Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Sarantine Mosaic

Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay may be my favorite books ever, now that I have read them twice. I do not say that easily. I'm bad at picking favorites, and don't like to do it in general. One thinks of other possibilities and cringes slightly to say that one is better than the other. Not because one can’t be better than the other, but because of the presumption – who am I to say that the Sarantine Mosaic is better than The Lord of the Rings, for example? Especially when the former might not exist if it weren’t for Tolkien? I have no problem with someone saying it, but me? Ha!

At any rate, Guy Gavriel Kay combines two of my favorite genres, fantasy and historical fiction, and his writing is amazing; plus he gets bonus points for helping Christopher Tolkien put together The Silmarillion. The Sarantine Mosaic is my favorite among his books, although I haven’t read Tigana since April 1999, and it was powerful as well – probably a close second. I think everyone should read these two books… or at least everyone who is smart enough to understand and interpret them correctly. He does tend to put at least one sexually explicit scene in every book, but the Sarantine Mosaic is cleaner than most, and only has one I think. Certainly I would love it if my roommates would read them; Rachel for the history, Joi for the art, and all of them for the message of loving even when you are going to lose what you love.

The books are about a mosaicist... and the people at the Sarantine court. In case you haven't figured it out yet, Sarantium was inspired by Byzantium; 6th century Byzantium, to be exact. I really can't say much more than that. Any interesting summary of the plot would give too much away. Even the beginning events are too enjoyable to read, I don't want to give the basic premise. It's a very character driven plot, but not in a "no action" sort of way at all. Gaah. You have to read it. I don't even want to post a link to the history it's based on, because that would still give away some stuff. I'm assuming most people aren't especially familiar with 6th century Byzantium and the reign of Justinian. Based on these books, they should be.

I simply love them. Kay is so good at observing life, observing people, and writing truth and beauty. He writes about the power of love, and the destructive power of hate. The limits of love, sometimes, when its object is someone devoted to vengeance. Rich and complex, yet comprehensible, without the confused feeling of Dune. But read it again, and you will catch more. Ordinary conversations become poignant, and the amazing scenes do not lose their power. Oh bother, I can't describe it, you have to read these books!

Here's what one other has to say about them:
"Kay is a global phenomenon... His prose is surefooted and poetic... A storyteller on the grandest scale, his Sarantine empire [is] peopled by prostitutes, charioteers, senators and slaves, all drawn in fine detail. Yet despite the distance of time and place, his historical characters breathe and bleed; we feel they are our intimates... Kay has complete control of all he creates... His real subject is the power of art to survive and give posterity its version of the world... Mosaic serves as both subject and style: Kay's method is to juxtapose chunks of contrasting tales, breaking and building suspense, inviting parallels between individuals high and low in society. It is fascinating... to see how the stories connect." Time magazine (Canada)

I have a slight disagreement on one point -- I think his "real subject" is, perhaps, about the "power of art to survive," but its very strongly mixed with a theme of the fragility of art -- and its inherent value despite.

And here's Guy Gavriel Kay's own words -- "On Writing Sailing to Sarantium". I especially like this quote: "Fantasy is -- at its best -- the purest access to storytelling that we have. It universalizes a tale, it evokes wonder and timeless narrative power, it touches upon inner journeys, it illuminates our collective and individual pasts, throws a focusing beam on the present day, and presages the dangers and promises of the future. It is -- or so I have argued for years -- a genre, a mode of telling, that offers so much more than it is usually permitted to reveal." No wonder I like his work...

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