One of my plans for this year is to broaden my knowledge of the fantasy genre. I have never been a huge fan of fantasy, but last year I read some novels I enjoyed very much that could be considered representatives of the genre. These novels were Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer and The Pyramid Waltz by Barbara Ann Wright (sorry, now review of this one yet). When towards the end of 2012 I happened to learn about Sailing to Sarantium, a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, I immedietely thought that was a book I wanted to read.
I've been aware of Guy Gavriel Kay's books for a long time. Some of his novels have been translated into Finnish and I've seen these books time and again on our library's fantasy shelves, but I had never even tried to read any of his novels. Grazy me, I must say! The thing is that, yes, I have never read lots of fantasy, but what I have always loved, is alternate history and imaginative and interesting world building. World building is what draws me to scifi and steampunk, why not to fantasy then?
When I learned that Sailing to Sarantium is set in an alternate world based on the Byzantine empire I just knew that I had to give this book a chance! And oh boy, wasn't it worth the try! Yes, it was! :)
Don't judge the book by its covers the saying goes, but let's give the back cover of this particular book a change to summarize the background and start of the story:
"The Sarantine Empire is beset by enemies, but the Emperor Valerius II is determined to win Rhodias, Western cradle of the empire, back from the barbarians who overrun it - and also to build the greatest Sanctuary to the god Jad ever created. Into this maelstrom steps Crispin, a master mosaicist who observes the power of the older gods first hand, as he journeys to fulfil the emperor's command."
It was actually not Crispin the emperor summoned, but his older collegue Martinian of Varena, but Martinian decides that Crispin, a much younger man, must take his place and travel to Sarantium instead. The easiest way to Sarantium would be by boat, but it's too late a season to travel by sea and Crispin starts the long journey by foot. On the way he acquires two companions, who I guess, will have a role to play also in the second part of the book. (Yes, this is the first part of a duology! Yay!:) After some rather life changing -and life threathening- experiences on the way, the trio does enter the magnificent city of Sarantium. Their adventures, however, are far from over. For example, how will Crispin explain to the emperor that he not only is not the person the emperor summoned, but that he was able to enter the imperial palace under a false name?
I simply loved this book. Were I inclined to give books stars, this would have been a 5 star read. The world Guy Gavriel Kay has imagined is a clever mix of historical facts and imagination. The book starts with a map of Sarantium and the neighbouring areas, and this map already tells the reader so much. It is a map of a fantasy world, but intriguingly similar to any map of the Mediterranean. The city of Sarantium is situated on the shores of a strait much like modern day Istanbul, or Constantinople of the past. Rhodias, the homeland of Crispin, is the old western cradle of the empire, but since the golden days overrun by northern barbarians. Think of Rome, guys! :) And also the Jaddite religion sounds vagely familiar to anyone who knows anything about Christianity. Jad is the sun god and in the western parts of the empire his son Heladikos in venerated as the son of god, whereas in the east the idea of the god having a son is seen as a heresy. But this is not all. The world of Sarantium is actually not the same world as our own. This is told very subtly by the fact that in Sarantium there are two moons instead of one. Other fantastical elements in the story are also very subtle. Most of the book actually reads almost as a historical novel, but belief in chiromancers and spells is mentioned and an important detail in the story are some manmade birds that can talk.
I have since read a bit more about Guy Gavriel Kay's writing and was very exited to find out that mixing history and fantasy is typical of him. As he has written quite a few novels, all of which seem pretty interesting, I'm afraid my TBR-list will get even longer now! I already ordeded the latter half of the duology, Lord of Emperors, from the library. Can't wait to know how the story ends!
If you like alternate history set in Rome, I could also recommend the Romanitas trilogy by Sophia McDougall. The slogan "The Roman Empire. Now." is sure to pique your interest!