Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody! I will be celebrating by reading some of The Warmth of Other Suns and driving down our street named after him, my favoritely nicknamed street: MLK.

Sailing to Sarantium
by Guy Gavriel Kay
“Crispin is a master mosaicist, creating beautiful art with colored stones and glass. Summoned to Sarantium by imperial request, he bears a Queen’s secret mission, and a talisman from an alchemist. Once in the fabled city, with its taverns and gilded sanctuaries, chariot races and palaces, intrigues and violence, Crispin must find his own source of power in order to survive-and unexpectedly discovers it high on the scaffolding of his own greatest creation.”

Good Things: Kay is a master writer – I’ll read most anything he writes. The setting is fairly unusual for fantasy- it is inspired by Byzantium. I also love the focus on craft, with the main character being a mosaicist.

Bad Things: My main issue with this book is that there are way too many viewpoints. It works wonderfully in the prologue – he goes from the lowliest class to the scheming people at the top to set up the milieu that will affect the rest of the book. It doesn’t work in the rest of the book. While it’s enjoyable to see the viewpoint of a lowly cook in one of the kitchens, the effect is that we have less time to care about even the more sympathetic main characters. And then we never meet that lowly cook again! And then we see the events of the night again from a less minor character, though this is the only time we get his viewpoint. And then we see the events of the night again, finally from a main character. And yes, Kay is a good enough writer that he gives us different and new information each time, but… This sort of sequence happens over and over again and gets kind of tedious. But he mostly makes it work because of his skill as a writer.

The time that it particularly doesn’t work is in the flashbacks to the revolt that takes place two years before the events of the book, possibly because we know what was the fallout of the revolt was. (That is, the emperor wouldn’t still be in power if there had been a coup.) The violence and frenzy of the riot is subdued, undermined by the reader’s knowledge.

I do feel like I should make clear that this book is the first of two. They really shouldn’t be considered separate stories, as the Lord of the Rings is one story separated into three books. It is quite likely that, in the context of a larger work, this viewpoint issue would be less of one. (Though I do stand by saying that the revolt sequence didn’t work very well.)

Overall: This is an excellent book, though not my favorite of Kay’s. I’m guessing I’ll like it even more once I read the second book, but I don’t know when that will be. Whee!

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14 thoughts on “Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. I completely agree with you about Kay! I really like his writing, but he falls into so many of the same traps again and again- the whole prologue thing being one of them! I also don’t like the way he really feels the need to match up characters so quickly at the end and form couples- I particularly don’t like the way he does it in this duology. But I like the story, overall, and agree that the setting is great!

    • Yeah, I was having a lot of trouble with the prologue but he actually ended up selling me on it. And you’re right – he totally does match people up! I’m not looking forward to that in the second half. >.<

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  3. I keep thinking I should read this book, and then just not bothering. I like the idea of it, because Byzantium is awesome and the mosaicist as protagonist is intriguing. The problem is just that Kay’s books are so exhausting to read, I think partly because of that viewpoint issue you mentioned. I seem to recall having a similar problem with Tigana; there were just so many things going on that I couldn’t get attached to any of the characters the way I would have liked. (It’s been a long time since I’ve read that book, though, so my memory may be fuzzy.)

    The matching people up thing that someone mentioned above is also not filling me with enthusiasm. In any case, I can’t imagine having the mental energy to read a book like this in the foreseeable future, but I may keep it in mind for someday. And I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts after you read the second part.

    • Yeah, I dunno. Tigana is one of my favorite books of all time, so obviously I have a pretty high tolerance for lots of viewpoints. I think where this book felt harder to deal with was for two reasons: 1) there were plenty of viewpoints that we only got *one* time (which may not be true once I read the second half) and 2) we got the same scene from multiple viewpoints, multiple times. Those two combined and it was too much for me. Of course, it’s also been years since I read Tigana and I may like it less now, IDK. I don’t think that’s true, because another big difference between this book and Tigana is that the character’s motivations feel a LOT stronger in Tigana. Again, that may change in the second part of this, where Crispin is actually excited about making this hugely important mosaic. Re: the matching up – it does tend to happen at the end, so the arbitrariness wouldn’t bother you until then, though it may sour you to the book as a whole.

      But yeah, Kay may not be an appropriate author for grad schooling, haha.

  4. I’m not a terribly big fan of sweeping epics with many different characters–sometimes I have a hard time keeping up, and I feel like I don’t get to know the characters as well as in more intimate narratives. Then again, I’m reading Dune right now and enjoying it, so maybe I just don’t think I’m a big fan of sweeping epics? I’m super intrigued by your good points, although it sounds like for my first outing with Kay I should spring for Tigana rather than this one.

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  6. Interesting review! What did you think of Kay’s approach to the setting? I checked Sailing to Sarantium out of the library months ago, thrilled by the idea of fantasy set in non-effing-feudal-western-Europe. And… I’m ashamed to say… I couldn’t get very far in. I loved Tigana so, so much (partly for the exploration of city-stations as a political structure, but mostly for Kay’s refreshing willingness to leave events unresolved: WAY more powerful than characters infodumping to each other for the sake of tying up loose ends), but Sarantium couldn’t hold me. I had the same problem with his pseudo-Japanese novel Under Heaven: I liked the -idea- of fantasy set in a non-western-influenced setting, but Kay’s approach to that felt SO heavy handed. Tigana was handed so well: the Renaissance Italy influence was obvious, but it wasn’t a straight copy of the era and setting. The geography and realities of the land were unique, and, in a way, the setting was its own character. In Sarantium and Under Heaven, they felt more like… pretty window-dressing, maybe? I don’t know whether I’m making too much of a thing of original worldbuilding, or if I’m faintly disappointed because I expected a more fully realized (original? subtle?) world when Kay was going for more alternate-universe Byzantium, or what. Bah, inarticulate me!

    Aaaanyway! Tigana is one of my favorite books ever, so maybe I judged Sarantium too harshly and should give it another shot? You do make it sound worth reading!

    • I do think it’s worth reading, but you’re also right. The setting is less enthralling and I think part of that may be that, in Tigana, there’s just so much emotion connected to the land.

      How far did you get? The setting in StS worked best for me maybe a third of the way through when they are in the Aldwood. I do think that the Byzantine setting is more than just window dressing, but it’s still not an integral part of the book. Which was weird, and this isn’t something I really touched on in the review, but it seemed like Kay halfway wanted the setting to be more important than it was. Like there are times when it feels like he wants Sarantium to be one of the characters, but he never quite gets there… Maybe a vestige from previous drafts?

      If you do try StS again, I’d suggest preparing by separating it from Tigana as much as you can. Tigana is one of my favorite books, too, and in comparison, StS falls pretty short. But if you can keep yourself from wanting another Tigana, StS has plenty to offer. :)

      • I don’t think I got very far– if only for that, I should give it another shot! Under Heaven (which I was reading and frustrated with at the same time) wallowed in the ‘hey look, it’s feudal Japan! You kids like that, right?’ setting for the first couple hundred pages, but I managed to forgive it once the inter-character scheming really got going, . Perhaps I just need to slog through Sarantium until those wheels of intrigue start to turn more quickly?

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