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

Posted: June 11, 2014 in lessons learned, reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

  1. glenatron says:

    Along with Sailing To Sarantium it constitutes my favourite work of Guy Gavriel Kay, I absolutely love it.

    I love that it made me want to learn more about Constantinople and Ravenna, about Byzantine art and the reign of Justinian and Theodora.

    I love the way the elements of the story fit together and complement each other like the tiles of a mosaic. That each character’s story is like a different colour that illuminates their own parts of the greater picture.

    I love the fact that there was one point where I literally felt my stomach drop as I realised the significance of what was happening ( I’m sure that you know exactly which point I mean )

    I love the fact that there were tears in my eyes on that last page.

    To my mind Kay is one of the great literary craftsman and

  2. Dylan Hearn says:

    It’s a great book (or should I say great couple if books) that’s very well written and allowed me to view some of the treasures in the Agia Sophia with new eyes when I was fortunate enough to visit a few years ago. With any other writer I would say it was a masterpiece, but I feel Kay has written even better books. Still, it’s like arguing over whether a diamond or sapphire is more beautiful.
    I’ve just got my missing Kay books back from a friend (after a few years) so I look forward to revisiting them once more 🙂

  3. Sue Archer says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read this one, but A Song for Arbonne is still one of my favourite books…I am thinking it’s time to pick up Kay again! I like your thought on “complex details, simple language”… this describes Kay really well, and is one of the reasons I enjoy his books.

    • Part of the beauty of that language is that it’s so plain that I didn’t notice what it was doing. Prose like that helps to deliver any message more clearly, whether a story or something else entirely. Great stuff.

  4. malwen says:

    You know I love this book. I read it when the hardback first appeared, so quite a long time ago, but even now traces of the spell it cast on me linger when I think of it. High on my list to re-read when I have time for such indulgences.

  5. […] 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. They’re big, slow, […]

  6. […] allows a greater degree of optimism than in a book such as Titus Groan or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors. From early on, Maia makes small positive changes to the lives of those around him, and aspires to […]

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