Series: The Shards of Heaven #2
Publisher: Tor Books (November 15, 2016)
Length: 400 pages
My Rating: 4 stars
The Shards of Heaven was a magnificent historical fantasy; Michael Livingston deftly weaving the conquest of Egypt by Octavian (Augustus Caesar) into a mesmerizing tale of individual conflicts, mythological magic, and world-spanning political machinations. The personal story of Juba of Numidia and Cleopatra’s children spellbinding, even though a reader inevitably knows the ending for the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. So it should come as no surprise when I say The Gates of Hell had A LOT to live up to in my eyes. However, I should never have doubt this author, because Dr. Livingston crafted a perfect second installment in this series, one which succeeds in carrying this dynamic story forward into the future.
Five years have passed since Alexandria fell to Roman arms. Marc Antony and Cleopatra are long dead, though not forgotten. Of their family, only Selene, their daughter, still lives, though she is now the wife of Julius Caesar’s adopted son Juba; her life more akin to that of a royal hostage than a true part of Caesar’s family. The only joy Selene finds in life her growing feelings of respect and love for her husband, as well as her constant plans for revenge.
Fully understanding her changed circumstances, Selene realizes she must have power — a great deal of it — to have any hope of meting out vengeance on the seemingly invincible Octavian. With her family destroyed, her allies scattered, and no one she can completely trust (other than perhaps Juba), she sets her sights on power through magic, determined to possess her own shard of heaven, thereby gaining god-like powers. Her belief that together with Juba’s own shard granted power the two of them can finally destroy their adopted brother and stop his insatiable need to rule the whole of the world.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean Sea, another shard hunter is also at work, turning over every stone in their search for the Ark of the Covenant. This secret sect so desperate for every clue to the Ark’s whereabouts that they risk revealing themselves by searching the Library of Alexandria itself for information. And, much to their dismay, their inquiries find their way to the ears of a man desperate to find favor with Octavian, and for the right price, he is determined to deliver to the new Caesar the most powerful shard of heaven!
While The Gates of Hell is a fast-paced and fascinating narrative driven by revenge and greed, where it excels is in bringing to life in vivid, unforgettable ways the glory of this epoch of human history. The people, places, and events of Octavian’s Rome bursting to life, filling the pages with their brilliance and bleakness. Michael Livingston able to effortlessly do this without overwhelming his readers with tedious or lengthy expositions. Instead, very naturally and organically, Juba and Selene’s world comes into focus, becoming a living, breathing place, which is breathtaking in its realism.
But no story is complete without compelling characters. Or so I always say. And here, Dr. Livingston gifts readers with three, larger-than-life people. Juba returns, continuing to deal with his decidedly mixed feelings for Octavian, and while he loves and empathizes with his wife, he is a man torn by very conflicting feelings as to what course of action is the wisest. As for Selene, this scion of Cleopatra carries on her famous mother’s legacy very well; her drive, deep emotions, and strong passions creating a character who is difficult to forget. And, finally, there is Octavian (Augustus Caesar) in all his clever, devious, and charming glory; this legendary politician and ruler stealing nearly every scene he is in. The swirling vortex of emotions, schemes, and events sweeping around this trio throughout the entire narrative, driving the action toward an explosive and ominous conclusion.
The only criticism I can level against The Gates of Hell is the predictable nature of some of its plot lines. Certainly, since this is a historical fantasy, the outcome of many “historical” events are already well known, or easily guessed, by readers, but this is not what I am referring to, but, rather, I am speaking of more personal story lines, individual conflicts and such. The outcome of many of these foreshadowed too much, while others were too easily surmised from the very beginning. No, this did not ruin the book as a whole, but it definitely was a bit of letdown for me personally when my guesses were constantly proven correct.
Entertaining and enlightening, The Gates of Hell does an outstanding job of sidestepping the book two letdown and continuing Michael Livingston’s fantastical trek through Roman times. The returning characters show growth, the plot intensifies, and the history mesmerizes, which begs the question “When does book three come out?”
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.