Books, Reviews

My review of THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN, by Michael Livingston


The blurb:

Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy. As civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may shape the course of history.

Juba, Numidian prince and adopted brother of Octavian, has embarked on a ruthless quest for the Shards of Heaven, lost treasures said to possess the very power of the gods-or the one God. Driven by vengeance, Juba has already attained the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which may also be the staff once wielded by Moses. Now he will stop at nothing to obtain the other Shards, even if it means burning the entire world to the ground.

Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves . . . and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.

Michael Livingston’s The Shards of Heaven reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle.

My review:

Reading the last few chapters (make that the last third) of “The Shards of Heaven” almost left me winded as I raced through ancient Alexandria with the book’s characters. I was forewarned that the ending would be a sort of cliff hanger – with the promise of two more books to come – still, I kept reading as fast as I could in order to get to the end and see how it would all play out. Spoilers: it goes well for some, not so well for others…

“The Shards of Heaven” is a fast-paced and well written historical-fantasy thriller. I love stories set in ancient Rome, and am a huge fan of the  historical fiction genre (Bernard Cornwell’s stories set in ancient Britain, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series are two of my faves). Mixing historical fiction with a dose of fantasy is never a bad idea, as far as I’m concerned, and “The Shards of Heaven” is a prime example of how to get this kind of story right.

It’s obviously well researched (since the author has a degree in history, it should be!), but never bogs down in long meandering lectures on battles and political intrigue and the like. (That can happen, especially when it comes to Roman history where writers have so much material to work with). The battle of Actium is here, Octavian’s rise to power, the Roman civil war… but Livingston doesn’t get lots in the minutiae. All the historical locations, background and characters are used wisely to fuel and further the action and plot.

(At one point in the book, when a character asks a question about something, he is brusquely told off with the comment: “we don’t have time for a history lesson!”. Exactly!)

Livingston uses the well-known historical characters well – with Juba, Octavian, Caesarion (Caesar’s son with Cleopatra), and the Greek scholar Didymus – being the standout examples. My two favourite characters, however, are the exiled Roman legionnaires Vorenus and Pullo who end up following Mark Antony to Egypt. These two constantly bickering but competent and fiercely loyal friends anchor the story for me with their down-to-earth concerns, and their sense of humour.

My other favourite part of the book is Juba’s exploration of the power of the magic hidden within the artifacts he eventually comes to realize are the shards of heaven: Livingston’s prose really comes alive when describes what it’s like to tap into all that otherworldly power.

There is also an interesting religious and philosophical backstory that underpins Livingston’s tale. This backstory knits together various religious ideas and stories from Jewish tradition with ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology in an imaginative way, and I enjoyed that part of the book as well.

If you’ve read your history, you can guess where some of the characters might end up, but there is enough space between the facts of actual history to fit in Livingston’s version of events. He also serves up a couple of major surprises, especially towards the end. I can’t wait to see where he takes the story next!

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