The Shards of Heaven seems like a dream come true for a whole slew of my geeky cravings: ancient civilizations, Western philosophy, speculative theology, all rolled into one by an author with a degree in history. Historical fiction written by a historian! This is almost as exciting as science fiction written by a scientist. You have my attention, Mr. Livingston!
The year is 32 BCE and the Mediterranean is a melting pot of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures. Or rather a boiling pot, since its waters are seething with the build-up to battle between Octavian’s triremes and Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet. Oh, and with the tsunamis conjured by the Trident of Poseidon, because—get ready to geek out one level higher—this isn’t just historical fiction, it’s fantasy. Historically accurate fantasy. Onward, Mr. Livingston!
According to The Shards, the theologies of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Judaism are interrelated, misremembered half-truths about the original nature of God. The Trident is a clue to their connectedness; centuries earlier, the peoples of the Middle East and Northern Africa wielded not just the Trident but other equally-powerful objects known as the Shards of Heaven, all of which have been lost to common knowledge. Now that the Trident has been rediscovered, a whole mess of characters with competing interests must race to uncover the truth about the gods/God and the location of the remaining Shards. This is where Livingston stretches beyond the usual bounds of historical fiction, filling in gaps in the record with the promise of a fantastical all-encompassing new cosmology.
The book and its characters reach their theological revelations about two-thirds of the way through, so I couldn’t describe them here without a nice fat SPOILER warning. But I will say this: when I finally read the explanation of the nature of divinity, creation, and the Shards’ power, my reaction was essentially “Really? That’s it? That doesn’t make even the slightest sense.”
The Shards of Heaven seems like a dream come true, but ends up disappointing in so many ways. First and foremost for a philosophy/theology geek like me, its promise to tie together ancient religions with a grand backstory falls flat on its face with all the hokey absurdity of a comic book hero’s radioactive origins. The fictional creation story at the heart of the story feels like a much clumsier version of Pullman’s brilliant world-building in His Dark Materials; the consequent quest for powerful artifacts reads like an echo of Harry’s search for Horcruxes.
If we sigh and shrug that off, simply accepting that these rocks called Shards are powerful just because, we can return to the story. There’s the second disappointment: the cast sprawls with dozens of characters, some of whom are quite interesting but none of whom stands out as a protagonist with a cause worth rooting for. We have, to name a few, the power-hungry ruler Octavian, the revenge-hungry orphan Juba, the learning-hungry librarian Didymus, the battle-hungry general Mark Antony. And, of course, Antony’s infamous lover:
Behind them swept Cleopatra herself, her thin gown draped close to her sleek body, the cloth whispering to the steady sway of hips that, even as she neared the age of forty, could still drive men to madness. Her raven-black wig fell in perfect straight drapes against the muscles of her back, its sheen matched only by the oiled, rich tan of her smooth skin. […] Cleopatra turned, her dark eyes glinting with a promise of unbridled seduction that was, for her, a look of natural habit. Her red-painted lips parted in a weary but thrilling smile.
Ohhhh, so, if I’m following, she’s sexy? Should’ve thrown in a few more descriptors for the less perceptive reader.
As you might deduce from that introduction, the women in particular are tragicomically one-dimensional. The book’s incomplete character glossary lists twenty-five names, but only three are women, and all are described as attractive. One is repeatedly called a “whore,” one is a virginal teenage beauty, one is a child on the verge of becoming—suspense!—either a whore or a virginal teenage beauty. Yes, I know, in an account of politics and wars it’s historically accurate that most women be stowed away from the action. But if a writer can flesh out a list of long-dead male names—and if he can rewrite their stories to turn on the existence of magic black god-stones—surely he can also conjure more (and more interesting) female characters.
Instead, Livingston mostly sticks to the male cast and the military drama, losing himself and sometimes the reader in elaborate explanations of ship movements or the urban planning of Alexandria. It’s hard to blame a history buff for that, and maybe his main readership will be captivated by these descriptions, but the longest bouts veer into textbook-style exposition and let the pacing slip.
Having said all that, there were chapter-chunks in which I put aside my gripes and had fun reading his decadent, detailed prose. In the end, The Shards’ flaws are only the most predictable ones of genre fiction: the text is gobbed up with adverbs and clichés, the characters follow stereotypes, and the plot’s logic is, well, fantastical. I rarely demand more of a fantasy novel. Maybe my expectations were set too high here—the cooler the original concept seems, the more geeked I am going in, and the crotchetier I get about weaknesses in execution.
But by all means, if you love history and philosophy and fantasy, geek out over The Shards of Heaven. Livingston promises historically accurate fantasy fiction, and he delivers. When it comes to the cultures and chronologies of the turn of the first millennium, he clearly knows his stuff, and he’s very clever about only writing his inventions into the unknowns. Go ahead, dive in and decide for yourself.