Kay, Guy GavrielGuy Gavriel Kay is a superb storyteller and a writer who dominates a genre - historical fantasy - he virtually invented. He is one of Canada's best-selling authors at home and abroad, with almost 2 million copies of his eight novels in print in 14 languages. But Kay is also a man obstinately set on a quixotic quest, determined to see his work accepted as respectable literature. And the wider recognition he seeks has proved elusive. "Most critics are still not willing to accept that narrative and serious literature can go together," he shrugs. Not that Kay is giving up. It is only a matter of time, he believes, until North America catches up to European levels of respect for fantasy, and Kay will be there. "My optimistic take is that my sheer stubbornness may persuade resistant people to take a look. I'm holding to the narrative angle."
And to the fantasy angle. Kay's latest bid for mainstream acceptance is his most ambitious work yet. The newly released Lord of Emperors completes The Sarantine Mosaic, a two-volume series begun in 1998 with Sailing to Sarantium. Mosaic is just that, as Kay intricately fits together, over the course of 1,000 pages, a dazzling array of characters from an alternate Byzantine Empire, while pursuing what is for him a familiar theme. In one way or another, all his novels touch on the relationship of artists to political power, and wrestle with the question of who controls a society's memory and history. In Lord of Emperors almost every character is obsessed with leaving a legacy.
Byzantine politics and historical crises are a far cry from Kay's quiet life in Toronto with his wife, Laura, and their two sons, Samuel, 9, and Matthew, 4. And although Kay is the sort of writer often referred to by critics as "fiercely intelligent," meaning he tends to become passionate when discussing his work, he is quite capable of poking fun at his own earnestness. He came home from one 7 a.m. interview to find Laura, who works in marketing, waiting for him on the porch with a reproach: "You used the word 'iconography' on breakfast TV!" "The hell of it," laughs Kay, "is that even as I said it, I thought, 'Laura's going to kill me.' "
Historical questions are also at a considerable remove from what the 45-year-old native of Weyburn, Sask., used to write. After attending law school at the University of Toronto and being called to the bar in 1981 (he has never practised), Kay became a writer for CBC Radio's Scales of Justice. Three years later, while still writing radio scripts, he published the first volume of his hugely popular Fionavar Tapestry novels, a now-classic trilogy written in the tradition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Kay remains passionate about what the fantasy genre can offer author and reader alike: "Fantasy is a main line to the traditional myths and archetypes that mirror the inner journey of the human spirit. It connects more directly to those ancient wells than anything else." But after Fionavar, Kay became ever more fascinated with the idea of exploring historical problems through fantasy. So a decade ago, in an extraordinary innovation, Kay came up with a genre all his own.
The result is five sprawling novels of historical fantasy set against recognizable backgrounds, such as the ancient Constantinople of The Sarantine Mosaic. "So far, I've managed to bring most of my readers along with me," says Kay, referring to the fantasy fans who have stuck by him despite the steady decline in magical elements necessitated by the historical factor. Kay reads widely, almost at random, when researching a new novel. For the Byzantium setting, he notes, a book called The Helping Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World proved quite helpful. What Kay is seeking in his research is what he calls "the motif that emerges from an era." And that general cultural milieu is all he adopts from his sources. Everything else is altered to fit the needs of the story: rulers, religions, geography, even the chronology - events separated by centuries in actual history are often collapsed into a single era. It is a style that has allowed the author to keep what he values in fantasy while tackling his sophisticated themes.
In Tigana (1990), Kay used a setting drawn from the quarreling city-states of Renaissance Italy to create a page-turning narrative that has sold more than 200,000 copies. The novel was also his first exploration of how ruling powers seek to establish their version of events, controlling culture by rewriting history and, as is the case in Tigana, even obliterating a language. In Eastern Europe, with its still-fresh memories of Stalinist historical erasures, Tigana has brought Kay a large following. A Song for Arbonne (1993), set in medieval France, and The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), drawn from Moorish Spain, strike a similar thematic universality, brilliantly laying out the human cost exacted by intolerant ideologies.
That's the whole point to Kay. Cruelty and oppression are "tropes of the human condition," Kay says, and stand out starkly in invented worlds. "By putting a fantasy spin on real history I have a fighting chance of detaching the universal part of the story from the anchored time and place," he asserts. That, in turn, makes the story more relevant, not less, to the present-day reader, who cannot dismiss it as "long ago and far away." At the same time, Kay, who doesn't think much of the growing tendency in literary fiction to use historical figures almost as freely as invented characters, is happy to avoid twisting facts. "I lack the utter autonomy some writers have - I don't want to write on the back of a real person," he says. "That smacks of hubris."
All of Kay's techniques, strengths and interests are at work in The Sarantine Mosaic. The author, who describes himself as "getting older, wiser, more anchored in my craft," puts on a technically masterful performance. Sailing to Sarantium is the tale of a journey - actual and metaphysical - undertaken by mosaicist Caius Crispus. He has been summoned to the imperial city to work on Emperor Valerius's sanctuary project, just as the actual 6th-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian imported foreign artists to work on the great dome of the church of Hagia Sophia. With the majestic mosaic as the books' central image, Kay, whose power of characterization is almost as good as his genius for storytelling, has a field day with mosaic as motif. By the time the second volume opens, Crispus is just one of a vast crowd of characters, all influencing one another in exactly the way glass beads placed together in a wall subtly set neighbouring pieces in relief. Every cook and courtesan, every chariot-racer and aristocrat desperately wants to leave a mark before death - the Lord of Emperors referred to in the title - claims them.
The image slowly coming to life within the sanctuary is physically threatened by iconoclasts, fundamentalists who seek to destroy sacred images they regard as idolatrous. The mosaic is also vulnerable to another kind of loss. Both artist and ruler claim it as their own monument and, in a fresh twist on one of Kay's persistent themes, it is art - not brute political power - that emerges as the controller of memory, the true Lord of Emperors. After all, as Kay notes, all historians know of Justinian the man is his image as recorded by his court mosaicists.
It remains to be seen whether The Sarantine Mosaic, powerfully written and compulsively readable as it is, will make much of a dent in the ingrained prejudices of literary readers. Nor will Kay's darkly complex work bring him any of the adolescent boys who turn other fantasies into mega-sellers. What Mosaic assuredly will do is crown the author's reputation in the niche he has carved for himself. When it comes to imaginary worlds, Guy Gavriel Kay is the Lord of Emperors.
Maclean's April 3, 2000