papersky talked about spear-points in writing, as a way of thinking about plot and story structure. In a comment, I wondered how the spear-point of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), what I think of as that moment, affected people who didn't know anything about the historical events that Kay had taken as a starting point. tanac volunteered to share reactions, if I'd say what event I was referring to.
There will be positively enormous, book-destroying spoilers behind the cut tag.
That moment, of course, is the murder of Valerius. I found it incredibly shocking the first time I read the book: first, I just don't expect that central and vital a character to be killed off, and second, I knew that Justinian I, the obvious and very close model for Valerius, didn't die in this way.
And it's a spear-point with dimensions that don't become apparent until later, as well: because it should be clear, by the end, that it's this murder that allows war with Batiara to be avoided. Which is clearly a good thing, even if one doesn't know that the reconquest of Italy in our history was brutal and lengthy.
So there's the shock, which I think would be enhanced if one knew Justinian lived considerably past the analogous period of these books. There's sorrow at the death but pleasure at some of the results, which is probably a draw. And there's a third factor, the appreciation of how it all fits together, which I suspect is only available to people who know the history of our world.
(I should say that I have only a very basic knowledge of the corresponding historical events, gleaned from sites like this entry from "An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.")
Though imputing intent is always tricky, I think it a reasonable supposition that Kay set out to avert the invasion of Italy. And he managed to do so by changing just three things from our history:
- Justinian's heir was his nephew. Valerius's nephews are feckless and banished.
- Belisarius married Antonina, a favorite of Theodora. Leontes married Styliane.
- Amalasuintha was regent for her son over the Goths in Italy. Gisel is queen in her own right.
So: Valerius is killed without a heir, allowing Leontes to step into the Emperor's robes. But because Styliane murdered Valerius, Leontes puts her aside and married Gisel: who, as queen in her own right, brings him Batiara peacefully. I appreciate the simple elegance of it and find it another layer of the spear-point: but I only recognize that elegance because I know what's different.
(Of course the changes are also lethally complex and nuanced, because this is Kay, and the changes lead to the multiply-pivotal Aliana-Styliane-Gisel triangle, so pivotal that they each get their own shadows, Shirin, Thenais, and Kasia, respectively. But that's a different post.)