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Literature / The Sarantine Mosaic

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A Historical Fantasy duology by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, consisting of:

  • Sailing to Sarantium (1998)
  • Lord of Emperors (2000)

Set in the same world as Kay's earlier novel The Lions of Al-Rassan and his later The Last Light of the Sun (and thus, by extension, in the same universe as The Fionavar Tapestry and Ysabel), but in a different time and place, "The Sarantine Mosaic" is the story of (or at least, the story surrounding) one Caius Crispus, a mosaicist dwelling in Varena, Batiara (which is in no way Ravenna, Italy). Dispirited by a plague that killed his wife and daughters, Crispin soon finds himself accepting a commission meant for his mentor that will take him to ByzantiumSarantium, as well as being given a secret mission by the imperilled queen of Batiaria meant only for the ears of Emperor Valerius II. Crispin's adventures overland will involve gods, armies, an incredible array of potential Femme Fatales, and lots of chariot-racing.


The duology is based on the history of the reign of the great Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora.

Tropes featured include:

  • Book Burning: Artwork that is considered heretical for one reason or another is destroyed, especially decorations in sanctuaries. At the beginning of the duology, the figure of Heledikos is already thought of as blasphemous by many clerics, and his association with dolphins makes Alixana's request of a dolphin mosaic for her chambers dangerous. By the end of the duology, Leontes has decreed that the depiction of Jad or any human being in a sanctuary is against the teachings of the faith, and subsequently has Crispin's mosaic destroyed.
  • Chariot Race: A major subplot revolves around racers.
  • The Chessmaster: Many characters play at this, Valerius II most of all. But even he can be surprised...
  • Demoted to Extra: Some characters who were fairly prominent in the first book don't get much play in the second.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture:
    • Sarantium = Byzantium/ Eastern Rome
    • Bassania = Sassanid Persia
    • Batiara = Ostrogoth Italy
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Some characters are less likeable than others, but it's hard to say that any of the major factions are totally in the wrong.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Invoked by the Dalenoi conspiracy to kill Valerius II in the same way he killed their father, though he's actually dead before the Sarantine Fire is used, as it turns out.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The cast is pretty big in the first book, and balloons even more in the second.
  • Low Fantasy: There's very little magic or even fantastical elements in this world, the morality is pretty grey, and the protagonist is just an ordinary dude swept up in relatively grounded events.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Where to begin?
    • Valerius I = Justin I
    • Valerius II = Justinian I
    • Aliana/Alixana = Theodora
    • Leontes = Belisarius (with a bit of Heraclius for good measure)
    • Styliane = Antonina
    • Shirvan = Khosrow II Parvez
    • Pertennius = Procopius
    • Ashar ibn Ashar = The Prophet Mohammed
    • Gisel = Amalasuntha
  • Not His Sled: Readers familiar with the history of the reign of Justinian I will note that things diverge markedly from the historical record about when Justinian/Valerius is assassinated, resulting in Belisarius/Leontes being proclaimed Emperor and not going to fight a war in Batiara/Italy. note 
  • Psycho for Hire: Valerius II's former chief tax collector, the most efficient man to ever occupy the post, so long as you overlook his sadistic private activities.
  • Second Love: The duology could be described as Crispin sorting through the numerous candidates for this status. And, as it turns out, Alixana too.
  • Serious Business: Chariot racing. Truth in Television, from the historical record.
  • Shown Their Work: Guy Gavriel Kay clearly spent a lot of time reading up on mosaics and chariot racing.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Crispin is the closest thing to a main character, but he's often more an observer than anything else.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Leontes is supposed to be this for the Dalenoi, but things don't quite go according to plan.