CBRIII Maneuver #25 – Sailing to Sarantium

Target: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium

Profile: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Summary: From the back of the book, “Sarantium is the golden city: holy to the faithful, exalted by the poets, jewel of the world, and heart of an empire.

Caius Crispus, known as Crispin, is a master mosaicist, creating beautiful art with colored stones and glass.  Still grieving the loss of his family, he lives only for his craft-until and imperial summons draws him east to the fabled city.  Bearing with him a queen’s secret mission and seductive promise, and a talisman from an alchemist, Crispin crosses a land of pagan ritual and mortal danger, confronting legends and dark magic. (truncated)”

After Action Report:

When I finished Kay’s The Summer Tree, I was annoyed that I had already bought a copy of Sailing to Sarantium.  The former is an overwritten homage to a style of fantasy that has been done to death, but the later is a shockingly delightful piece of historical fiction with just a dash of fantasy.  Kay’s awkward writing style is gone, replaced with a tight, but complex narrative that had me hanging on every word.  It is an excellent novel.

The world of Sarantium is an alternate world’s Mediterranean region during the Roman era.  Culture and power are centered on the glorious city ofSarantium, a rough analog for Constantinople in Turkey, and its vast empire.  In many ways, this is how the world might have looked if the Greeks had never risen to power and remained a barbarian people, while Persia expanded in all directions instead of being halted in their tracks byAthens.  Or if Troy had been spared and lived to conquer the East. 

The setting is delightful.  Sarantium acts as an analogue for post-imperial Rome, with a schisming monotheistic faith and barbarians at the northern gates.  On the throne is a commoner emperor, ascended to his seat by merit, rather than blood.  And he is ambitious.  To rebuild the splendor of the city, and reunite the two halves of the empire, Valerius II has spared no expense and earned a great deal of enemies.

The strengths of Sarantium lie in a colorful cast of characters and a world with just enough unknowns to draw a reader in without overwhelming them.  Crispin is a brilliantly realized man with a monstrous intellect and a terrible temper.  Unsurprisingly, he gets into a lot of trouble.  He is a refreshing protagonist; one who wears his flaws on his sleeve and, after a little prodding, embraces the events that are acting on his life.  He is uniquely resilient in a spiritual sense.  I knew Kay could write good characters.  The supporting cast in The Summer Tree was wonderful.  So it’s nice to see that he applied some of that same skill to his protagonists this time around.

It is a little surprising to me to read a novel by an author who I had essentially written off and have my position be completely reversed.  I am forced to admit that Kay is probably an extremely talented writer who handcuffed himself to a style and sub-genre that he loved but couldn’t do justice to.  I will definitely be reading Sarantium’s sequel and Kay’s other works.  I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here about the need for authors to be free from expectations if we want good books, but as Summer Tree was apparently self-inflicted, I’m not sure how well the truism holds.

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Posted on June 6, 2011, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting review. I haven’t read Kay’s Summer Tree and its sequels, though I have mostly heard they are amazing. Months ago I reviewed his Tigana, which, but for a few obscene passages and an unsatisfactory character, is pretty much a masterpiece. Like this one, it’s historically inspired (early Renaissance Italy) and uses magic rarely, but powerfully. From the sound of it, you’d probably love it. Eventually I plan to read his Sarantium series, so it’s good to read a positive review.

    • My Summer Tree review is up here too. I only read the first book of the trilogy, but the damn thing was so overwritten I really had no desire to move on. But my primary complaint with Fionavar was the idiot protagonists. If you can get over the main characters literally not thinking through the entire first book, the series might be worth it. I tend to not think so.

      Crispin is the polar opposite of that, so its not surprising I would like Sarantium better.

  1. Pingback: Fofo’s CBRIII Review #25 – Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay | Cannonball Read III

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