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The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston
Book Name: The Shards of Heaven
Author: Michael Livingston
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: November 24, 2015

The Shards of Heaven is the debut novel of professor and Writers of the Future winner Michael Livingston. It’s a historical adventure fantasy that asks how heirs to Julius Caesar—already in possession of tremendous power—would wield the godlike powers of heavenly artifacts, and how those decisions would have affected ancient Roman history.

The novel picks up before Julius Caesar’s blood has even cooled on the Senate floor. Soon, Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, is battling Mark Antony for control of the Roman Republic. Along the way, Caesarion, Caesar’s son by Cleopatra, and Juba II of Numidia, another of Caesar’s adopted sons, search for the Shards of Heaven—bits and pieces of a material said to endow its owner with the power of the gods (or perhaps the one, true God)—to assist their respective sides in the war. I know that sounds like a complex, soap-opera-worthy family tree, but charts are provided if you need them. And the factions are pretty clear cut, so there’s no chance of confusion, particularly if you can keep all the Houses of Westeros straight.

Anyway, it takes a special sort of person to handle Poseidon’s trident, Moses’ staff, Zeus’s Aegis, or the Ark of the Covenant. And when those special people are driven by ambition, power, rivalries, and revenge, well, a good story follows. To give you a hint about what you’re in for when reading The Shards of Heaven, imagine elements of Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra combined with aspects of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the Indiana Jones movies.

As someone who is not only a history buff, but also took four years of high-school Latin (yeah, some days I can’t believe I’m married either), I was already familiar with the history that surrounds the Final War of the Roman Republic, the Battle of Actium, and the eventual rise of the Roman Empire. Naturally, this sapped some of the tension from the story for me (but your mileage may vary). Nevertheless, these events are rich with conflict, and they make for some great set pieces. And this change in focus did allow me to turn my attention to the characters and how the shards warped history.

Livingston handles the historical figures both with creativity and respect—as to be expected from someone who holds degrees in History, Medieval Studies, and English. He explores their ambitions, their motivations, and their faults in ways that match the historical record. Even where the characters depart from their real-life analogs—largely due to the shards—it still makes sense, and the consequences of those deviations were quite interesting. I also enjoyed that Livingston was able to create fully developed characters from people only mentioned a single time in Caesar’s writings. One thing I didn’t enjoy, though, was that in a story with many POV characters, only two—Didymus, the chief librarian of the Great Library, and Selene, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s daughter—really developed and changed over the arc of the story. The others, while interesting, didn’t seem to have that same degree of dynamism.

When it comes to the shards, Livingston has woven together multiple real-world mythologies into something original (although the less said here the better, if I’m going to avoid spoilers). Considering how often symbols and mythologies are absorbed and transformed when cultures are conquered or exposed to new peoples, even this bit of fiction had a realistic touch. Even better, it leaves the door open for “expansion packs” of shards as the series continues and new cities are explored.

Livingston’s prose is clean, direct, keeps things moving at a quick pace, and the action sequences are clear. But there are a couple of odd moments. One character has an imagined conversation with his friend. While it develops character, it just seemed out of place. And in another instance, one character seems to stumble onto something important in a very coincidental manner, not because it flows naturally from the story.

But bottom line, The Shards of Heaven serves as the solid foundation of a fun, new series. It plays with some exciting “what ifs,” and the book leaves just enough threads unresolved that I’ll definitely keep my eyes out for those sequels.


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