Historian Michael Livingston was previously best known in fandom for speaking on panels at JordanCon. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Livingston riffs off of Robert Jordan’s all-the-myths-are-true shtick in his debut novel The Shards of Heaven. Here, though, the setting is historical—ancient Rome at the birth of the empire. It’s a world where Moses split the Red Sea with a powerful, magical artifact, perhaps the same that earned Neptune and Poseidon their reputations. And presumably the Ark of the Covenant melts Nazis’ faces off.
It’s all rich in historicity, with a nifty backstory for the magic. The prose is solid. The pace is a bit slow but stops dragging midway through when the characters and the story grabbed me. It’s a promising debut!
More specifically, the setting is the Roman Empire after the fall of Julius Caesar and during the civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony, with Octavian in Rome and Antony in Egypt. I was disappointed that Antony and Cleopatra don’t play big roles. The main characters are instead Juba, adopted son of Caesar and son of the conquered king of Numidia; Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son from Julius Caesar; Selene Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s daughter from Marc Antony; and Didymus, scholar and librarian of the Great Library at Alexandria. Octavian plays a much more direct role than Cleopatra or Antony. Also appearing are Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.
All are historical figures. The use of Pullo and Vorenus is problematic. Pretty much all I know about the Roman Empire is what was in HBO’s Rome and the subject of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Any depiction of Pullo and Vorenus, then, will invariably be colored by their depiction in Rome. And Livingston’s depiction does seem to own a lot to Rome; he certainly couldn’t draw much from the historical record, which consists of just a few lines in the writings of Julius Caesar.
The story begins with the discovery of Neptune’s trident by Juba. From there it bounces among Rome, Greece, and Alexandria; through the Battle of Actium and the fall of Alexandria. What starts out as a straightforward revenge plot grows into something much more complex. A build-up that is perhaps a bit too slow pays off as characters we’ve grown to care about are, in the end, acting in interests that are never quite aligned. And the worldbuilding is very cool. We get just enough at the beginning to intrigue us, we’re thoroughly hooked by the time the info dumps come, and it all plays a big role in the climax, often in unexpected ways.
Disclosure: I received a copy via NetGalley.