REVIEW SUMMARY: Magical artifacts, pieces of the Godhead, with the potency to change the world; Octavian Caesar, adopted son of the assassinated Julius Caesar, seeking victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra and grasping for august mastery over the Roman World; and a Numidian Prince seeking vengeance and power. All this and more fills historian Michael Livingston’s fantasy novel debut, The Shards of Heaven.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: During the Mark Anthony/Octavian Caesar conflict following Julius Caesar’s assassination, a set of magical artifacts connected to God may prove the decisive weapons in the Roman Civil War…and beyond.
PROS: Excellent use of characters both historical, imaginary and previously imagined; tack-sharp historical details bring the pre Roman Empire Mediterranean to vivid life.
CONS: Readers looking for more alternative and divergence from our history may be disappointed in how the novel hews to real events, even given its fantastic elements
BOTTOM LINE: A detailed and delightful historical fantasy.
The set of characters is top notch. The depiction of Marc Antony, Octavian Caesar and Cleopatra, and the major historical characters of the period are excellently drawn. Given his endless ambition, Octavian deservedly winds up in the position of antagonist and villain, a role that the man eventually titled Augustus is not usually depicted. Juba is the true driving force of the narrative, given his desire to possess the Shards for himself, and is also an interpretation of a real-life historical character. His background, aside from the Shards and the magical elements, is very spot on compared to what we know of the historical characters. I was delighted to find that the author brought versions of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus into his narrative as well. Watchers of the show Rome might not know that Livingston is not stealing them from the show: both the show and the author took them straight from Julius Caesar’s history of his conquest of Gaul (France). The two legionnaires here owe little to the versions in Rome but I couldn’t help but see the two actors in my head whenever they were in a scene. Livingston also does a good job with fictional characters as well, providing a diverse and varied cast to fill his narrative.
Magic and ancient Roman history have been intertwined in other novels, but rarely in such a direct fashion. Thomas Harlan’s Oath of Empire series was an explicit alternate history and set hundreds of years after Julius Caesar’s death. David Drake’s Book of the Elements, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic and Harry Turtledove’s Videssos novels all take place in secondary worlds similar to Rome and the Roman world, but worlds which are most definitely not our own. Kate Elliott’s recent Court of Fives is set in a world similar to Ptolemaic Egypt, but again, is not quite our world either. Livingston bolds uses our own world to inject the magic of the Shards and their potential to change the world. The idea of the Shards, which are pieces of God’s power, gives the magic and their influence a esoterically Gnostic flavor that the author conveys especially well. I particularly liked the timelessness that the author depicts–these were not artifacts of one culture or time, but artifacts of eternal import, from across cultures and civilizations.
The history of the Roman World, from Republic to Empire, is one of my abiding and lifelong interests. From the Punic Wars to Alaric’s Sack of Rome and the fall of the West; the stories of Scipio and Hannibal, Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar and his fractious descendants from Livia to Nero; and the glory, the challenges, the culture and the universe of Rome have fascinated me since I was young. The struggle in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination is some of the most fascinating and rich history in the entire story of Rome. Shakespeare alone made multiple plays out of it. I am happy to report that Livingston, a Medieval Historian, gets the history and feel of post-Caesar Rome and the Roman World (including Egypt) dead-on perfect. Everything in The Shards of Heaven works. I was somewhat surprised by this, and some readers might be surprised as well–with the existence of the Shards, there was every opportunity for Livingston to move history on a different course. Instead, Livingston plays conservative with the history of his world, and instead relies on illuminating and dramatizing real history by layering fantasy elements into his story.
Beyond the magic, the history and the characters, the novel is relentlessly entertaining. Well written action scenes and set-pieces of sword and blade versus overwhelming odds helped interleaf the sumptuous history and period detail with pulse-pounding adventure that make those sections of the novel run lean and fast. There is a strong hand in the author’s pacing of action and adventure interspersed with pauses for breath, reflection and revelation.
The novel ends with a solid conclusion, but leaves the door wide open to a sequel as the struggle for the Shards continues. Given how strongly The Shards of Heaven resonated with me and my historical and fantastic interests, I am eager to read the next novel in the series. Ave, Michael Livingston!