Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lord of Emperors - Guy Gavriel Kay

Lord of Emperors, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology, is pretty much required reading for people who have read the first volume Sailing to Sarantium. These two books are one long novel rather than two. The first volume leaves the reader with many unanswered questions and dangling plot lines. After rereading this second volume I can't help but wonder what this duology might have been if Kay had approached them as a single novel. As they are, these novels make for fascinating reading but structurally they don't work as well as they should. It bothered me a lot more on this reread, than it did the first time I read these novels in 2006.

Some time after the end of Sailing to Sarantium the emperor is preparing for war. He has set his mind on reconquering Rhodias and restoring the empire to its former glory. To ensure peace in the east, he has bought off the Bassania, and now diverts funds from the east to finance his expeditionary force. Not everybody feels the emperor's ambitions are achievable, or even a good idea. Plots are brewing in the court, and in the east things are not as quiet as one might wish. While the court plots and manoeuvres, mosaicist Crispin is busy decorating the dome of the emperor's recently finished sanctuary of the sun god Jad. Soon events in the world will distract him from his great work. History approaches another turning point.

Sailing to Sarantium more or less follows history as we know it. Kay moves a few events a bit to better fit the story (most notably the construction of the Hagia Sophia) but not the major flow of history. The climax of the novel is a retelling of the Nika riots that rocked Constantinople in 532 AD. In Lord of Emperors Kay rewrites history completely. It would spoil much of the plot to go into detail here but the invasion of Batiara (Italy) does not go as planned. One of the changes that are of minor importance to the plot, is the rise of a new prophet who will give rise to the Asharite religion. This analogue of Mohammed shows up a few decades earlier than in our timeline. Another nice historical touch is Crispus finding the secret history of Pertiunius (Procopius of Caesarea), in which he details the supposed perversions of the empress.

Most of the cast is familiar, the novel introduces only one major new player. The Bassanid doctor Rustem is sent by his king to Sarantium to spy. He is not cut out to be one however, most of his time is spent being a doctor. He doesn't seem to hold with the western way of healing based on Galenus (Kay gave him another name which I can't remember). Historically, he is the figure who promoted much of Hippocrates' views on medicine, views that would remain influential until the renaissance, but were not particularly likely to improve the patient's chances of survival. He also provides a link to Kay's novel The Lions of Al-Rasan (1995), which is set some six centuries later in Esperaňa/Al-Rasan (Spain/Al-Andalus).

Kay's fascination with the history of the Byzantine empire doesn't end with this novel. He covers some of the same ground in his most recent book Children of Earth and Sky (2016). That novel is set after the fall  of the empire, but its presence can still be felt in many of the details of the story. The links between the books, almost all of them little things, is what makes rereading these novels a joy. While I felt he was getting a bit too comfortable with his Mediterranean settings, you can't help but admire his grasp of history.

Given the fact that it is a Byzantine inspired novel, it will come as no surprise that the plot revolves around an attempt to get rid of the emperor. As such, it is not the most original of stories. The characters Kay employs are well drawn, but more or less what you'd expect to find in such a story. Their talents and beauty are extraordinary, their sins and perversions grotesque, their flaws and mistakes spectacular. All means to achieve the goal are considered justified, including murder, intimidation and seduction. All of this is related to the reader by Kay's trademark omniscient narrator. This narrator creates a bit of distance between the reader and the events in the novel, and a sense of inevitability, that drains some of the tension from the story.

That sense of inevitability doesn't do the story any good in the final quarter of the novel. The climax of the novel comes fairly early on, after which events unfold more or less predictably. There is a wave of resignation washing over the story in the final 150 or so pages. The plot falls neatly into place, the flow of history resumes unhindered because it is too costly to resist its current. Kay ties up all the major story lines nicely but I couldn't shake the feeling that the novel petered out a bit.

Lord of Emperors offers everything a reader might wish from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Beautiful language, an eye for historical detail, the drama of history unfolding through the eyes of large and small players. I greatly enjoyed the setting in particular. The story itself is appropriately Byzantine, but in its treatment of his characters, the female ones in particular, it is perhaps a bit over the top. The slow afterburn that concludes the novel doesn't do it any favours either. All things considered it is a good but not exceptional novel.

