It's pretty well undisputed that Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the masters of contemporary high fantasy. The acclaimed 'Fionavar Tapestry' trilogy, as well as 'A song for Arbonne' and 'The Lions of Al-Rassan' have all met with considerable praise. In particular, his epic novel 'Tigana' is one of the most memorable books of recent time. All things considered, I had some very high expectations for 'Sailing to Sarantium', and I'm glad to say it's more than met them.
Set in the same fantasy/historical world as the Lions of Al-Rassan, the novel takes place several centuries earlier, as the continent is under the rule of the powerful Empire, whose capital is the magnificent city of Sarantium. We're treated to a rich prologue, which introduces us to the nature of the Empire, and the ascension of one of it's rulers, Valerius.
The actual novel opens as Valerius II holds the throne in Sarantium. Two years after violent riots, Valerius is in the process of erecting several new buildings as monuments to his reign. To this end, he has summoned craftsman from all over the empire to aid him. Caius Crispin, the mosaicist, is one of these. (well, not technically, but the book explains that nicely). So, he must journey to the Imperial capital of Sarantium. In the empire, the phrase 'Sailing to Sarantium' is an expression, meaning that one is going through a great change in one's life. Opening a new chapter in his life, Crispin sets off. Needless to say, throughout his journey he'll meet his share of friends and foes, trials and tribulations. Approximately half the book chronicles this journey, while the latter half describes his arrival and his harsh introduction to court politics.
Traditionally, Kay's characters are exceptionally well written, and 'Sailing to Sarantium' is no exception. Crispin is an enjoyable character, usually quite believable, and down to earth. He's explored quite thoroughly, as motivations and actions are all carefully explained. The novel also has a good helping of humorous characters, and all in all, they're quite well done. It's a little saddening that we lose one of the funnier characters relatively early in the novel, but it works out as a finely knit thread in the tapestry of a rich storyline. However, as Kay is wont to do, some of the characters are just a little too perfect. Kay has a tendency to build his characters upon the ideal hero, and as a result, sometimes it's difficult to feel a complete sense of understanding for a character. The Emperor and his wife for example, are practically infallible. Although weaknesses are alluded to, during the current timeline of the novel they're almost omnipotent, which is oft-times frustrating. Like ibn Khairan in 'Lions of Al-Rassan' and Alessan in 'Tigana', we're once again presented with a few characters with almost no human flaws. At least this time, none of said characters are accomplished poets, meaning there's a lot less poetry to stumble through.
As for the storyline itself, it's meticulously written. Every little incident is part of something bigger, and it all comes together remarkably well. Sometimes however, this can be a little confusing. For example, we're sometimes reading from the perspective of a nonessential character, and then having the scenario replayed through the eyes of the participating characters. Although technically impressive, it does make for a little bit of head scratching at times. The story is interspersed with tantalizing flashbacks, all aimed at fleshing out a larger storyline. Kay has handled political intrigue wonderfully, as different factions are well-defined and equisitely developed. Although sometimes the political motivations of some of these characters may seem puzzling, for the most part it serves it's purpose of building a tense atmosphere for the second book. The story's a little puzzling in it's lack of a 'Grand Objective', but all conflicts are engaging, and left tastefully open-ended, a strong incentive to pick up the second installment.
Kay's research for this book is completely thorough and immersive. We're given explicit details of chariot races, as well as complete explanations of the art of mosaics. He's obviously left no rock unturned, as Kay comes across as an expert in both these fields. The entire setting of the book is well researched, and culturally accurate. Although historical in nature, Kay has added just enough material to create a brand new and exciting world, which still has firm roots in ours.
Reading this book is like stepping into another world, complete with powerful imagery and action strongly conveyed by Kay's fantastic technical skills. This one is a must read. Personally, I can't wait for the second book. If 'Sailing to Sarantium' was any indication of what we can expect, this will be one of the finest works in recent fantasy.