LORD OF EMPERORS
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of Guy Gavriel Kay's "Sarantine Mosaic," Kay took Caius Crispus, his mosaicist, on a slow journey from his native Batiara to Sarantium, the center of the civilized world. Having shown us the lands of the barbarians, Kay now turns his attention to presenting Sarantium itself, the pearl of civilization, in Lord of Emperors.
Kay used a wide range of characters to tell the story of Crispin's arrival in Sarantium and Emperor Valerius II's great cathedral to Jad, Sarantium's version of the Father. In Lord of Emperors, Kay widens his cast of characters even further, bringing in a Bassanid doctor, Rustem of Kerakek, son of Zorah. While Sarantium is Kay's analog for the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I's day, Bassania is Kay's version of Persia. The Bassanid intrigues which catch Rustem are as Byzantine as the politics in which Crispin finds himself.
Although a fantasy novel, Kay strictly limits the magical elements in Lord of Emperors, even moreso than he has in his recent novels such as Sailing to Sarantium or The Lions of Al Rassan. Instead, he is interested in the manner in which his characters deal with each other, their hopes and their failures. They do this against an amazingly colorful and detailed background, as Kay manages to bring his city of Sarantium to life with its dangerous alleyways and its fanatical devotion to the chariot races.
In many ways, Lord of Emperors could have been a straight historical novel. However, by changing the names, Kay is able to write a dramatic story in which he does not have to worry about the historical record. His characters can act as he wants them to, rather than the way history says they did. At the same time, Kay manages to question how accurate history can be judged by his portrayal of Pertennius of Eubulus, who fancies himself an historian.
Frequently, fantasy novels have a feeling of predeterminism to them. Kay takes the idea that all of his characters' actions are decided by a greater power and turns it on its head. While certain events seem to be preordained, the method by which his characters achieve those events is left at random, and in fact their actions can change the outcome. Kay describes events as foretold almost as a matter of probability, rather than destiny.
Kay manages to pull off an amazing trick, bringing his novel to a climax only 70% of the way through the novel. The remainder of the book is spent tying up numerous loose ends from both Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. In some cases, Kay seems to tie up his various threads a little too tightly. However, he does manage to write a novel which will keep the reader turning the pages long after the climax was reached to discover how the various characters would end up.
Because Kay followed an historical template and "The Sarantine Mosaic" is clearly set in the world in which Kay has set earlier novels, there is plenty of room for him to continue to chronicle the events of this world, should he so choose. He has placed many seemingly minor events in Lord of Emperors which could easily be expanded in subsequent novels.
In many ways, Lord of Emperors is the epitome of what a fantasy novel can be. Although the elements which are strictly "fantastic" are few and far between, Kay's novel presents interesting and real people caught up in epic events against a glorious backdrop. In a world of derivative fantasy novels, Lord of Emperors clearly demonstrates itself to be sui generis.