black Azal, left his walled city of Kabadh and journeyed south and west with much of his court to examine the state of his fortifications in that part of the lands he ruled, to sacrifice at the ancient Holy Fire of the priestly caste, and to hunt lions in the desert.

Vocab:

  • p. 257: “Rustem looked at the household skewers and pins they’d brought him – all he had for fibulae to close the wound.” – a plural of fibula; meaning either the leg bone or Roman brooches similar to very decorative safety pins. I can’t find any evidence in a quick websearch that they were used medically, but maybe he was planning to pin the wound together in lieu of stitches?
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