Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Posted: April 10, 2014 in reading
Tags: , , , ,

I love to see and hear about the process of creating art. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting, sculpting or any of the other limitless expressions of human creativity, understanding how it is achieved fascinates me.

During our recent trip to Cornwall, Laura and I got to see inside an artist’s studio. We saw paintings in progress, tools of the trade, learned a little about how she developed her work. I was enraptured.

That feeling of living inside art, of seeing how it works and how it moves people, is something that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured beautifully in Sailing to Sarantium.

Sailing to Sarantium


Art and artisans

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispus, an expert mosaic maker. He lives in a world based on the eastern Mediterranean in the period a century or so after the fall of Rome. Following his artistic partner’s summons to go east and decorate the great dome of a temple being built in Sarantium, Crispin travels a rough road to a city of wonder and intrigue.

I loved how much we got into Crispin’s head as an artist. He sees the colours and contrasts in the world around him. He is overwhelmed by art when it is beautiful and he is thoughtful about its potential and flaws. He is an expert artisan, and the details of his knowledge and world view make him completely convincing in that role. They also helped me, as a reader, to understand the world as he saw it and to be drawn into his emotional world.

Other characters demonstrate similar levels of expertise – a grey-haired alchemist who has created unique wonders; a ruthless and wily political schemer turned emperor; the finest dancer in the city of Sarantium. Characters are often judged for their expertise and dedication to their field, and that dedication seems to be held up by the book as a good thing. But it is Crispin who carries us through the story.

Religion as construct

As with The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay explores religion as a social construct. We are given little clear indication as to the truth of the characters’ beliefs, but those beliefs are central to the story. From the forced converts continuing pagan sacrifices in the woods to the religious schisms restricting and enabling art, religion is a complicated matter, one that people shape.

Religion does not just happen to people in this book. There are moments of startling emotion that could be considered divine revelation, but it is up to the characters how to respond and what to believe. Religion is a choice, and this human, social representation of religion is one that I really enjoyed.

The sublime

For all that he peers behind the scenes of art and shows the human side of religious experience, Kay stills creates a sense of wonder. That wonder lies in how we are moved by art, by passion, by moments of human contact. That feeling left me utterly enthralled.

And though Kay lets us peer into the workings of the mosaic maker’s craft, he still left me bewildered and in awe at his own craft. This is a big book, and a slow paced one. Yet I remained passionately engaged throughout, fascinated by every moment, rushing towards each new page.

And I don’t know why.

Seriously, I spend hours every week listening to podcasts about writing, reading about writing, practising my own craft. And I still don’t know how, in technical detail and technique, he kept me so engaged in a book whose size and pacing would normally put me off.

As I read more of his books – next up is the sequel, Lord of Emperors – I hope to work at least some of this out. But for now I have experienced the pleasure both of learning a little more about an artist’s craft and of remaining in awe at the wonders that art can achieve.

That is some damn fine reading.

Other opinions are available

So, who else has read this? I know some of you have. What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Why? Or why not? What were your favourite elements? There’s space here for comments and discussion, please feel free to use it.

  1. everwalker says:

    I completely agree. I was sucked into the story throughout, despite the slow pacing and frankly odd technique choices in places. I still don’t know why, despite pondering it for some time now. In the end, I think it just comes down to the magic that some writers have. It’s skill beyond definition.

    • I’m not good at accepting that these things are beyond definition – down that path lies mystification and, possibly worse, giving up. I’m not saying I can work it out, but I will keep trying!

      I actually thought of you as I read this one – watching you and Ruth spend hours enthralled by it in Cornwall was one of the reasons it appealed so much, and looking at the cover brought back happy memories.

  2. Dylan Hearn says:

    Reading this book made me look at the craft of mosaics in a different light. A few years afterwards I was lucky enough to visit the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (which I believe at least part inspired the story) and witness the true power of the mosaic first hand.
    For me personally I think this is not as strong as some of his other books, but that is not to say it isn’t a good book, just that it doesn’t quite reach the nights of some of his others.

    • This is something I love about books that focus on skilled craftsmen – they make interesting characters and they make that craft interesting to look at.

      I might have asked this before, but which of his books have you most enjoyed? Different people seem to have different preferences, so it’s interesting to hear why.

      • Dylan Hearn says:

        What is it they say, the first cut is the deepest. The Fionavar Tapestry will always be high on my list. I won’t give anything away but the character Kevin made a big impact on me at an impressionable age. They may have dated a little now but I still love them. The Lions of Al-Rassan and Song of Arbonne are also up there. There is a romanticism to his work that I really love and those two show this off to its best without (for me) tipping over into saccharin which I feel happens sometimes in his later novels.

        • Fionavar Tapestry’s next on my Kay to-read list after Lord of Emperors, so I look forward seeing what’s interesting about Kevin. I expect we’ll end up discussing it here once I’ve read it!

          • Dylan Hearn says:

            Ha! I’ve been an idiot. I was trying to do this from memory (having not read the book for a good few years) and realised that it was Paul, not Kevin that had such a big impact though Kevin is great (and Dave, Kimberley, Jennifer…)

  3. matt says:

    I came here b/c Guy Gavriel Kay tweeted about this review.
    There’s entire threads on reddit discussing why Gavriel Kay is so good. Personally I’ve yet to read anything by him that bored me.

  4. malwen says:

    I was entranced by this book, and its sequel, and was very reluctant to leave the world created there. In my visits to the real mosaics in Ravenna, which is where I imagine the protagonist came from, and the Hagia Sophia, I was able to hang on to a bit of the magic of the books to enhance my enjoyment and appreciation of what I was looking at.

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. Bronn says:

    Sailing was the first book of Kay’s I read, and I loved it. I loved it so much I wasn’t satisfied with the paperback copy I had and needed it in hardcover, so I got one ordered for me.

    His writing is so poetic and immerses you in his worlds. I’m a fan of pretty much everything he’s written (although I’m not as enamoured with the Fionavar Trilogy as others in the comments here). Song, Lions, Tigana, Under Heaven, and this duology. So many great books!

    • It’s nice that so many people get passionate about Kay’s work. This is the third of his book’s that I’ve read, but I’ve got a whole pile waiting for me, and I’m sure that like you I’ll read them all soon.

  7. […] Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. […]

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