Worthy of the Big Screen, But Not Without Its Problems – A Review of The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

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Book-to-movie adaptations have been around almost since the beginning of moviemaking. One of the earliest book-to-movie adaptations was released in 1899: an adaptation of the fairytale Cinderella, as told by the Brothers Grimm. It was made by Georges Méliès, a pioneer filmmaker who is more famous for his 1902 release A Trip to the Moon, which is a loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.

Since then the film industry has frequently mined literature for stories to make into movies, many of which become immensely successful: Gone With the Wind and The Lord of the Rings film trilogy come easily to mind. Both are some of the highest-grossing films every made, and are considered classics both as books and as movies. However, for every book-to-movie adaptation that makes it big, there are many, many more that fail. Take, for example, the film adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, which was almost universally panned by critics despite its powerhouse cast (which included Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich in important supporting roles, and Rachel Weisz voicing the dragon Saphira). There were plans to adapt Paolini’s entire series into film, but the sequels never materialised because of Eragon’s poor critical reception and relatively modest earnings.

Both examples lead to an interesting question: why do some book-to-movie adaptations fail, and why do others succeed? There are many reasons: in some cases (as it was with The Lord of the Rings and Gone With the Wind), it was a combination of just the right director choosing just the right material, and choosing to execute it in just the right way. With Eragon, it was a case of the novel itself not being substantial enough or strong enough to really carry itself as a film, even if it did so as a novel. Sometimes it’s a matter of hype: Fifty Shades of Grey might be one of the most appalling novels ever written, but it succeeded in the box office because of the hype surrounding the novel – this, despite the main stars’ lack of onscreen chemistry; the manifold directorial and scripting issues before and during shooting; and the confusing and turbulent (to say the least) promotional tours for the film. On the flip side, there are the Harry Potter movies, which were driven by the devotion of fandom, cast, and crew to their source material to become one of the most successful film franchises in recent memory.

But not all of that influence is one-way, from book to film. In more recent years, and especially in genre fiction, the influence of film and television is becoming more and more apparent. This is most obvious in pacing and narrative: some novels read as if they could be movies in their own right, with the general story arc paced to hit all the points of an excellent film. Whether or not this is deliberate on the part of authors is not really the point: the point is that the influence is there, and clear for any reader to see.

This is very true with Michael Livingston’s The Shards of Heaven, the first book in the series of the same title. Set in the chaotic years immediately after the death of Julius Caesar, Livingston combines history and mythology in an adventure that would not be out-of-place on the big or small screen. It follows Juba the Numidian, adopted son of Julius Caesar, as he goes on a search for the fabled Shards of Heaven – immensely powerful artefacts that he believes will get him the one thing he wants most in the world: vengeance.

When I first picked up this book, I was more than a little leery. After all, the last book I picked up that combined history with magic was Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning, and I came to despise that book so much that I forced myself to finish it just so I could complain about all its flaws and be justified in my complaints. Fortunately, I do not have too many issues with The Shards of Heaven, which, while it has its pitfalls, has plenty to recommend it, as well.

Chief of those recommendations is the writing. I found it rather difficult to select quotes from this novel, mostly because Livingston’s writing is highly functional: that is to say, it does no more and no less than it ought to tell the story, with very little flourish. However, just because it is functional does not mean that it is poor – indeed, I think Livingston’s writing style is highly conducive to the kind of story he is trying to tell. Given his choice of setting, he does not really have to devote a lot of time describing it: the readers likely to pick up his novel will, in all likelihood, already be familiar with his chosen setting (even if that familiarity only comes from TV shows and movies).

This functional style comes in especially handy when writing fight scenes, where overly-elaborate prose can make it difficult to imagine just what, exactly, is happening. Take this scene, for example:

The two men flailed to the floor together, grunting as splintered wood fell like rain in the little room. Valerius hit the ground first, but he was able to kick his lower body up in continuation of the legionnaire’s momentum, sending the far bigger man hurtling against the barred door. The assassin then rolled quickly, recovering his balance even as the dazed legionnaire scrambled to get his feet under him and began pawing for the glades at his side.

