Posts Tagged ‘Lord of Emperors’

A lot of fantasy set in secondary worlds, ones entirely detached from our own, tends to be action packed. Think of the grand quest of Lord of the Rings or the battles, chases and duels of Games of Thrones. I like that action, but it’s nice occasionally to find a book the breaks the pattern and takes a more contemplative approach to such a setting. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is such a book.

Relying on Sympathy, Not Strength

The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, a young half-goblin son of an elf emperor. Maia has grown up in exile, ignored by his father and the court. But when the Emperor and his other sons die in what at first seems to be an accident, Maia is propelled to the throne. The story revolves around how Maia struggles with his new position, both politically and emotionally. His life is suddenly better, but a lot harder and full of risks.

Maia is a great character to centre a book around. He’s only eighteen years old and a fish out of water, not particularly strong physically and only just starting to find any strength of character. The situations he’s put in would be difficult for almost anyone, and that makes his struggles with them very human, drawing the reader in through sympathy. The fact that he doesn’t understand how the court works also creates excuses to explain things to readers.

An Archaic Atmosphere

The most obvious books to compare this to are Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, starting with Titus Groan. With their intense atmosphere of intrigue and incomprehensible ritual, the Gormenghast books evoke that sense of a court as a bewildering place held back by centuries of tradition. I loved those books when I first encountered them, and my mum still has a photo of seventeen-year-old me sat up an apple tree in my grandma’s back garden, completely indifferent to the real world, lost in Peake’s imagination.

But what Gormenghast isn’t is accessible. The language is rich but challengingly dense, the pace slow, the characters mostly unsympathetic. The Goblin Emperor achieves a similar, though slightly less intense atmosphere, while being far more accessible. We’re thrown into an intriguingly complex and inaccessible world, but Addison’s writing and Maia’s company carry the reader through with ease.

Inevitable Intrigue

This being a book about a court, the plot revolves around intrigue, and that’s probably its weakest point. The plot is good, but it doesn’t twist and turn in the way I’d hoped it might. Characters and their motives usually remain what they first appear to be.

That said, this 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 larger changes in a way that’s hopeful but not unconvincing for the setting. A tension remains over whether he’ll maintain this trickle of positive change in a tradition-bound court, or drown in a reactionary tide.

Allowing the Heart to Sing

I really enjoyed this book. Though the plot achieved neither sudden turn-arounds nor the sense of crushing inevitably present in Peake and Kay’s courtly works, it had another sort of emotional engagement. It presented Maia in an incredibly personal, accessible way despite the impersonal nature of the setting. It balanced optimism and sympathy with darkness and doubt. It’s the most accessible book in this style that I’ve read, and a very enjoyable one.

Art and artisanship are recurring themes in Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but they play a particularly prominent part in The Sarantine Mosaic. The name of this pair of books is a sign in itself, pointing to the centrality of the mosaicist Crispin’s art both as a plot element and as a symbol of the themes explored in the book.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

A few months back I asked Kay via Twitter about his interest in art as a theme, and he said that he is particularly interested in the relationship of art and power. And it’s this relationship that The Sarantine Mosaic explores, and through which it can help us to consider art’s role within society.

Art influences power

The Sarantine Mosaic explores art and culture in its broadest sense. There is the artistry of Crispin, creating his great mosaic; the new masterpiece of architecture he is decorating; the dancers who perform for racing fans and charioteers; the charioteers themselves, experts in the hazardous art of racing; the bureaucrat recording a history of the empire.

In all of this, art is a tool used to influence the balance of power. The new shrine is intended to secure the emperor’s position and contain religious disputes. The empress, herself once a dancer, uses her skills as a performer to influence the people around her. The chariot races are both the opiate of the masses, giving them a distraction from concerns about politics, and the trigger for violent upheavals.

More intimately, art is shown to inspire and influence great men and women, to shape the way that they look at and direct the world.

Power influences art

The relationship also works the other way around. Power has a great hold over art, over what is made and what endures. Crispin gets to make his mosaic because someone in power wants him to. Dominant religious doctrine limits what can be portrayed in art, though the artists find ways to subvert this. Dancers, writers, mosaicists, charioteers, all rely to some extent on patronage, and so are influenced by the powerful in what they portray.

This also affects the tools available to them. Crispin is able to create his greatest work in Sarantium precisely because that city is so powerful, its rulers having the wealth and influence to provide him with the finest materials available for his craft. Just as art can make people of power catch their breath, so too can the powerful provide artists with sublime moments.

But at its most brutal power is a restrictive force. It prevents and destroys certain types of art. It binds and restricts. It can chain the artist as readily as it can liberate her.

Art reflects power back

This is not to say that the ultimate message of these books is one of the tragedy of art and power. Art is shown as a mirror in which the powerful are shown themselves; as a window which reveals them to the world; as a microscope that brings scrutiny to certain aspects of their behaviour; as a medium in which the powerful and their achievements can be made to endure.

Our own awareness

It’s important to take these lessons on board, not just as abstractions from a fantasy story but as real issues for us in the modern world.

The relationship between power and art is a complex one, mediated and disguised by the influence of money. But for all the democratising influence of the internet age, it is still people in power – the wealthy, the influential, the publicly seen – who decide what art achieves prominence, what is widely read and enjoyed. The Sarantine Mosaic reminds us we have the power to influence them back, to shape the way they view the world, to duck around the limits they place on us and provide subversive commentary as we reflect power itself.

I’m not going to say that we have a duty. We all have choices to make, and I can’t impose obligations on anyone even if I wanted to. But art in all its forms provides us with opportunity, and it would be a shame not to seize it.

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.