Sailing to Sarantium is a small story. Its hero, Crispin, is unassuming as heroes go. He's a skilled mosaicist, an artist who makes pictures with decorative tiles, and responds to a request from a distant emperor to travel to the imperial capital and work on the new sanctuary there. Hardly the makings of high adventure. But then again, Guy Gavriel Kay could write about a peasant going to pick up a pail of water and you'd probably hang on every word.
If you don't know Kay, you should. His pedigree is impeccable, starting with a well-loved fantasy debut, the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road), and a compilation he did with Christopher Tolkien called The Silmarillion. Sailing to Sarantium, the first half of the Sarantine Mosaic series, evokes his other historical fantasy titles, such as A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan, and is a well-researched analog to the Byzantine Empire and fifth-century Europe--with all its political and religious machinations.
Despite its seemingly prosaic cast and quest, Sailing to Sarantium is a charmer, another Kay classic. As usual, the character descriptions are subtle and precise--the mosaicist, Crispin, is a shrewd, irascible, and intensely likable man who is fiercely devoted to his art but troubled by guilt and loss. Reluctantly surrendering to events, he agrees to travel to Sarantium to work for the emperor. ("Sailing to Sarantium," we learn, is an expression synonymous with embracing great change.) As Crispin moves from roadside quarrels to palace intrigue, Kay gracefully shifts perspective from character to character, moving forward and backward in time and giving a rich sense of the world through the eyes of soldiers, slaves, and senators. --Paul Hughes