Book Review: The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Book 1 of The Shards of Heaven
Publisher: Tor (11/24/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first became aware of The Shards of Heaven earlier this year and knew right then and there I had to read it. Two major reasons for that, really. First is the mention of Cleopatra’s daughter in the book’s description. Despite always being overshadowed by her famous mother, Cleopatra Selene II happens to be one of my favorite historical figures, and I never pass up a chance to read historical fiction in which she appears. The second reason is a more general one, which is my interest in this particular time period featuring the Final War of the Roman Republic, in which Antony fought a civil war against Octavian to fill the power vacuum left behind by the death of Julius Caesar.
I do so love stories set in this time period, because for starters there’s certainly more than enough history to go around, and often the facts are as captivating and irresistible as fiction. Even better is when a historical novel is laced with strong threads of fantasy as with the case of The Shards of Heaven. Author Michael Livingston writes in the preface that one world’s history is another’s fantasy, a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. After all, historical fantasy has always appealed to me, and a major part of that enjoyment comes from seeing the ways a writer can blend real historical elements with the fantastical.
This is done wonderfully in The Shards of Heaven, a book which takes us back to the final years of the Roman Republic. The great Julius Caesar has just been assassinated on the senate floor, leaving the future of Rome in doubt. On the one hand we have Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who claims to be his rightful heir. On the other we have Caesarion, the only known biological son of Julius Caesar, backed by his mother the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and her lover and ally Marc Antony, former Triumvir of Rome.
As the civil war rages on, Prince Juba of Numidia, another adopted son of Caesar, steps into the ring seeking revenge for his father who was defeated by Julius Caesar’s forces in the battle of Thapsus. Through his journeys and research, Juba has learned of the Shards of Heaven, artifacts said to have the ability to grant godlike powers to the mortals who wield them. However, he is not the only one with a vested interest in these Shards. Octavian means to use one of these artifacts, the Trident of Poseidon, to his advantage in the war, and meanwhile in Alexandria, there are hidden factions and unexpected guardians determined to protect the Shards and keep them out of enemy hands.
What I loved most about this book is the faithful homage paid to the fascinating historical figures and ancient locales, though it’s certainly not the point of this story. The characters are amazingly written, coming across very genuine and fully well-rounded, which I would suggest is the true point. The majority of the people in this book were real, and Livingston has taken what we know of them and breathed new life into their characters. Of course I adored Selene, which admittedly could be my own bias showing, but you can also argue that I’ve set a high bar for this book and it exceeded all my expectations. The way Selene was written made me care about her a great deal, and it was not just her either; Caesarion, Vorenus, Juba, Didymus and others with POV chapters were all enjoyable characters with real depth. When compared to the major powerhouses like Octavian, Antony, or Cleopatra, history may remember the protagonists of this book as “bit players”, but in this story they were the ones who knew all the secrets and held the power to change the world.
I’m also impressed with the way the writing evoked the time period without over-complicating the language or burying the narrative in needless detail. Livingston lays out all the complex political alliances so that the reader has a good grasp of what’s going on without feeling overwhelmed. My only concern is that you do need to know the basics of the civil war conflict, or at least have a general knowledge of the history behind it, to fully understand the background of the novel and some of the characters’ motivations. Fortunately, the mystery of the Shards is the central focus of the story rather than the specific details of the war, and the back of the book also has a helpful glossary of characters to catch readers up.
The Shards of Heaven is a dazzling introduction to a new historical fantasy series. Livingston clearly knows his Ancient Rome, and he also has a real talent for plotting and writing compelling characters, as evidenced by the effortless way he navigates the genre. He even finds ways to throw in some unexpected curve balls, paying respect to real history while injecting an imaginative and magical twist. I highly recommend this book for both its entertainment value and for its depiction of historical events. I can hardly wait for the sequel!