Lord of Emperors,
Book Two of The Sarantine Mosaic
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Robert W. Enstrom
Published by ROC (New American Library),
paperback, 429 pages.
This is a historical fantasy set in a time and place similar to the Byzantine Empire in the time of Justinian (600 A.D.). It is a complex tale following a number of intriguing characters - a barbarian Queen in exile, a charioteer, an exotic dancer and many more. The two most important are a physician who saves the life of and Emperor (and is rewarded with a deadly mission) and a mason who is tasked with decorating the edifice of a Church and Empire (but owes his loyalty elsewhere). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is that is set in a time when the ancient predatory habits of humanity are changing into something slightly more cooperative.
The people of this time and place can still be ruthless and impulsive, but some show restraint and compassion. Sometimes these acts of restraint lead to tragedy and at other times to unexpected rewards. This is, after all, a time of transition, when the blinding or exile of a political opponent is an option to quick execution - when it is possible for a person of power to feel regret for political murder rather than triumph.
Through the entire tale is woven an underlying question. Which actions are those that carry real importance and consequence for the future? Is it the action of an Emperor, who by his whim can change or destroy the lives of many thousands,? Is it the action of an artisan, whose creations can inspire those of his own time and future generations? Or is it the intertwining actions of many ordinary persons, who through changing mores, behavior and knowledge make the most impact on the generations to come.
Kay helped J.R.R.Tolkien in his later years and it is no wonder that he can make you ponder your own actions in life and do it by creating a world of real people that you will regret leaving.