Lord Of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic #2), by Guy Gavriel Kay
This book provides a great deal of the payoff from the previous volume and suggests a somewhat different historical timeline than existed thanks to some changes. Indeed, those who are fans of the history of the early Middle Ages will have to ponder the way that the author attempts to prevent the Dark Ages from happening at all by avoiding the overextension of the Byzantine Empire that took place thanks to the long and brutal conquest of Italy and Southern Spain. Here in this novel this fate is avoided by having Justinian (or his stand-in Valerius II, I should say) killed in an assassination plot that brings a brave and straightforward but iconoclast emperor to the throne, leading to the peaceful integration of the Antae (Ostrogoth) and Byzantime realms and the successful defense of the Eastern Empire from Persia, leading to a decline in Byzantine art (including mosaics) but a generally better fate for the empire than the one it dealt with after Justinian’s conquests were rolled back and millions of people were killed by war and plague over the course of decades of disaster. This book does hint at the future disaster of the Arab rise, but that is mercifully avoided in this book’s plot.
A humorous prologue shows a doctor being raised in status as a result of saving a Persian emperor from a poisoned arrow shot. We are then treated to squabbles over mosaics and how they are to be built, a ne’er do-well son of a Senator who seems to enjoy killing people for fun until he grows up on the day when his stepmother kills herself after an attempt on the life of chariot racer has been made. That same day, of course, an actual riot breaks out an an assassination plot against Emperor Justinian (Valerius II) succeeds, even if it is kept quiet for a while. This leads to a change in power and a Persian attack and a failed attempt to kill a hostage Ostrogoth queen lead to a dramatic shift in alliances and territories and religious beliefs in ways that cause some changes, even as the author hints that there will be famine because of the premature death of farmers and the inability to get the crops in on time. And at the end there is a suitable scene that shows the protagonist to have gained in insight along with the chance at love and perhaps family.
Ultimately, Crispin the mosaicist is the least interesting part of this novel. Literally every other character here, from the garrulous soldier Carullus to the Persian doctor and his prophetic young son, to either of the Roman emperors to the various women whose intrigues spice up the plot to any number of chariot racers and guards and spoiled children of senators, is more interesting than Crispin. Again, it is fortunate that this book pays off a lot of what was alluded to in the first book and finds the protagonist returning home sadder and wiser after his time in the capital, but in order to have been a truly great novel this book would need a better center. It appears as if the author was so interested in mosaics and their history as well as the tortured history of the iconoclast disputes in Byzantine history and his desire to avoid the destruction of late antiquity in Italy that he forgot that he needed his novel to have a central core that was deeply interesting. There are things to find of interest here, but unless you like bland and emotionally remote artists the most exciting parts of the book will be the side characters and their intrigues, which is thankfully interesting enough.