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Lord of Emperors    by Guy Gavriel Kay order for
Lord of Emperors
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It is hard for me to do justice to a review of a work by Guy Gavriel Kay as he has topped my short list of favorite fantasy authors for many years now. I read and enjoyed The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy when it first came out, but the first of Kay's books that really made me sit up and take notice was Tigana and I have been rushing to buy new hardcover releases ever since.

Kay pens superb works of historical fantasy. The traditional approach to this genre has been to take a well known setting and characters, and then tweak a specific event to see what happens. Kay's technique is more like that of an impressionist painter. There are parallels to Moorish Spain in The Lions of Al-Rassan, but without any specific names or details from Spanish history. As opposed to a tale of what would happen if history diverged, Kay creates an absorbing fantasy in an exotic era that still manages to feel familiar.

Lord of Emperors concludes a story in two books, that started with Sailing to Sarantium. This Sarantine Mosaic is set in a Byzantine world. Its protagonist is the brilliant artisan and master mosaicist Caius Crispus, who sails to Sarantium (Kay's version of Constantinople) to accept an invitation extended to an older colleague. Even before the journey begins Crispin is embroiled in dangerous local politics which reach all the way to Sarantium. He encounters other perils en route when he rescues a slave girl from sacrifice to a god, and a sorceror gifts him with a sentient mechanical bird. As Kay writes 'To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change'.

Sailing to Sarantium ended with Crispin established in the city, commissioned by Emperor Valerius to complete a marvellous mosaic dome for a new cathedral. Creating this monument fulfils a life ambition for Crispin. It absorbs most of his attention and in fact, mosaic art and its techniques provide a fascinating infrastructure to both stories. Lord of Emperors shows Valerius' realm at its peak, with the Emperor and his Empress Alixana controlling its intrigues with sure and subtle hands. In some ways the recent movie Gladiator made me think of Kay's work ... the chariot racing of course, but also the vicious intrigues and the essential simplicity and integrity of the hero.

As an artisan, Crispin is an observer of events who interacts at all levels of society from slaves and soldiers to bishops and princes. He carouses with Hippodrome charioteers and dances around three powerful and beautiful women: Empress Alixana who is committed to Valerius but with interest and empathy for Crispin; the young Queen Gisel who calls upon his loyalty to their mutual country Batiara; and the vengeful high-born Styliane Daleina, most of whose family were brutally murdered at the beginning of Valerius' reign. Crispin is attracted in different ways to all three and they pull him into subtle and dangerous intrigues aimed towards conflicting goals. He is ambivalent about events and largely powerless to direct them, though his choices do have an impact.

Lord of Emperors takes the reader through the peak and then the fall of a powerful ruler, shows us what happens to players (both high and low) in such a time, and emphasizes the impermanence of power and its trappings. Its ending is remarkable ... not an easy one but a tremendously satisfying conclusion and one that still manages to surprise the reader. This is a must read in the genre. I can't wait to see what historical period Guy Gavriel Kay will choose for his next jewelled masterpiece.

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