Book Details
Title: Lord of Emperors
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 560
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-06-102002-8
First published: 2000

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Birthgrave - Tanith Lee

In January I read Crying in the Rain (1987), a short story by Tanith Lee. It was the first story I read by her and it made me curious about her other work. Since her death in 2015, new editions of her books have appeared in a steady stream, so I decided to pick up The Birthgrave (1975), the  novel that launched her career. Although she had been publishing stories and a children's novel since 1968, it was The Birthgrave that allowed her to become a full time writer. The novel was rejected by many UK publishers but found a home with DAW in the US. It seems to divide readers. Some absolutely love it, the novel was even nominated for a Nebula, others think it is a poorly written book. I must admit I am leaning towards the latter.

A young woman wakes up under a dormant volcano. She has no recollection of who she is and how she came to be in this place. When she starts looking for a way out of the volcano she encounters the goddess Karrakaz, who tells her she is cursed. Death and misery will follow her wherever she goes, until she finds her 'soul-kin of green jade'. After leaving the volcano she soon finds out that the world outside is violent and brutal, but also that she has powers beyond that of mere mortals. The curse propels her into the world and drives her onward, in search of the mysterious jade.

The story is told from a single perspective in the fist person, which means the reader knows as much of the world as the main character does. By the end of the novel, this is still not a whole lot. Many of the cultures she encounters are mere sketches, history is largely unknown and the limited point of view doesn't offer much beyond the main character's immediate surrounding. It appears to be a fairly standard primitive sword and sorcery setting right until the end of the novel. There, Lee mixes genres and introduces a science fictional element. Although much more explicitly sexual, the sexual revolution had arrived by the time of the writing after all, Robert E. Howard would still have recognized this as a fantasy adventure.

Lee does an awful lot of things in this novel that would drive an editor to despair. The main character does not seem to have a will of her own for instance. Things happen to her and she lets them happen. Sometimes she can be provoked into opportunistically seize control, but for most of the novel, there is no plan, no drive, and no initiative in her whatsoever. Foreshadowing is almost unheard of in the novel, making it appear like a series of more or less random events. To drive the plot forward, Lee resorts to a series of deus ex machina style interventions. The climax of the novel, in which Lee gets her heroine out of a fix by introducing a space ship and then resolves the plot with some dubious psychology, is especially bad in that respect. I am not altogether surprised many publishers turned it down.

But there is that Nebula nomination, the fact that it has been in print for over forty years and the lavish praise heaped upon it by reviewers, authors (a glowing example of which can be found in Marion Zimmer Bradley's introduction to the edition I read) and readers alike. The book must have something going for it. The prose is one thing that stands out. Whether you like it is a matter of taste but keeping in mind that Lee wrote this around the age of 22,  it is quite impressive. Her writing is vividly descriptive, something that no doubt won her many admirers.

Another thing that is noticeable about this novel is the female protagonist. In a time where women in sword and sorcery novels were usually little more than decoration, or at best cast in cliché roles, The Birthgrave presents the reader with a woman who is all those cliché roles in one person and moves beyond them. Not that the book is a feminists' dream. Given the heaps of blatantly sexist stuff DAW was publishing in the 1970s under Wollheim himself, that would have been a miracle. There is quite a bit of sexual violence in the book. While the main character doesn't approve, she is not particularly outraged by it either, even when she is the victim herself. Still, her choice of protagonist was noteworthy. Bradley even comments on how female authors often, out of necessity, wrote from male point of views. Lee shows them it is not necessary.

All things considered, I don't think this is a novel that really deserves the label classic. It is a book that had an impact when it was published, but one with so many flaws that I can't really call it a good book. If I compare this with the short story that made me pick up this novel, Lee must have developed considerably as a writer throughout her career. It is a fairly quick read if you let yourself be swept away by Lee's lovely prose and the emotional turmoil that surrounds the main character. For the slightly more analytical reader, this book has little to offer. The Birthgrave will probably remain a popular book for quite a while yet, but I was mildly disappointed with it.

Book Details
Title: The Birthgrave
Author: Tanith Lee
Publisher: DAW
Pages: 452
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1105-3
First published: 1975