Inspiration -- Sailing to Sarantium
A few days ago I wrapped up Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay. As I have mentioned before, I am a big Kay fan, and Sailing is one of his better efforts. Rather than simply review the book, I'll try to give some reasons why I think gamers should read Kay and Sailing to Sarantium in particular, even though they are not typical fantasy fare and, onstensibly, seem as if won't translate well to gaming.
1. Character -- Kay's protagonists are often artists of some sort. The main character in Sailing is Crispin, a mosaisist who is summoned to the great city of Sarantium to help design the mosaic for the dome of the great sanctuary. Kay paints him, and the supporting characters as well, with complex colors. The depth of character can serve as inspiration itself, or manerisms and backgrounds can be lifted and grafted onto PC's or NPC's. Crispin, for example, is a religious man who is still getting over the death of his family from the plague. He's also quick-witted and foul-mouthed. Both of the later were lifed for my recent NPC of Revus, while the former reminds me to try and avoid single things (death of a family, desire for gold) to define characters.
2. Setting -- Sarantium is a low-fantasy Byzantium. Almost all of Kay's works take place in a fantasy version of the Mediteranean, with alternate takes on the (fallen) Roman empire, medieval Spain, Greece, and Arabia. One book (the Last Light of the Sun) extends the world north by giving us analogs of Scandinavia, England, Wales, Ireland, and France. I have a lot of fun just trying to figure out what real world nation or culture inspired Kay's version. Crispin is Rhodian (or Roman/Italian) but lives in a kingdom ruled by the Antae -- a blond haired people who helped bring about the fall of Rhodia. So they are a Germanic people, who now rule over what we would say is Northern Italy. There are no maps in Sailing, which bummed me out a little, mainly because I like maps. Regardless, I think Kay's work is an excellent example of how to fantiasize real-world history and culture without using the polythestic religious method of Thor versus Zeus to do it. Speaking of Thor. . .
3. Religion -- Kay shows a GM a way to do monotheism that would still alow for some signficant variety in clerics. Again, it mirrors real-world religions while being different enoungh to be interesting and (I guess) inofensive. The dominant religion in Sarantium is Jaddism, worshiping Jad, God of the Sun. There are significant paralells between the Church of Jad and the Roman/Byzantine Catholic church, including a "son" of Jad that some regard as a heresy and some regard as an essential component of the faith. There are also the Kindath, a scattered people who worship the two moons and paralell the Jews. While not mentioned in Sailing, there are also the Asherites -- desert dwelling people who worship the stars. Given their cultural background and religious practices, there is clearly an Islamic paralell happening there. So, you have the three great monotheistic faiths represented in a fantasy world in a way that's familiar yet different. Sailing also adds another layer to the world's religion, by giving us a glimpse into the pagan practices of the pre-Jaddite cultures that are still carried on in corners of the Empire. Human sacrifice on a Day of the Dead, totemic animals, dark forests inhabited by spirits -- that's there too.
4. Magic -- Magic is present in Kay's works, but it's of the subtle and mysterious variety. In Sailing, Crispin meets an alchemist who has mechanical birds that talk and have personalities. The chariot racers (hey, did I mention there's chariot racing. It's awesome!) buy wards against spells. Chieromancers are repeatedly mentioned, but we never get to meet one or really find out what they can do. Interestingly, magic is also somewhat normal. No one is out to burn the known alchemist who lives on the edge of town and everyone in Sarantium seems to buy wards and charms to increase their favorite charioteer's chances of winning the big race. I guess the best way to put it is magic is mysterious, but not dark (well, most of the time anyway).
5. Dialogue and intrique -- There's a chapter in Sailing where Crispin is presented to the Emperor. What follows is the best example of courtly intrigue through dialogue that I've ever read. Through Crispin's eyes, we see the power dynamics of the court played out through how the nobles and Emperor interact, with Crispin joining in. I loved this chapter and found myself wishing I could replicate similar dynamics in a game. I don't know how I could, however, as I'm simply not that verbally nimble. Even if I found players that were interested and able, I doubt I could keep up.
I think it's obvious that I liked the book. I'd love to run a game set in Kay's world one day. Although it's not swords and sorcery by any means, Kay is prominent in my own Appendix N.