Beauty that aspires to endure: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors

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She had asked him for something more permanent, the golden rose speaking to the fragility of beautiful things, a mosaic hinting at that which might last. A craft that aspired to endure.

Lord of Emperors, the second half of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic, is an extraordinary book. If you’ve read my comments on Sailing to Sarantium then you won’t be surprised to see me write that. But still, it’s worth saying, and indeed worth repeating. This is a deep, rich book which should endure just as surely as the fine art at the heart of its narrative. I’ll probably come back to that theme of art, and others explored in the book, in later blog posts. But first, lets have something approximating a review, in which I obsess over certain details…

Lord of Emperors

Setting and story

Lord of Emperors completes the of story Crispin, a mosaicist summoned east to the city of Sarantium to create a career-defining work of art, decorating the ceiling of a great religious sanctuary commissioned by the Emperor Valerius II. There he becomes entangled in a web of politics and passion, as ambition and long-held grievances play out in the royal court while the passions and frustrations of the common mob are channelled through support of two great chariot racing teams.

The world of this story is based on Constantinople and the surrounding region in the 6th century AD. As with several of his other novels, Kay has taken an existing setting, shaved off the proper nouns and added the lightest sprinkling of fantasy, rather than creating a whole setting from scratch. It’s a fascinating and unusual approach that lets him take more liberties with characters and events than he could in a straight historical novel, while still using the rich setting and tone available through delving into history. It’s an act very much in the historically-inspired spirit of Tolkien, whose works Kay helped edit, and also reflects Tolkien’s interest in creating total immersion in secondary worlds.

The world of Sarantium is vividly portrayed, a place of politics and power, ambition and uncertainty, in which events are determined both by careful, unspoken implication and by wild acts of courage on the race track.

It’s a wonderful place to explore.

A sedate telling

I find the pacing of Kay’s books, and particularly this one, absolutely bizarre at times. This is a thumping great 600+ pages of fiction, in which most of the action plays out over a mere handful of days. And it’s not like 24, where a ridiculously jam-packed string of events makes a short timescale feel exciting. It just takes a lot of pages to get through these events.

Sounds like it should be dull and frustrating, right? Yet it isn’t. It’s an exquisite gem of a story, in which each new scene, each different perspective adds to its beauty and shines new light on what you’ve already seen. The reader feels the characters’ passions, their triumphs and tragedies, their tears and laughter. By the time events reached their climax I didn’t know how it would all end, but I yearned to find out.

Not the fancy word choices but the right ones

I’m still not sure how Kay manages to achieve what he does, but I think it might be in the details.

If a writer wants to add texture to a scene they’ve basically got two options – choice of words and choice of detail. Trying to cram in more through word choice can lead you down a slippery slope into obscure language and reaching for the thesaurus, assembling sentences that force readers to pause and think. Adding more detail, on the other hand, can add richness without breaking the flow of reading. It needs to be the right details so that readers will be interested rather than bored, details of thought and of action as much as of setting. But Kay is a master of this, filling page after page with small moments that build towards an entrancing whole.

For me, this is the big writing lesson of the book – complex details, simple language. You can achieve a lot that way.

Now go read!

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not crammed full of fast-paced action. It takes a long time to do what it does. But it’s beautifully written, fascinating in its detail, and I really think you should give it a go. After reading Sailing to Sarantium that is, because they’re effectively two halves of a single story.

If you’ve read Lord of Emperors let me know what you thought of it. Were you as entranced as I was? Leave a comment, share your views.