Sailing to Sarantium – Guy Gavriel Kay

This is not the first time I’ve read a book by Guy Gavriel Kay, but the first time I’ve finished one. I started the Lions of Al-Rassan a while ago and gave up, not keen on the writing style or the plot pace. I’m not sure Sailing to Sarantium is any different in either regard, but right now, I’m quite pleased with it. It isn’t a fast paced book at all. It is desperately slow, in fact. But I rather liked it for all that. It worked within the context of the book and its plot, and is one of the few modern novels I have read with such a slow pace that I could forgive for it. I’m rather surprised at myself.

I was discussing this with a friend when I’d nearly finished, and he said something interesting. I was treating this like medieval-Byzantium-inspired fantasy; he’d read it and considered it essentially medieval Europe with the names changed, and thus uninspired alt-universe history. I have a quibble with this in that at least one actually-fantasy thing happens, but otherwise, it amuses me how much medieval Europe can read like fantasy, just because I don’t know enough about real medieval Europe to notice the links. I mean, obviously I noticed that Sarantium ~ Byzantium (and that the title is from a Yeats poem) but a lot of the other stuff was lost on me. I am ashamed to say I didn’t twig even the Bassanid Empire until it was pointed out to me. Good thing I wasn’t a historian, really.

Despite my ridiculous ignorance, the setting is actually what pulled me into reading this. It was a recommend on the basis of “you like Classicsy things” (entirely legit… totally a sucker for a Classics inspired… anything), and while it might not be Classics, depending on your definition, it is the same sort of thing and I am easily entertained. It has enough about it of the Classical world to please me, with a hippodrome and mentions of pagan philosophers and whatnot.

The book actually takes a lot of its inspiration not so much from the Classical world but from the aforementioned Yeats poem:

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Having now read the book, looking over the poem, there is an awful lot of linkage going on. I like that. A lot is made of the phrase “Sailing to Sarantium” throughout the book (to the point of perhaps being overdone), and each time, there is a nuance added to its meaning that draws it closer into the poem. Some elements of the plot, some characters even, tie in very closely – the last verse clearly the inspiration for Linon and Zoticus’ other bird automata.

You may notice I’ve been avoiding talking about the plot and substance of the book…  it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, more that there isn’t all that much to say. It’s not vastly complex, and the slow pace means a little has been spun out into a lot. And it’s not really a book that much about plot, I don’t think. It’s more about setting and characters and development and interaction and enthusing about how pretty mosaics are. There’s enough plot to keep you going, with some intrigue and so forth, but it’s not a rollercoaster ride of thrills and excitement or anything.

Character wise, I am quite pleased. I care about quite a few of the characters, and they’re all fairly complex and thought about. There’s no one I even dislike all that much (which doesn’t ever really happen). The main character particularly is very sympathetic and very easy to care about and to understand. He seems fairly real, and he grows in a pleasing and sensible way.

All in all, a good book, and one that I enjoyed. I will read the sequel(s?) when I have money to purchase more books. A vast change of pace from my normal fare, and a welcome one, though I wouldn’t want to read such slow books all the time.

Next on the pile: Elantris.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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2 Responses to Sailing to Sarantium – Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. Fraser says:

    The Bassanid empire, which fought wars recorded by Brocopius over the Biddle Beast.

  2. Pingback: Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie | A Reader of Else

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