I have a love-hate relationship with Kay’s work: loved Tigana, really liked Song for Arbonne, put Lions of Al-Rassan down in disgust halfway through. (Last Light of the Sun is the only one I’ve been ambivalent about so far.) Maybe this book is too similar to Lions for me--and most people seem to love Lions (if you do, you might want to ignore this review). Or maybe I’ve just read too much Kay.
At any rate, this book is about Crispin, a mosaicist who travels to Sarantium (a very thinly disguised Byzantium) in the place of his more famous but aged partner, who was summoned to work on a project for the Emperor. I like historical fantasy, and I liked the worldbuilding here: the charioteering, the glimpses into the famous bureaucracy, and the descriptions of the world. What I didn’t like was.... just about everything else.
The plot: Crispin travels. He gets to Sarantium. He meets a bunch of people who are involved in intrigues. A bit-part character tries to kill him. Then.... it ends. If you want any kind of climax, let alone a resolution, buy book two, I guess. Given my reaction to this one, I have little interest in book two, and I’m still of the belief that the first book in a sequence ought to have a complete plot arc. And what we have here isn’t even all that interesting; halfway through the book I put it down for a month and read some other books.
Then there’s the characters. Almost every woman in this book is a current or former prostitute. Literally every woman in the book (except Crispin’s mother, who has a walk-on role) throws herself at Crispin right after meeting him, or otherwise tries to seduce him. For that matter, almost everyone in this book of either gender is obsessed with Crispin. He shows up in Sarantium, and all of the sudden, aristocratic women are stalking him back to his hotel and getting in his bed, aristocratic men are stalking him to the bathhouses to have a private chat, the Emperor and Empress are drinking and bantering (and flirting, of course, in the Empress’s case) with him in their private chambers.... Why? I have no idea.
Because unfortunately, Crispin is an uninteresting character for whom I never felt any sympathy. All the tired fantasy stereotypes are on display here. Dead family in the backstory? Check. Speaks his mind at inopportune moments, like when he’s presented at court? Check. No formal weapons training, but can still soundly defeat an assassin who has the advantage of surprise and walk away with nothing more than a bruise or two? Check. Rescues pretty, hapless girls for no apparent reason and is rewarded with sex? Check. The only thing here I hadn’t seen many times before was the mosaicist thing, which did not come close to redeeming this tiresome, obnoxious character. Some of the other characters were much better and there is some decent character development in this book, but it suffers from the focus on Crispin.
And finally, there’s the writing. Stylistically, Kay’s a competent writer, sometimes even a very good writer. This book is not poetically written like Tigana. It is well-written compared to most fantasy, but Kay has a tendency to become overwrought. He's quite obviously in love with his own use of language. Don’t keep telling me how significant and nuanced and layered every character interaction is--SHOW me the consequences of these interactions. There’s a tendency to rhapsodize about character emotions, and for characters to have exaggerated emotional reactions to each other’s words and actions, to prove to us (in the absence of events actually happening) just how important and meaningful this all is.
In sum: if you’re new to Kay, don’t start here. If you’ve loved all his other books, and you don’t care that this is only half a book, then go ahead, you’ll probably love this one too. If you're a heterosexual male, maybe you'll enjoy the wish-fulfillment fantasy. As for me, I’ve had as much of this author as I can take.