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Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.

A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control.  But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband.  With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.

These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.

What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire.   This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:

Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?

Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear.   As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.

The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic.  But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.

My Rating: 

Review: CONGRESS OF SECRETS, by Stephanie Burgis

28953200I received this book from Pyr Books through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to them both for the opportunity to read this novel.

If I enjoyed Stephanie Burgis’ previous book, Masks and Shadows, this one went well beyond any expectations I had, after my first encounter with this writer. Congress of Secrets is far richer and multi-faceted than its predecessor and I enjoyed it very much, as the levels of tension and intrigue kept me glued to the pages until the end.  The story is set a few decades after the events of Masks and Shadows, and follows new characters, although there is a passing mention of Marie Dommaier, the young maid-turned-opera singer, who seems to have become very famous and whose role appears to be the handing of the narrative baton to the new players.

Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, hides a secret: she was born Karolina Vögl, daughter of a Viennese printer arrested by the secret police twenty-five years previously for his illegal anti-establishment pamphlets. Karolina herself was a prisoner of Count Pergen, the head of the secret police, who held her – and other equally forgotten victims – as a subject for his experiments in dark magic and alchemy for several years.  She is now back in Vienna, with the pretext of following the Congress being held on the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat: her real goal is to find a way to free her father, the only one of Pergen’s inmates still to be released.

Michael Steinhüller is a professional con artist, and his latest scheme involves passing himself as a dispossessed Russian noble come to Vienna to obtain reparations for the losses suffered during Bonaparte’s campaigns of conquest. He’s no stranger to Caroline, either, since he was her father’s apprentice when the police came to arrest them all, and her last image of him – and Michael’s recurring shameful memory – is of Michael running for his life as the printer’s shop was torched.  When he meets Karolina/Caroline again, the past threatens to infringe on their respective plans and to intrude with uncomfortable memories and unspoken feelings.

Around these two main characters moves a number of either fictional or historical figures, making once more this novel a rich tale that intrigues with its core story and stimulates curiosity toward the events being depicted: if Peter Riesenbeck, the leader of an acting troupe traveling to Vienna in search of success and fame, is an imaginary construct, and the unwitting lynchpin around which part of the drama unfolds, there are also some very real people moving across the stage and weaving seamlessly between reality and fantasy. There is Emperor Francis and the dark secrets he shares with evil Count Pergen, another all too true figure from the past; or we encounter famous politicians as Talleyrand and Metternich; or again my favorite among the secondary players, the Prince de Ligne, who I discovered was a flesh-and-blood person, widely known for his wit and his scorn of political expedience: his friendship with Caroline and his avuncular curiosity toward her, and the mystery she represents, is one of the highlights of the story.

Of course much revolves around Caroline and Michael’s meeting, the emotional undercurrents of their past and present and the misunderstandings that threaten to drive them further apart: once more I commend Ms. Burgis for not placing the romance at the center of the story, but using it simply as part of the plot, leaving the daring schemes of the two under the spotlight.  Caroline herself is an intriguing character: like her virtual “sister” Charlotte von Steinbeck in Masks and Shadows, she works within the era’s social conventions, but manages to wield whatever power she can muster with skill and courage, driven by the need to free her father and the guilt she feels for the long years she was forced to abandon him to his destiny.  Caroline is no innocent – her truncated childhood saw to that in no small measure – and she’s not an angel either, able as she is to employ her feminine wiles to advantage, but at the same time her past experiences and the deals she had to make have not hardened her completely, and she retains a core of vulnerability that gives her personality a delightful complexity.

The magic elements of the novel are just as intriguing – and frightening: the darkness that inhabits count Pergen and allows him to draw energies from his victims, shifting them to himself or other recipients not unlike a blood transfusion, seems to have a connection with the dark, formless shapes that we saw in Masks and Shadows, and maybe is a sort of evolution of that entity, or a side manifestation. Much is left to the imagination and not explained completely (something I approve of) and the very insubstantial nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so terrifying and believable, especially in the final scenes of the unfolding drama.

If the story seems to end with a somewhat easy “and they lived happily thereafter”, it does so in a very satisfactory way – and after the horror and anguish visited on the characters for most of the time, I think they deserve it, and so do the readers.  The added value in this novel, even more than in its predecessor, lies in the curiosity that the author manages to instigate in her audience about the historical period in which the action is set, and in the real-life figures presented there. As always, a book that makes me think, besides its entertainment value, is a good one.

Very, very highly recommended.

My Rating:

Review: MASKS AND SHADOWS, by Stephanie Burgis

25893822I received this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Historical fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres: on one side, the mix between established history and fantastic elements creates a unique blend that enhances both components, while on the other, curiosity about any given time period compels me to search for further information and therefore to enrich my knowledge base.  No one could ask more from a book, besides its intrinsic entertainment value…

Masks and Shadows focuses on the Hapsburg Empire at the end of the 18th Century, blending fictional characters with historical figures like Prince Nikolaus Ezsterhazy and Empress Marie Therese, and flowing into a lively, fast-paced narrative whose momentum is carried by continuous changes in point of view, handled with such dexterity that they are never confusing or distracting. Mirroring the operatic plays that figure quite extensively in the course of the story, this huge cast acts indeed like a well-rehearsed production, staging a sequence of conspiracies, revelations, plots-within-plots and romantic entanglements worth of the best composer – and it’s no coincidence that Franz Joseph Haydn figures prominently here as a sort of connecting link between all of these elements.

