Michael Livingston is joining us today with his novel The Shards of Heaven. For those of you who have read Shades of Milk and Honey, Captain Livingston is named after Michael. He is one of my oldest writing friends, and has helped me work out fight sequences on more than one occasion. I read The Shards of Heaven in an early draft and it was fantastic. It’s even better now.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy.
But as civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may truly shape the course of history: two sons of Caesar have set out on a ruthless quest to find and control the Shards of Heaven, legendary artifacts said to possess the very power of the gods — or of the one God.
Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves . . . and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.
The Shards of Heaven reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
To read my favorite bit of The Shards of Heaven, you don’t even need to open the book. But you do need to have the book.
So go ahead and pick yours up. I’ll wait.
Okay. Got it?
Good. Now turn it over. Look at the back. It’s really swell cover copy, I think, but that’s not what I’m after. Nope. See that blurb from Mary Robinette Kowal?
“The Shards of Heaven has everything I want. Accurate history, magic, a diverse cast, intrigue and action, all set in ancient Rome. And Egypt. And did I mention the legionnaires?” – Mary Robinette Kowal
Yep. That’s it right there. That is my favorite bit.
I’m not saying that I don’t like what’s in the book, because nothing could be further from the truth. I love this book. I’m deeply proud of it. There are moments in it that still have the power to take my breath away even though I wrote them — and that’s a really phenomenal feeling. Like the early scene when Juba, realizing he now possesses the Trident of Poseidon, looks out over the sea and perhaps for the first time in his life ponders the existence of the gods. Or that moment that one of my characters, falling unconscious after a brutal fight, is aware that his friend is reaching out to catch him. Or maybe that really big Roman battle scene in the middle, where I can’t wait to see the next action, the next quip, though of course I know what’s going to happen.
I know I’m biased, but I think the adventure in Shards makes for a really good book.
Yet I don’t think it would be this good of a book — and it very certainly wouldn’t be the one you’re holding in your hands — if it wasn’t for Mary. She has, you see, been with this book for a long time indeed.
And that makes her blurb my favorite bit of the whole thing.
Mary’s ancestral home in Tennessee is a place of charm and touching beauty. And her parents are two of the most wonderful and amazing people I’ve met. They’re also incredibly patient: on many occasions they’ve opened their home to a band of writers who’ve come on Mary’s invitation for a writer’s retreat. I first met her (and them) at one of these retreats. And it was there that she first read The Shards of Heaven.
I remember sitting in the warm country comfort of her living room while she retreated downstairs to read my pages. I remember how I tried working on my laptop like the other writers in attendance. Truth was I could only manage to flail blindly at the words because, well, Mary is reading my book right now and what if she hates it?
Mary was already Somebody at that point, you see, and I deeply admired her formidable skills as a writer. I knew she was one of the best — still today I teach several of her stories in my creative writing classes — and this was one of the first times I’d let someone read this book I was writing. I really wanted her to like it.
Eventually she came up the stairs. She was in the middle of chapter four, I think. She looked me dead in the eye. She smiled. “This is good,” she said. “This is really, really good.”
Harlan Ellison once said that you know you’re a writer when a writer says you’re a writer. If so, that was my moment of truth. Mary Robinette Kowal, a terrifically talented writer, said I was a writer.
She went on to read the whole thing. She made some very wise suggestions for improvement, but more than anything she told me she loved it. She encouraged me not to give up.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself attending JordanCon as a special guest lecturer — the very same year that Mary was the Guest of Honor. It was a great time. Mary and I shared several meals and laughs. On the last night there was a dance, which was lovely, and partway through it I received a urgent email from a student traveling abroad who was contemplating self-harm. I immediately retreated to the lobby and sat down to compose several emergency emails. Just after I had hit “send” on the last one I looked up to see Mary, smiling, introducing me to Paul Stevens, the fiction editor at Tor who a couple years later would — because of a chain of events initiated in that moment — buy my book.
And then those years later, after the ink on the deal was dry, Paul said we really ought to send the book to Mary, to see if she would blurb it. He asked me if I wanted to do it or if I wanted him to do it. Not wanting her to feel the pressure of our friendship in the decision, I suggested that he do it.
Less than one hour later, Mary had sent in her marvelous blurb.
And now she has given me this: an opportunity to use her sizable social media presence to boost the awareness of that book.
I’m sure somewhere a publicist is cringing that I spent that opportunity talking about my friend rather than my novel, but the truth is that they do not exist apart from one another. Write what you know, the old adage goes, and of course that only goes so far. I’ve never been the nine-year-old daughter of Cleopatra, smuggling the asp that will end her mother’s life. I’ve never stood on the heaving deck of a Roman trireme and commanded the sea to rise. I’ve never done so many of the things my characters do in The Shards of Heaven. But that’s not really what “write what you know” means to me.
For me it means instead the deeper truths of our lives, the deeper connections that make up who we are. Even apart from her encouragement and kindness in helping me get to this point, Mary’s friendship is a part of who I am. It’s a part of this book.
So it is a special kind of symbol to me that this fact is cemented — branded, one might say — onto the cover itself.
And that, dear readers, is why it is My Favorite Bit.
An award-winning writer and professor, Michael Livingston holds degrees in History, Medieval Studies, and English. Shards of Heaven, the first in a trilogy of historical fantasy novels, will be published by Tor Books in November 2015. In his academic life, he teaches at The Citadel, specializing in the Middle Ages.