Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Sarantine Mosaic

This is a selection I have read for my book group, so I will not go into a lot of detail, although I certainly could.

The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay is actually two books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. In many ways, I think this story may be the epitome of Kay's writing; everything comes together in a powerful way. Sometimes when I am proselytizing Kay, I am asked what makes him such a remarkable writer. There are many aspects worth talking about, but it is his characterization that seems the strongest to me.

In this case, there is a putative main character, Crispin, with whom we spend more time than any other character. His history is given and his current position--his career, his outlook, his thoughts--are revealed through fairly standard means. But over the course of the two books, Crispin changes and grows, sometimes glacially slow and sometimes lightning fast. But Kay's artistry can be seen by recognizing that the changes are never forced or dramatically misdirected. Over the course of the novel, we get to know the characters so well, that the seeds of the changes they undergo are fairly apparent upon hindsight. Crispin goes from being a disaffected artist uncaring about anything but his family (and barely them) to one who is actually optimistic, though cynically so. His incredible intelligence is explicitly described by the narrator, but then we see it used repeatedly until it becomes a little bit of a trope. Because a person can't generally choose to turn their intelligence on and off, and so a character shouldn't be avle to either. And then Kay twists hard, causing Crispin to make a fairly simple mistake, yet having revealed the possibility of the mistake early on and thus not failing to keep Crispin's characterization stable. And a great part of that mistake is based on Crispin dealing with someone that he himself admits may be even smarter than he is.

In fact, Kay's characterizations stretch credibility with this point: all of the "main" characters in this novel are supremely gifted at what they choose to do, whether it be architecture, chariot-racing, or governance. All of the characters are lovingly crafted with tremendous depth revealed to the reader in stages, just as the facets of any personality surface cumulatively. And standing at the center of it is Crispin, bewildered and bewildering in his time. As I read, I admired the craft of all these brilliant people, feeling more and more removed from their world, given the improbability, in my mind, of their coming together. Then as I pondered real-life reflections of this powerful a web of acquaintances, I realized that it's true in the real world as well: smart people tend to come together into their own circles.

And while Crispin stands at the center of it all, he is the perfect representative of ourselves in the story. He has travelled to a city he has only heard of and has to learn how to deal with its citizens and its culture much as a reader of a new novel has to learn the nuamce of the place his reading takes him. And Crispin has to be smart, or else the plot's movements would remain mostly unrevealed to him and his readers. Unfortunately, Kay used "tapestry" as a title in an earlier series; otherwise it would be a better metaphor for the connective relationships that bind the characters. From an outside point of view it is a mosaic, but somehow "mosaic" feels static in comparison to "tapestry." The Sarantine world is anything but static.

As I have alluded to, The Sarantine Mosaic is incredibly powerful for many reasons, and well worth the time it takes to read it. And while Crispin's isn't the only point-of-view we have throughout, it is the most powerful, adn the one we both begin and end with. We feel his joy and the depths of his sadness, not just because Kay describes them but because his character is so well-developed that, like any for other friend, we can predict his emoption before events cause Crispin to feel them himself.

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