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Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking, 2000, 531 pp.
Lord of Emperors closes the duology begun by Sailing to Sarantium, and does so with style, vigour, and more than a little heartbreak. Kay's latest novel pulls no punches when it comes to tragedy, and Kay's writing has only gotten better over the years. Perhaps the secret is Kay's knack for writing what would be melodrama in a lesser author's book -- Lord of Emperors has exciting elements that are tried and true, not hackneyed as might have been the case. Kay's voice is assured and sweeping, combining the best elements of the genre roots of fantasy with the most intelligent aspects of wide appeal.
Lord of Emperors begins with a physician named Rustem, called on pain of death to save the life of his liege lord, the Bassanid King of Kings. Rustem succeeds and is sent off to Sarantium for his pains, on a mission of espionage in the heart of enemy territory. Once he arrives in Sarantium, he gets caught up in the dizzying intrigue of the capital of the Empire. Rustem soon meets Crispin, who is once again a mainstay of the book, as with Sailing to Sarantium. Crispin is trying to finish a massive, dazzling mosaic in a new holy place, but he is forced into the Sarantine politics. The Emperor and Empress are plotting wars on two fronts; an exiled queen is putting demands on Crispin; a valiant general and a bitter trophy bride complicate matters; and of course there is the city-wide rivalry between the fans of the Blue and Green chariot-racing teams. Sailing to Sarantium had a fabulous chariot race sequence, but Lord of Emperors ups the ante considerably. Murder and romance are always in the offing, but as I've said, Kay writes these things with maximum effect and minimum of melodrama.
As with Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emperors revels in its cast of thousands. What epic would be complete without glimpses into the perspective of everyone from the rulers to the ruled? Lord of Emperors has the associated difficulty of continuing a story left off halfway in the previous volume, especially if the characters are not fresh in the reader's mind. Interestingly, Lord of Emperors gets off to a strong start with the sequences with the physician Rustem. As a new character, he doesn't have any associations for us to remember -- all of the emotional attachment to him as a character come from this book, and he is an exceptionally sympathetic character. As the plot progresses, he becomes somewhat peripheral, at least in terms of time spent on his doings, not the importance of them. But we have been given an entry point to the story and the large cast of people. To Kay's credit, he doesn't resort to the trick of putting a list of important characters at the beginning of the book; we get by with the connections spiralling out from the people we are introduced to first.
Lord of Emperors is written in the third person omniscient, and the swift changes between character can be dizzying. This is part of how Lord of Emperors can get away with so many characters. The narration also has an odd tilt to it: several times, the narration puts in comments from up to several hundred years later, giving the reader the sense of the sweep of history surrounding the books. More on that in a minute. Interestingly, there is a tiny side plot that serves much the same function, but much more powerfully, where a character modelled after Mohammed goes off into the desert. With just a few hints here, Kay shows how quickly everything will change once the events in the book are over -- a new religion will race out of the desert to overturn most of the status quo. The narration has another small quirk, where several chapters are closed by digressions about how unimportant the tragic events in Sarantium are to the common people elsewhere in the empire. For example:
A nice gesture on the part of Kay, but the book is still about the comings and goings of the rich and the powerful, however transient wealth and power are shown to be.
This leads me to an important theme of The Sarantine Mosaic, one that is captured by the exceedingly well-chosen titles of the duology. As I mentioned in my review of Sailing to Sarantium, the phrase that is used as a title for that book is mentioned as a Sarantine catchphrase for taking great risk for the possibility of great reward. The title of the second book is also derived from a saying common in Sarantium, a saying which describes what might a dying emperor or empress might hear: "Uncrown, a voice was said to say when it ended for one of Jad's holy, anointed ones. The Lord of Emperors awaits you now" (203). Kay manages to capture the bittersweet nature of temporal power in this one compact phrase. As a type of meditation on the glories and vanities of human striving, the book is quite a success: death may be inevitable but here are some stories about brilliant people trying to leave their mark on the world. Some, like Crispin the mosaicist, leave a physical mark on the world, while others, like the brilliant charioteers or dancers of Sarantium, leave only descriptions of their art behind. The emperors of this glorious city would seem to have a lock on posthumous fame, but this is how Kay's clever historical shifts in narrative make the situation much more complex. What if the only historical account by which you are remembered has been written by a historian with a vendetta against you and all your accomplishments? The book mentions this storyline only briefly, but it ties in with the theme and the title in a close-fitting way.
Lord of Emperors is a strong finish to the Sarantine Mosaic, by turns exciting and intelligent, and worth pondering in retrospect.
First posted: August 3, 2000; Last modified: March 21, 2004.
Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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