Valerius came forward at him, knife ready in his grip, but before he could strike he screamed and buckled to one knee as Caesarion jammed his little wooden blade into the soft flesh at the back of his right leg. The assassin swung his arm back at the boy instinctively, catching him above the eye with the butt of his knife, sending him sprawling.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Valerius turned back around in time to see the big legionnaire draw an arm back and forward, pushing a gladius into his belly, just below his rib cage. Gasping against the cold steel in his gut, the assassin still tried to swing his knife, but the legionnaire held fast to his sword with strong hands, and his thick arms flexed as he twisted it in his grip, scratching the blade into bone. Valerius groaned, strained, then dropped his weapon and sank against the killing stroke, watching, helpless and gasping in broken breaths, as the legionnaire stood, wincing from wounds of his own, and pushed forward until the assassin collapsed to his back.

There is another, move evocative fight sequence further on in the novel, but I have chosen to quote the one above because the other contains potential spoilers. At any rate, the clear and relatively clean description make it easy for the reader to follow along with the action: refreshing, especially when one considers how some writers describe fight scenes in so muddled a manner that the reader can skip over them and not have to worry about missing anything important.

The functionality of Livingston’s prose also does wonderful things for his plot and pacing. Given that this novel is basically an adventure story, ensuring that the plot keeps chugging along at a relatively quick pace is vital, and Livingston accomplishes that quite well. His plot hits all the same high points a good action-adventure movie like The Mummy or Indiana Jones does – probably the main reason why this novel reads like a movie in and of itself. The only time there is any hitch in the pacing is when Livingston slows down for exposition: necessary, of course, but he does have a tendency to repeat information that the reader already knows.

However, while Livingston’s writing works fantastically well for his fight scenes and his overall plot and narrative, it does undermine his characterisation somewhat. It’s not all bad: most of his characters are interesting and fun to read about, if a bit flat. Given the heavy emphasis on plot, it is unsurprising that characters lack a certain amount of depth.

While I found this relatively easy to ignore for most of the characters, given the promise of deeper characterisation in the sequels, I could not let them all slide. I was particularly irritated with Livingston’s characterisation of Cleopatra VII, whom he writes as a seductress who seems incapable of turning off the charm, even when circumstances dictate that she should. Take, for example, the following excerpt,which describes Cleopatra during a war council:

…Cleopatra moved around to stand behind Antony’s chair, her hips swaying beneath her fine linens and her wrists twisting to clink the ornate bracelets that wound around them like thin gold snakes.

…the long smooth fingers of Cleopatra draped over [Antony’s] shoulder, gently restraining him in his chair. “They believe a woman on the battlefield is”—her painted lips parted sensuously, seemed to work around the word in Latin that she was searching for—“improper?”

Elsewhere in the novel, various characters remark on Cleopatra’s beauty, both negatively and positively, and on the influence she wields over Antony, which she appears to accomplish via her “feminine wiles”, generally accompanied by descriptions of how sexy (though that word is never used) she is. This was annoying in the extreme: after all, Cleopatra’s influence was not based solely on her powers of seduction. Historians and scholars all agree that Cleopatra’s appeal for both Antony and Julius Caesar, was, in large part, due to her intelligence – she was Queen of Egypt for a reason – and her vast wealth. While there is no doubt that she turned to seduction when necessary, to assume that she relied on it exclusively, the way Livingston characterises her, is not only unrealistic, but insulting to all scholars who have done their best to understand who Cleopatra really was.

Another, albeit minor, issue that I have with this novel is the lore for the Shards. It is clear Livingston is trying his hardest to make them into objects of true significance and not just another set of MacGuffins, but there are some aspects of that lore that I find somewhat questionable. However, I am choosing to withhold further judgment, since this is just the first novel and it is possible Livingston will refine it into something better in later books – or at least, I genuinely hope that is the case.

Overall, The Shards of Heaven is an enjoyable adventure novel in the tradition of the Indiana Jones and The Mummy movies: the plot moves quite quickly in keeping with the genre, and Livingston’s functional prose is well-suited to the task of keeping the story moving. This is especially clear in the fight scenes, where the descriptions make the action comprehensible and easy for the reader to imagine clearly.

However, this does come at the cost of characterisation. The characters do not come off as completely three-dimensional, though this is easy to ignore for the most part, once again because of the novel’s genre. Livingston’s characterisation of Cleopatra, however, is inexcusable, and I wonder how a historian could have written her in that manner. Some readers might also have some issues with the lore for the Shards, but there is the chance that it will be refined in later books, so it is possible to keep an open mind and wait to read the sequel before passing judgment on the series as a whole.

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