Guy Gavriel Kay,
Sailing to Sarantium
(Harper Prism, 2000)

In Sailing to Sarantium, broad brush strokes are employed to convey a world that, in terms of its technological, social and political advancement, approximates the Roman Empire -- characters have Romanesque names, barbarians press at the frontiers of the empire to be held at bay by an army commanded by loyal tribunes, an emperor dominates a weak ineffectual senate, citizens and slaves form a great divide. But of course there are essential differences between this world and the historical reality we know, and the story lies in these differences.

For example, there is the magic inherent in the crudely constructed miniature automatons that nevertheless possess telepathic abilities. Also, two moons can be seen in the sky. Despite such fantastical elements the novel is rooted in reality, this apparent paradox being resolved by the fact that for the most part the story is sustained by those terrible twins of human reality -- sex and death.

Death stalks these pages. Epidemic plague takes the wife and daughters of the provincial artisan Caius Crispus (Crispin), whose destiny seems to lie at the heart of the empire in the great city of Sarantium; bloody execution is always the price of political failure; each year in a forest clearing young women are brutally sacrificed to a pagan god; death by assassination is the welcome awaiting a na•ve Crispin on his first encounter with the labyrinthine city streets and imperial court of Sarantium.

Among the imperial ruling elite sex and seduction are tools of manipulation or selfish pleasure, whereas among the many slaves it is an unpleasant duty among an endless list of duties. This complex world of Sarantium, with all it glories and disparities is described for us in the usual third-person style. The novel begins with the narrator smugly admonishing historians for their tendency to overdramatise the events they seek to record and describe. This gives the reader the assurance of being in the hands of an objective narrator. Later, however, uncertainty enters when the same events are described for us from the point of view of different characters -- most effectively so in the episode where Crispin, acting on his sense of basic decency, comes face to face with a truly terrifying physical manifestation of a pagan god. This meeting is surrounded by moral ambiguities, and the objective narrator, who previously derided historians for the slackness of their narratives, now deserts us. The multiple viewpoints, indicative of that desertion, have the effect of accentuating the ambiguities for the reader.

Uncertainty exists also as to where exactly we are in space and time. Anyone familiar with Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun will know that it is not safe to conclude that the Sarantine Empire is a primitive civilization in historical transition to becoming an advanced one. As admirably shown by Wolfe in that series, it is feasible that a deep patina of primitive attributes may overlay any human civilization of the far, far future. And did not Arthur C. Clarke (who incidentally knows a thing or two about artificial moons) declare that any sufficiently advanced technology would always have the appearance of magic?

No aid is given when attempting to decide if the world of Sailing to Sarantium has been constructed by inserting incongruous elements into a historically real era of human history, or whether it will resolve (in the second volume) into the story of a place and far distant time on a hypothesised continuum of human history. Certainly the author has left jagged and unplaned the most intriguing story elements in this respect (the telepathic automatons and the savage pagan god manifestation).

But as one might expect the most essential elements of the world of Sarantium are the people who inhabit it and whose lives we follow. Each in their way seeks transcendence -- the religionists, in either shamanistic paganism or sophisticated theism; the mob, in fanatical irrational support for the Games; an alchemist/magician in a search for something beyond that sought by either of the religionists; the emperor, in an immutable place in history; and finally Crispin, in his art. This list is incomplete, leaving out as it does for example the Empress Alixana, only one among the many whose agenda lies hidden to the extent that I savour the thought of opening the second and final book of the series entitled Lord of Emperors.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001

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