Lord of Emperors (Sarantine Mosaic)
In this sequel to Sailing to Sarantium (Harper, 1999), Kay demonstrates yet again his mastery of the historical (fantasy) novel. All of his signature elements are present: historical detail intertwined with intricate plotting, realistic politics, rousing adventure (the chariot race sequence in the second part of the novel is thrilling), and strongly developed characters, many of whom suffer heartbreak in the course of events.
As is typical of Kay’s novels, the fantastical elements are few but deeply felt. Set in a thinly veiled Byzantium, Lord of Emperors follows the events set forth in Sailing. Still at the center of events is Crispin, the mosaicist who has been commissioned to tile the Emperor’s new cathedral. Reluctant to be involved in politics, he nonetheless becomes embroiled at the deepest levels. The testing of loyalties is one of the core themes of this novel, with most of the characters having to make decisions based on conflicting loyalties. Crispin’s loyalties are tested by his own exiled queen Gisel and the Sarantium Emperor Valerius, whose countries are poised at the brink of war. War also threatens between Sarantium and Bassania, whose King of Kings has sent Rustem of Kerekek, a physician, to Sarantium to spy out what he might. This gives Kay the opportunity to include several well-researched depictions of medical knowledge and practices of the era. Rustem becomes involved in Crispin’s world after he is rescued from a murderous noble youth by one of Crispin’s apprentices.
Events unfold in sometimes unpredictable ways, but as always Kay keeps the reader intensely interested through his sympathetic characters. The novel ends with finality, making future stories in this setting improbable (but hoped for nonetheless).