Sailing To Sarantium (The Sarantine Mosaic #1), by Guy Gavriel Kay
I could not help but be a bit bored of this book. While I do not think this is a bad book, I do not think that this book’s materials warrant being a 400 page novel. The author obviously finds something about setting the scene of corrupt but elegant Sarantium (an obvious stand-in for Byzantium/Constantinople) more interesting than I do. In reading this novel I get the feeling that the author viewed there as being too much material about the author’s interest in mosaics to put it in one volume, but he wanted to do a lot of the setup in the first volume that would payoff later and that makes this particular novel a bit weak. Not much really ends up happening here, at least not much that pays off immediately, and the result is that we are left with following the adventures of a character who is not as cultured as he thinks he is and whose conversations and misadventures are not nearly as interesting as the author seems to think that they are, all of which makes this a book that when taken on its own terms is slight and not very exciting.
A lot of this book is spent doing what the title says, traveling from a fictional version of Italy to a fictional version of Constantinople in the early 6th century AD. Byzantium is being ruled by a Justinian-clone but instead of having an interest in law most of the book consists of ominous warnings that the invasion of Italy would be a mistake and a focus on the emperor’s interest in mosaics, which deals with the whole iconoclastic controversy as well as the Arian controversy, which the author predictably mishandles given his general problems in writing compellingly about Christian doctrine. Dolphins figure into this somehow as well as heretical soul-carriers. A mosaic worker answers an imperial summons aimed at his partner and travels under a false name where he has a frightening night in a forest where he sees a vision of the Lithuanian bison, meets up with a pagan, and also finds as prostitute as a traveling companion before arriving in town, so to speak, and then proceeding to offend plenty of powerful people through his blunt honesty before the emperor and his entourage. Only at the very end does he actually get started on the mosaic he is supposed to be creating.
Yet while this book was not very interesting for me on its own, the work did make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of its second volume (review forthcoming). There are matters here that are paid off eventually, and that is for the best. If the lead character himself, Crispin of some town like Verona, is not the most interesting of people (he isn’t), at least he is surrounded by compelling people whose adventure and behavior is a lot more interesting. It’s just not interesting here. We have banquets, we have a terrifying vision, we have a man trying to overcome the loss of his wife and children and answer a late summons by a Justinian-clone for the building of the Hagia Sophia (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t go as expected), and we have a lot of posturing and urbane corruption. The protagonist even spends pages going on and on about light and shadow as it relates to his first trip to the chariot races, all of which is interesting to the author because of his own studies of mosaics, but is not as interesting to the reader who is less interested in these subjects. This book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a very large one-volume book is divided into two unequal volumes and where an author lets his own passion in obscure subjects blind him to the fact that these subjects are not always interesting to everyone else.