Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Shards Of Heaven - Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven is a historical fantasy by Michael Livingston. Set during the struggle for power after the death of Julius Caesar, it merges that period of historical conflict with more fantastical elements.

The world of The Shards of Heaven is at once familiar and alien. Livingston does a great job of showing us the humanity of his characters, whilst lending them enough attitudes from the period to make them feel unusual. In any event, this is the world of Rome Unconquered, moving inevitably from Republic to Empire. Though Rome itself gets less time than I’d expected, it has a palpable presence through the rest of the text as an idea, as a state of mind. There’s a cruel vitality to Livingston’s Rome – a power which will shape the world.

We also spend quite a bit of time in Egypt. Livingston gives us a more languid contrast to Rome, an Empire perhaps overly sure of its power. There are sections set in Alexandria which set out to show a bustling metropolis – with some success. They also show a world ensconced in protocol, with elaborate ceremony sitting alongside wavering heat hazes and scholars in the Great Library.

Livingston’s prose is spare, but effective; he manages to make the period environment feel alive, without becoming over-elaborate. Moving from Egypt to Rome, from battlefield to library, each feels concrete, the backdrop to our protagonists actions made believable by them, and also reinforcing them. It may rely a little on the reader filling in the blanks with their own conceptions of the period, but overall, it’s a well crafted display of the Roman world on the cusp of change.

Speaking of characters – this is a text which isn’t afraid to make use of historical personages. Augustus, Caesarion, Anthony, Cleopatra and a host of others make appearances, some more fleeting than others. The main focus, however, is split between Caesarion and Juba, a fictional adopted brother of Augustus.  Juba is a wonderfully conflicted character. Adopted as a child after a Roman conquest, he has close familial ties with the highest society that Rome can offer. At the same time, he remembers his natural father, and the devastation wreaked on his home by the legions of Rome. This raises a conflict of identity which at ones drives and torments him, as he becomes ever more ruthless in service to his goals.

Caesarion, by contrast, is a rather more familiarly heroic figure. He’s uniformly pleasant, enjoying the company of guards, equals, and his younger relatives. I suspect he’s also kind to small animals. He’s less conflicted about his role, though more impacted by the events of the text. That said, each of the decisions we’re given from him makes sense, and he feels more like a person than an archetype – still, I’m hoping there’s room for a bit more complexity in any sequel. He works as a character by being intelligent and intelligently written, and being sympathetic; there’s hidden depths there as well, it would have been nice to see more of them.

Both characters are ably assisted by a sprawling supporting cast. Again, it would be great to see some of these characters given more room to grow into themselves – Caesarion’s precocious younger sister, for example, is a delight to read; her scenes are filled with some clever dialogue, and some even cleverer actions. Still, overall they serve their purpose, giving us context and texture for the world and the protagonists.

The plot starts a little slowly, though the pacing begins to pick up about halfway through the text. The inclusion of the magical elements in amongst the historical is a bit clunky; there’s a lovely section in the back half of the book where a more minor artefact is located in a very organic way, which I wish had been shown as an approach elsewhere. Still, the magic, when used, makes for some quality action scenes. There’s some great battles in here too, and the character drama is entirely believable. I applaud the scope of the author’s narrative, and their technical prowess in making their battles feel  like the reader is right there in them; I would have liked a few more character scenes, but what was there worked to keep the story rolling. In the end, the historical sections felt authentic and compelling, and carried the necessarily less authentic scenes with magical artefact shenanigans.

Is this worth reading? If you’re in the mood for a historical novel laced with fantastic elements, I’d say so. The plot’s an interesting read, the world feels close enough to the Antique period to be believable, and the characters are authentic and entertaining. It has a few flaws, but the text, overall, is definitely worth your time.

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