In truest Kay fashion, the 40-page prologue to Sailing to Sarantium — this modern master's first foray into series fiction since The Fionavar Tapestry over a decade earlier — could stand alone as a story in its own right. It is a shining example of how backstory should be handled; Kay builds the foundation of his new series through talespinning rather than dry exposition. It is one of the reasons why Kay is so much more satisfying than most of the wannabees who rule the bestseller lists in fantasy today. Most fantasy novelists cannot wait to impress you with the extent to which they have constructed their worlds (many times bringing years of RPG experience to bear, no doubt), and they open their novels (or more precisely, ten-book trilogies) with exhaustive and exhausting reams and reams of prose detailing epic mythic histories that, when all is said and done, seem pretty darn conventional after all. Meanwhile, Kay gets down to business, never forgetting that solid drama gets the job done every time. That prologue takes place 12 years before the main storyline begins, but it could be a novella in its own right, and it slides you into Kay's newest epic like a precisely cut piece of mosaic tile. Bravo.
As he did in A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay creates a mythic world based very closely on actual history. Here, Byzantium is the inspiration, and just as the name of Kay's fictional kingdom even sounds the same on your tongue, so too can you recognize traces of other real locations — Rome, for instance — yet remain aware at all times you are squarely on Kay's turf. Crispin is a young mosaic artisan living in a fictional analog of Italy. Embittered by the death of his family from plague, he absorbs himself in his art. And then one day, an Imperial courier arrives with a summons that is actually intended for someone else. Yet Crispin is the one who finds himself on the way to Sarantium, accompanied by a strangely sentient artificial bird given him by a local alchemist as a traveling companion, and carrying a startling secret message the young queen of his province wants delivered directly to the emperor.
The title of the novel can be taken literally, but Kay allows a metaphorical interpretation: it is a phrase used in Kay's world to indicate that a great change is about to be made in one's life. Along the road, Crispin collects some traveling companions, notably Kasia, a young slave girl whom he rescues from her services at a roadside inn in a tremendously entertaining sequence that combines both humor and suspense with equal alacrity. The magical bird later figures in an eerie scene deep in the woods that demonstrates Kay's interesting approach to incorporating magic in his historical fantasies. Unlike many fantasists, Kay succeeds in making magic an organic part of his worlds; it is used in service of the story, rather than vice versa, and most interestingly, only sparingly. It's as if magic in Kay's worlds is as common as cell phones are in our world, and hardly a big deal.
Once in Sarantium, Crispin finds himself immediately immersed in the intrigues that envelop the court of the emperor Valerius. Crispin is decidedly out of his depth, as it seems absolutely everyone is a master manipulator with a hidden agenda (especially the women). Crispin keeps his cool by focusing on the job he is expected to do: create a magnificent mosaic for the dome adorning a spectacular and controversial new temple Valerius is determined to build, the greatest architectural feat of his reign.
Kay's mastery of his craft is as remarkable as ever; in fact, perhaps the only real fault with Sailing to Sarantium is that it isn't even longer. Fans who enjoy palace intrigue will feel like kids in Willy Wonka's candy store here, while those of you who like a healthy dose of magic and action-adventure won't be disappointed either. But in many ways, what I love about Kay's novels are the subtle moments, the attention paid to minor characters, the abrupt jumps years into the future to show how a tiny action in the present can influence destinies years hence. Details such as this, just unconventional enough to fascinate without throwing the story off kilter, show the care and loving precision with which Kay constructs his worlds from the building blocks of actual history. Plus he's just damn fun to read, a novelist — as the cliché goes — whom you just cannot put down. I am impatient for the sequel. That's what every novelist and publisher wants to hear, I imagine, but it's not a comment most of them earn. This man does!
Followed by Lord of Emperors.