Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian fantasy author who is probably best known for his Fionavr Tapestry trilogy, which I read a few years ago. That series is a relatively conventional entry in the genre which follows a group of five friends who move back and forth between our Earth and a parallel world where magic and other common fantasy tropes exist. However, most of his work is in a particular sub-genre which can best be described as "historical fantasy"; he sets his novels in fictionalized versions of actual historical periods populated by characters who are adopted from world-famous people of extreme significance such as the 8th Century Tang Dynasty in China, medieval Italy and medieval Spain.
The Sarantine Mosaic is the name given to his diptych of novels Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. They are based in a world where the "Lord of Emperors" Valerius II and his beautiful empress Alixana rule in a fabled city called Sarantium where the populace is completely obsessed with chariot races and there are multiple competing religious beliefs, with worship of the Sun God Jad being the most prominent. This is a thinly veiled fictionalization of the 6th century Byzantine period in which Justinian II ruled with his queen Theodora in Constantinople as part of the Eastern edge of the Roman empire.
The main character we follow is Caius Crispus (who is better known as Crispin), a mosaicist who has recently lost his wife and child to the plague. His aging mentor is summoned to the capital of Trakesia (Sarantium) to create a mosaic for the Emperor but they agree to have Crispin go in his place, since he has nothing really tying him to his hometown of Varena, in the land of Batiara. The first book, Sailing to Sarantium, is primarily about his eventful journey from Batiara to Trakesia, but then it gets even more interesting when Crispin arrives in Sarantium and is immersed into the complex politics of the palace and the capital city. Another key aspect of the books is Kay's portrayal of the chariot races in the Hippodrome as well as the obsessive enthusiasm the city has for the two rival factions: the Blues and the Greens.
One of the strongest features of Kay's writing is his ability to incorporate many details and intricate backstory to construct and communicate a very clear picture of the culture of the fascinating time and place he sets his books. In fact, some would argue that he devotes so much of his text towards the atmospherics in The Sarantine Mosaic that the plot and story development suffers. There's no question that events sloooowly unfold, but the atmosphere generally hooks you so completely that even though I kept on putting the books down to read other more rapidly plotted books (such as Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels), I repeatedly returned to Kay's work because I cared about Crispin and I wanted to return to Sarantium to find out what happened to him. It literally took me around 6 months to finish both books but I am glad that I did. I very rarely read more than one book at a time, but somehow I was able to do this with the The Sarantine Mosaic, which is a testament to Kay's clarity of exposition that even after returning to the books after a long break one can immediately be re-engrossed.
In the second book Lord of Emperors (which resumes right where the first book ends) story takes a central role as Kay starts deploying all the characters he has introduced to produce a gripping series of events which surprises and emotionally impacts the reader. Crispis is the main character, but there are at least four women in his orbit who are all extremely important in Sarantium: Alixana, the Empress of Sarantium; Gisele, the exiled Queen who escaped an assassination attempt back in their common hometown of Batiara and is now relatively powerless in her country's longtime enemy's capital city; Shirin, the daughter of Crispin's mentor who has become the most desired woman in Sarantium as the primary dancer aligned with the Greens (one of the city's two rival chariot racing cohorts); and Styliane, the blonde, beautiful wife of the commander of the Sarantine Army who is also daughter of the previous Emperor and is widely considered the second most important woman in the capital city, a sort of Empress-in-waiting. The ways in which the lives and stories of these women (and the men who love them) intersect and develop is quite affecting.
In fact, after I finished the books I really think that The Sarantine Mosaic is ripe for a filmic adaptation. I'm not sure it would work well as a television series (there's not enough plot for that) but as either a major motion picture or a "short" miniseries of 6-8 hours I think it would work very well; there's a lot of sex, politics, romance, betrayal and beauty which would be compelling to most viewers.
Title: Sailing to Sarantium.
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay.
Paperback: 560 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Date: January 5, 2000.
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).
Title: Lord of Emperors.
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay.
Paperback: 576 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Date: February 6, 2001.
OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).