Book Review: Sailing to Sarantium (The Sarantine Mosaic, #1) by Guy Gavriel Kay

Book Review: Sailing to Sarantium (The Sarantine Mosaic, #1) by Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

Series: The Sarantine Mosaic (Book #1 of 2)

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Pages: 451 pages (US Kindle edition)

Published: 1998 by Penguin Books Canada

It pains me to say this, but it’s time for me to accept that Guy Gavriel Kay’s books aren’t for me.

I understand that Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are hugely loved among many readers, and I honestly loved Tigana, it was my first entry into GGK’s work that made me incredibly excited to try all of his other books. I tried The Lions of Al-Rassan three years ago, and it became the first-ever novel I failed to finish; I read more than 50% of it, and it was maddeningly boring for me. Fast forward to today, for the past three years, I’ve heard from Nicholas Eames—one of my favorite authors—that Lord of Emperors, the second book in The Sarantine Mosaic duology, is his number one favorite book of all time. This is why I tried this duology, this is why I tried Sailing to Sarantium, this is why I tried GGK once again. Unfortunately, similar to The Lions of Al-Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium also failed (I’m sorry, Nick!) to reclaim the magical and mesmerized feeling when I read Tigana.

“He wanted to achieve something of surpassing beauty that would last. A creation that would mean that he–the mosaic worker Caius Crispus of Varena–had been born, and lived a life, and had come to understand a portion of the nature of the world, of what ran through and beneath the deeds of women and men in their souls and in the beauty and the pain of their short living beneath the sun.”

The problems I had with this book can be described as a—more or less—similar to the issues I had with The Lions of Al-Rassan. The first one, and most likely the most crucial ones, is that I couldn’t connect or empathize with the characters. I’ve tried four books so far, and I have to ask you guys something, is there any book by GGK where the female characters won’t immediately want to bang the main character? After having so many books published, surely GGK can come up with at least a few woman who doesn’t instantly fall in love or want to have sex with the main dude on their first encounter? The main character, Crispin, is a master at mosaics who pretty much has nothing else going for him except the fact that he’s a foul-mouthed mosaicist being summoned to Sarantium. He’s not likable as a character, and yet almost every female character he met—except his mother, thankfully—in this book—upon their first meeting—straightaway seduces or fall in love with him. Does being a mosaicist turns the lady on or something? I don’t get it, and to be honest, I’ve read several books with this premise that I loved, but on these books I enjoyed, I never got the feeling of it being male-wish fulfillment.

It’s not the same case with GGK, I probably can understand if this happened only in this book, but this kind of thing happens to be a very common occurrence in GGK’s books. It was tolerable in Tigana, and even that one still has a few very out-of-place or bizarre sex scenes, but it was just insane here, not to mention unbelievable. Need more proof? Almost every woman in this book is a whore, or has worked as one. “But it’s historical realism!” I’m not an expert on Byzantine Empire, but I’m 100000% sure there are other jobs other than being a whore. This isn’t Sailing to Sarantium, this is Seduced to/in Sarantium. An example of the kind of event that annoyed me so much: There was a scene in the book where Crispin told Kasia that she’s free, she’s no longer a whore, then proceed to fuck her on her sleep. Where even is the logic in this? How do you free a whore from being fucked by fucking her? It’s like telling someone “You are now a vegan, you no longer have to eat meat, but I’ll give you my own cooked meat to devour.”

From what I’ve observed and my interactions with readers for the past years, GGK is often well known for his beautiful prose, and to be fair he does write beautifully, but this is also where I had issues with. When I read this book, it seriously felt like GGK was way too enamored with his own writing; phrases and beautiful phrases and sentences were often written without bringing any impact because of oversaturation. Also, I had mixed feelings regarding the first half of the novel, but I thought it would improve significantly in the second half; it didn’t, the second half somehow was even worse to me. I personally found the chariot racing to be a mess, and all the ladies keep pushing themselves on Crispin was so cringeworthy and unbelievable. The entire story didn’t just progress slowly; it progressed at a snail pace. After pushing myself so hard to finish this book, I can’t help but feel that it wasn’t necessary to make The Sarantine Mosaic a duology. There were so many parts in this book that could’ve been cut out without losing any weight; due to this being a duology, the conclusion of this book was utterly unsatisfying to me.

I’m going to stop my review here. As I said, I am definitely on the unpopular opinion side when it comes to GGK’s work, and I don’t want to push future readers from reading his books because MANY do love his books. I have a love and hate relationship with GGK’s books. I absolutely enjoyed his high fantasy book, Tigana, and I’m going to keep on recommending that book. But I am finding it incredibly hard to enjoy his historical fantasy novels. Some readers have mentioned to me that I must know about the real history that inspired GGK’s historical fantasy novels first to enjoy them. Admittedly, I had close to zero knowledge about the Byzantine era that inspired this duology or Medieval Spain that inspired The Lions of Al-Rassan. This could indeed be the reason why his historical fantasy books didn’t work for me, or maybe in the end, it all simply comes down to what I’ve said: Tigana is GGK’s one-hit-wonder for me. I am sure of one thing, though, Sailing to Sarantium didn’t spark my enthusiasm to continue to the sequel, and if I may be brutally honest, I doubt I’ll be reading any more of GGK’s historical fantasy novels.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Sailing to Sarantium (The Sarantine Mosaic, #1) by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. I have to admit, I’ve never read this book before, but personally, fantasy novels that use large made up words are never for me… so when I saw your rating I just nodded in understanding. even though that’s not the problem you have with it, I feel like it automatically sets up a feeling of pretentiousness?? which might explain the characters. I hate that the women are like that, but I SNORTED at the “does being a mosaicist turn the lady on or something?” ah yes… the infamous talk mosaic to me. my mosaic brings all the boys to the yard.

    wow, every depiction of women is just bad isn’t it??? tell me are the fans of this book mostly men? and I do feel like beautiful phrases have to be used in specific amounts. you can’t have too much or else it just dilutes/distracts the story. sometimes things have to be simple. sometimes the sky isn’t cerulean, it’s just blue, you know??

    but also… I have to say that you shouldn’t have to know about the real history behind historical fiction novels to enjoy them. people don’t know the worlds behind fantasy?? besides, I feel like historical fiction should be inspiring people to learn more about the era.

    i enjoyed this review a lot though!!! <3

  2. Thank you, Richa! Hahah, I do love fantasy novels with made up words, but in the end, as we all always say, it all largely depends on the execution; sometimes it worked, sometimes it doesn’t. As I said in my review, what annoyed me is that it seems very unimaginative and unbelievable to me that every single book by GGK has to involve one, two, or more woman wanting to bang the main character as soon as they meet each other. C’mon, I’m sure there are other possibilities other than this!

    “sometimes the sky isn’t cerulean, it’s just blue” Hahahahaha good one! 😀

    And I agree with you regarding that we shouldn’t have to know abotu the real history behind historical fiction/historical fantasy, one of the joy I get from reading historical fiction/fantasy from a period of time I didn’ tknow is that I would end up searching for the histories after I’m done with the book.

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