Kay brings us back to the world of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors. At this point in time, Sarantium had been conquered by the Osmanlis twenty-five years earlier. The Imperial capital is now known as Asharias.
The tale begins with an ambassador from Seressa to the Emperor Rudolf II in Obravic. This new ambassador would rather be anywhere else. He is tired, not young and doesn’t really want to deal with the Emperor’s Court. It is not a very engaging opening chapter to this rich novel which travels all over the eastern part of the known world: Seressa (Venice), Dubrava (Dubrovnik), Senjan (not sure of its real world counterpart), Obravic (Prague), Asharias (Istanbul) and the wild lands in between. But once we get to the Senjanis attacking a blockade imposed by the Seressinis, things start hopping.
There are a lot of characters to follow and how their lives all interweave against the backdrop of the Osmanlis initiating an invasion against the city of Woberg in the north with 40,000 soldiers and cannon. (Kay does put a map and a list of the principal characters in the beginning of the book.)
In the midst of this, a young Seressini artist named Pero is sent by Seressa’s Council of Twelve to Asharias because the Grand Khalif wants to have his portrait painted in the western manner- with thick paint ala the Renaissance versus the flat (but colorful) eastern illustrative style (like a Persian miniature.) Of course, the artist is also sent to spy as this is an unprecedented opportunity for the west to spy on the inner workings of the east. Few have ever seen the Khalif much less been invited to be in his presence for the length of time to do a formal portrait. Pero, because he is an artist, provides vivid descriptions as he notes the people and landscapes. He travels with a group of merchants led by Marin of Dubrava on his journey to Asharias.
We also have the Senjani Danica looking for revenge on the hadjuks of Asharias who raided her village, killed just about everyone and stole her brother when she was very young. Her exceptional skills with bow and arrow prove her nobody’s milkmaid. And there is also the intelligent and independent Leonora, a woman disowned by her family for having a child out of wedlock, who is paired up with a physician and the couple are sent to Dubrava to spy for Seressa. During a raid at sea by Senjani pirates, the physician is killed and Leonora finds herself adrift; her family does not want her and now her usefulness to Seressa has just been eradicated.
Leonora’s life takes an unexpected turn as she is sent to a holy isle off the coast of Dubrava for protection where the Daughters of Jad (part of a western religion sort of like Christianity) have a retreat. Here she meets the exiled Empress Eudoxia, the last of Sarantium’s Imperial family. Danica, in her quest for revenge, crosses paths with the legendary raider Skandir who has harried Osmanli troops for decades and never been caught. And with his group, she finds her place and purpose while still searching for her brother.
Kay handles the many characters well, as he has in the past. As I read the story, I pictured it being the first of a trilogy perhaps and thus a long drawn-out historical epic about invasion and graphic descriptions of warfare. As there are quite a number of pages on a clever attack by Skandir’s raiders on a huge contingent of Osmanlis as well as a lot of raids and marching through the hills and woods in search of confrontations; I was wrong. The last half of the book gathers a great deal of momentum and all the main characters’ (and some of the minor ones) lives are tied up neatly and well. And in most cases, happily. It really is a delight to finish a book where all the characters are not dead at the end, or seriously maimed or far, far from home.
This appears to be a complete book. Of course, Kay could decide to write more; but as he ties up all the loose ends very neatly and satisfyingly, there is no obvious need. So. Get through the slowish beginning and carry on---the book improves mightily as it goes along, especially in the final third. Kay is a wonderfully literate author and his word craft is a pleasure. As one writer told Kay: this is history with a quarter turn to the fantastic. Kay himself says he was inspired on a trip to Croatia and a visit to Dubrovnik so the real world is strongly felt here (and I made note of the comparisons.) There is also always a bit of otherness occurring throughout the novel, which adds a perfect touch of spice to his characters and the story. ~~ Sue Martin