The Shards of Heaven
I don't often pick up books set in our world that aren't outright fantasy, but every now and then I like a good religious conspiracy theory novel. Michael Livingston's The Shards of Heaven isn't quite there, but it's close.
Set in Roman times, during the time of Octavian's rise to power, the story centers mainly on three characters: Juba, the adopted son of Julius Caesar who's secretly out for revenge on Rome; Vorenus, a Roman soldier currently under Mark Antony's command who's seen better days; and Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the Egyptian queen and Mark Antony. The plot focuses in around the eponymous Shards of Heaven, objects of great power that can control the elements.
One of the biggest things this book has going for it is its pacing. You will not be bored reading this book. The story opens with an assassination attempt on Caesarion's life, and the pace hardly slows from there. Livingston does a nice job of balancing his viewpoints, and you never go too long without knowing what's happening in a given part of the world. The fight scenes (particularly the naval battle at Actium) will have you turning pages as quickly as you can.
Plotwise, the book doesn't really cover much new ground. The Shards of Heaven are another rehash of a theme I've seen before in books many times, and the overarching events are familiar to anyone who's studied Roman history. Nothing that happens is terribly surprising or shocking. I'm not going to spoil anything for anyone in case you've never read anything in the genre, but the themes explored are not new ones (even if the Shards themselves are pretty cool).
That being said, I have to give credit where credit is due, and it's due in two places: character and attention to detail.
Livingston writes his characters exceedingly well; Vorenus in particular is a joy to read, and his interactions with Titus Pullo were some of my favorite sections. Caesarion, Juba and Selene were also all very well-written, three-dimensional characters (even if Selene's dialogue and viewpoints sometimes seemed a bit unbelievable given her age).
Livingston has a history degree, and it shows. There is wonderful attention to detail here, and it's one of the few historical novels I've read where everything fit perfectly into place. It was an immersive setting, and when combined with the pacing and characters, the novel really draws you in.
Final verdict? Well, it's probably not going to go on my "Best Of" list for 2016, given the quantity of books I consume. But it was a very enjoyable read - and I'm definitely going to pick up the sequel!