Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the undisputed great modern masters of fantasy, makes a triumphant return with the absorbing first book in "The Sarantine Mosaic," Sailing to Sarantium. Rooted in Kay's ability to mold real historical settings into vivid new fantasy worlds, Sailing to Sarantium is built up from the glittering and real ancient Eastern European city of Byzantium. Indeed, it takes its title from the W.B. Yeats poem entitled "Sailing to Byzantium." In all its similarities to and differences from the great city later known as Constantinople, Kay's Sarantium pays tribute to an important and romanticized pre-Medieval culture. To sail to Sarantium is synonymous with a walk into destiny.
Caius Crispus is a talented mosaicist, an artist whose medium is colored tiles set in cement. Embittered and lonely after the death of his wife and young daughters from a sweep of the Plague, Crispin has nothing left to keep him in his native land of Rhodias. When a summons arrives from the Emperor himself in Sarantium for Crispin's aging business partner to assist in the decoration of a new holy cathedral, a brief comedy of errors at the expense of a snotty messenger sets the reluctant Crispin on the road that will lead him to the richest, most amazing city in the world.
Before Crispin leaves, he is called to appear before the teenage Rhodian queen. Her tenuous hold on the throne is maintained by her refusal to name a husband from among the many power-hungry suitors jockeying for her hand. She commands Crispin to carry a message to the Emperor (who is married to a former dancer and whore but childless): she is offering herself in marriage, and her nation in control, to the Sarantine leader. None but the Emperor, especially not his wife, can hear her offer and plea. Aroused by the queen's deliberate sensuality and stunned by the enormity of what she asks of him, Crispin assures her that he will do his best. Still before he can depart, Crispin visits the local alchemist at his partner's suggestion. The old man gifts him with a mechanical bird imbued with a soul, and with whom, through some dread power, Crispin can communicate.
Crispin's summons were late in arriving, and it is a poor time of year to be travelling. Though the land through which he travels is officially Jaddite, dedicated to the one God, its reality is something else. The people living here far from practical Sarantine reach practice a far more ancient pagan religion, one that calls for a yearly sacrifice to a powerful natural god. When Crispin saves a defenseless and friendless slave girl from a village's plans for her, he unwittingly gives up in her place a woman whose face he has never seen but whose judgment he has come to trust and whose voice he has come to love. He does gain the unswerving loyalty of the girl and of a travelling soldier who sees in Crispin a man he can serve and trust.
After one encounter with a primal deity and another with a divinely-inspired work of art in an unprepossessing roadside chapel, Crispin and his little troupe are escorted at last into Sarantium. First detained and then accompanied by the royal police, he takes his first step into the city that will bring him face to face with his life's work. Surrounded by mind-boggling intrigues and confronted with a chance to create a work of art that will be exalted for centuries to come, Crispin embraces both a city and his destiny.
Guy Gavriel Kay brings a virtuoso hand at world-building to his Sarantium. There are none more adept than he at breathing life into the cultures and characters he creates. Crispin's stubbornness and love for his art, the young queen's determination and fragile bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, an old man's unbearable loss, a city's love for sport and civic pride, all are made richly real in this tale of a civilization at its apex. Sailing to Sarantium is not to be missed, whether or not you're already acquainted with Kay's genius.