Michael Livingston‘s debut novel The Shards of Heaven (review copy via NetGalley from Tor) has just been published. It’s an alternative history set around the time of one of the key periods of Roman history: the rise of the Emperor Octavian, who becomes Augustus Caesar. The novel broadly covers the time period surrounding Octavian’s war against Mark Antony, up to the invasion of Alexandria and Antony’s suicide.
Livingston’s twist on this period is to blend Greco-Roman history with its myth and the search for some magical artefacts. Octavian’s victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium is aided by Poseidon’s Trident, which was discovered by Octavian’s adopted brother Juba. This can be used to control the water, to devastating effect. The trident is powered by a mysterious black stone, one of the long lost ‘Shards of Heaven’, which are the fragments of the throne of God. These fragments are scattered among a range of artefacts, including the Ark of the Covenant, and all have different effects. Those on both sides of the conflict seek these artefacts out, either to use them or to deny their use to others.
There is real skill in the way that Livingston has blended his adventure story with impeccably researched history. Most of the characters in the book are based on real people from history. For the most part the novel feels authentic. Livingston has taken a very Shakespearean approach to Octavian and Antony. The latter is a tragic hero, bewitched by his love for Cleopatra. Octavian is cold and power-hungry, determined to neutralise the threat posed to his rule by Julius Caesar’s only natural born son, Caesarion (by Cleopatra).
The characterisation in the novel is pretty mixed. Although Caesarion is a pretty bland can-do-no-wrong hero, there are some interesting moments, particularly in the camaraderie between Vorenus and Pullo, two of Antony’s trusted and experienced lieutenants. But the women are quite poorly served. We have no sense of Cleopatra as a woman of power and Pharoah in her own right. She is merely a beautiful woman who has turned Antony’s head. Her daughter Selene seems doomed to being ‘feisty’, but no more. And Rebecca, who is introduced as the pivotal character who is the heir to knowledge of the Shards, is presented primarily as a love interest for Caesarion.
That aside, this is a fun read and the start of a solid fantasy trilogy. Livingston is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Goodreads rating: 3*