Book Review ~ Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay, Book 1 of 2 in The Sarantine Mosaic.

A fantasy novel inspired by the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian I, Sailing to Sarantium offered a breathtaking journey that swept me away. In the glittering, dangerous city of Sarantium, author Guy Gavriel Kay crafts a stunning tale where those with the fiercest intelligence and enough daring can have the world. If you love fantasy or historical fiction, this series may become your next obsession.

Plot Summary

In the west, a once-great empire lies in ruins while all power is concentrated in the eastern city of Sarantium. Our main character is Crispin, a mosaicist from the west who sets out for Sarantium in response to a royal summons. The city’s newly rebuilt sanctuary needs a master mosaicist to redecorate its dome and the Emperor is summoning all worthy craftsmen for this project.

Crispin journeys east only after heavy reluctance. Sarantium is the heart of power, wealth, and civilization in Crispin’s world; a place where a person’s wildest dreams may be realized. But this city also houses the most dangerous court in the world, adding an element of risk to this royal summons.

To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune – or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity. (p.39)

Crispin is a brilliant artist but quick-tempered, abrasive, a bit reckless, and grieving. He risks leaving for Sarantium because he doesn’t think he has anything more to gain from life. But the road holds its own surprises for Crispin: He takes improbable chances, faces death, trembles in awe of the divine, and makes life-long friends.

The journey changes him forever but is also necessary preparation for the treacherous city of Sarantium. From the moment of his arrival he maneuvers religious controversy, hired killers, power games, and endless nets of court intrigue. All while decorating the largest dome in the world – a project that could ruin him, should he fail.

Two Things I Loved

1) A rich variety of characters who feel real.

Crispin’s story is the main narrative, but a huge cast of multi-dimensional characters meant I felt invested in everyone. We have chariot-racers, craftsmen, eunuchs, an alchemist, royalty, chefs, dancers, senators, slaves, soldiers, and more. Much more. It surprises me how Kay includes a wide range of characters and gives all of them depth, sometimes in just a few short paragraphs.

As a reader, believable relationships are necessary for me to relate with characters, especially if their contexts differ greatly from my own. I think Kay excels here because the characters reach across the boundaries of class, religion, and politics to form authentic and heart-warming relationships. And when the gulf separating characters seems too vast, Kay makes it work in a believable way.

2) The painless world-building.

Sometimes I get impatient with the world-building in fantasy novels. This usually happens when there are pages upon pages of dry exposition, the author fact-dumping us with the myriad of details about an entirely new world. Some people might enjoy this, but for me it’s mind-numbing.

Luckily this did not happen in Sailing to Sarantium. The world-building was always tied to character narratives, making it easy to quickly absorb the details. Before I knew it, I was flying through the chapters. The world-building might also be easier to absorb if you have prior knowledge of the Byzantine empire, but it is definitely not required for enjoying the book.

Three Life-Lessons of Sarantium

For those of you who enjoy your fantasy novels to allow for more introspection, you might like these novels. I appreciate how the author weaves deeper themes into his fantasy novels, so I can come away with a richer perspective on life. If you don’t like this style as much, you might get impatient with some of the passages. Here are my top three take-aways from the novel, which I’m calling life-lessons:

Lesson #1 ~ Life guarantees nothing, except death.

The fragility of life never strays far from the characters’ awareness, shaping their decisions and the arc of their stories. Instability rules the day and it appears in many forms. Plague can tear through the world, crippling towns and leaving survivors in deep, uncomprehending grief. Or a united populace forms a mob, threatening to topple civic order. Everything characters have built their lives upon can be ripped away in an instant.

It didn’t end until you died. Life was an ambush, wounds waiting for you. (p.207)

Theirs is a brutal worldview of unending warfare in the physical and spiritual realms. Yet the vulnerability and transience of life is what motivates the characters to greatness beyond themselves. With death sometimes just a few breaths away, all the characters can do is lean into the unknown and take each moment as they come.

Lesson #2 ~ Seize opportunities. . .or die.

Everyone’s fate hinges upon taking chances, especially those with little to no chance of a successful outcome. A changeable city like Sarantium requires the presence of mind to be bold and improvise, especially if this means altering your course at a moment’s notice. Because if you can’t let it go, the mob might kill you. Or else you’ll be done in by the senator who covets your position, a jealous lover, the opposing factions, a sulky aristocrat…and pretty much anyone who stands to gain from your misstep.

She’d had little time to ponder nuances, only to realize that this was an unexpected, slender chance – and seize it. (p.76)

This is not to say that strategy is useless in Sarantium. But even if you’ve planned for years, those life-changing opportunities only appear for brief moments before disappearing forever. Failure to seize these chances – especially the most unexpected and slim ones – can ruin or kill you.

This made for some satisfying character development. It was a real pleasure seeing the characters step out of their comfort zones and come out the other side fundamentally changed. Sometimes they even got some extra coin.

Lesson #3 ~ In Sarantium, life is a high stakes poker game. So if you aren’t risking everything, what are you doing here?

Sarantium is the ultimate symbol of chance and opportunity where men (and women!) may gain their deepest desires. But the city promises nothing – except danger and intrigue. From the lowliest slave to the Emperor himself, chasing ambition means risking everything. This permeates life in Sarantium at all social levels:

Are you betting on the day’s chariot-racing? Then you bet more than you can afford to lose. Are you a commoner with aspirations to power and love? Then you exploit political weaknesses to seize the throne. When you gain enough momentum, go ahead and re-write centuries of law to marry the love of your life. Anything goes in Sarantium, but only for the most daring.

He’s sailing to Sarantium, they said when some man threw himself at an obvious and extreme hazard, risking all, changing everything one way or another, like a desperate gambler at dice putting his whole stake on the table. (p.194)

And if you ruin yourself in the process of chasing your heart’s desire, then you pick yourself up and try again. Even if you lose everything, Sarantium always has something for the tenacious. One character was a despicable, would-be murderer who was caught, maimed, and exiled. But in a lovely, humorous twist the author ensconced him in Sarantium’s history as a beloved saint. See? You never know what fate has in store for you.

In Sarantium everything on earth was to be found, from death to heart’s desire, men said. (p.81)

Sometimes the gamble literally gives a person the world. Sometimes everything is lost. But the most ambitious in Sarantium know that if you don’t play, you will never win.

What do you think?

Did you love this book or hate it? Was there anything that stood out to you in the novel that I missed? Let me know your thoughts in the comments 🙂

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