At Ezterhaza, Prince Nikolaus’ Versailles-like summer residence, the crowd of distinguished guests is joined by Carlo Morelli, Europe’s most famous castrato singer, by a renowned alchemist and a would-be writer suspected of being a spy: the stage is set from the very early pages for a story where mystery, magic and secrets abound, and where danger and conspiracies lurk under the gilded patina of wealth and power.  At the palace another main character is already in residence: Charlotte von Steinbeck, widowed sister of Sophie, the Prince’s mistress.

No two people could be more different than these sisters: Sophie is quickly shown as an airhead who revels in her station as a powerful man’s mistress, a selfish and vain creature who doesn’t care about the people or sensibilities she tramples on, as long as she can keep enjoying her exalted status. Charlotte, on the other hand, is nothing but dutiful and obedient: just as she submitted to her marriage to an ailing man old enough to be her grandfather, so now she submits to her sister’s whims, even justifying them as her duty. She embodies all that is proper and respectable, and does not seem to struggle under the weight of so many obligations: at first I felt some irritation at her attitude, no matter how properly it fit the time’s mores, because Charlotte felt so totally passive. But little by little I started to understand how she had been molded into that shape by her enclosed – and enclosing – world: only by getting out of her secluded existence she starts to realize there is more to life, that the boundaries of her world need not be so constricting. It’s not a thunderclap revelation, since Charlotte comes into this new awareness in small increments, and still feeling guilty for what she perceives as stealing some space of her own, but she ultimately gets there, and following that progress is both enjoyable and satisfying.

One of the major contributions to Charlotte’s awakening is that of Carlo Morelli: since their first meeting it looks like a given that they will become close, but the author played this development with a light, almost shy hand, thus avoiding to make the relationship look like a tired trope.  What drives them together, more than anything else, is the unexpressed feeling of being outsiders: Carlo because of his nature, one that makes him both a sought-after guest and a gossip-worthy freak (there is an enlightening conversation between Sophie and Charlotte, where the former wonders if they should really refer to the singer as a ‘he’, since he lacks the so-called manly attributes); and Charlotte because in such “exalted” company of jaded and spoiled aristocrats devoid of depth, her cultural sensibilities make her stand out like a sore thumb.  Music – and there is a great deal of it, both played and discussed – is the vehicle through which Charlotte starts to feel and express her newfound need for freedom, and music is what brings her closer to Carlo.

What I most approved in Charlotte’s journey, and what I applaud the author for, is that the relationship with Carlo Morelli is only a means for the young widow’s breaking of her chains, but not the end. The moment when Charlotte understands she wants more is not tied to her feelings for the singer, but to a dramatic circumstance in which she realizes that life is far too short to be wasted, and that she has not lived enough, experienced enough.  That she will choose to travel that path with him is a consequence of that understanding, but not the main reason – and this is surprisingly and delightfully modern.    Carlo’s changes somewhat mirror Charlotte’s, since it’s from exposure to her plain demeanor that he understands how tired he is of the cruel hypocrisy of the aristocratic world: in a way they transform each other, again belying the one-way direction of such events that’s typical of less original writing.

The novel’s cast of secondary players is rich, embracing the whole spectrum of characters from good to bad, from exploiters to victims, with a few honorable mentions as Prince Nikolaus’ wife – forced to bear her husband’s blatant infidelity with all the grace and dignity of a true lady – or Anna, Charlotte’s maid who is fortuitously launched into a bright career as a singer; and yet there is another important character I want to spend a few words about, and it’s music: the descriptions of music – be it played with instruments or sung – is always quite inspired and contributes to create the rich tapestry of this story.  As a lover of classical music, I was aware of Franz Joseph Haydn’s existence and yet never listened to any of his works, so that when I did, spurred by this novel, I discovered a great number of compositions that are both pleasant and uplifting, just like the personality of the man described in Masks and Shadows.  As a tribute to him, I’m adding a link to one of his pieces, in the hope of sharing this discovery with everyone who will read this.

My only criticism toward Masks and Shadows comes from the feeling that this fascinating historical period is not explored enough: while I’m aware that the brief mentions contained in the story can compel readers to search for more information (as I did), still I feel that a few more details would have added depth to the background and that some of the characters and their motivations would have been clearer. The author probably wanted to avoid any danger of long exposition, and that’s to be commended, but I can’t shake the feeling she erred on the side of caution…  This said, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and would love to read more along these same lines.

My Rating:

Review: THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN by Michael Livingston

23848192Historical fantasy is something an unexplored genre for me, and this book managed to pique my curiosity about it: what I found particularly interesting is the seamless blend between historical characters and facts and the story’s more fantastic elements; the most fascinating aspect of this book comes from the way in which the fantasy elements do not change history – as can happen, for instance, in some steampunk or alternative history novels – but rather enhance it, making this story a very compelling one.

In the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, the political landscape is shifting: Octavian is ruthlessly consolidating his rule as Caesar’s heir, while Antony defies laws and duty by challenging him from his new home in Egypt, at Cleopatra’s side. History flows along its well-known tracks, the only alteration given by the presence of the titular Shards – fragments of divine might that men can turn into weapons, changing the balance of power.  While history depicts Octavian as a strong, enlightened ruler, here we see his darker side, something that does not sound so far-fetched after all, considering that records are often filtered through the victor’s point of view, and if coldness and ambition are among a leader’s requirements, Octavian seems to enjoy them a little too much for comfort.

But the real protagonists here are people on whom the limelight of history did never shine, like Juba II, the son of the defeated Numidian king; or Selene, Cleopatra and Antony’s daughter, and her half-brother Caesarion, the offspring of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.  Chronicles indicate that Juba’s father choose suicide rather than submitting to the shame of being paraded through the streets of Rome in defeat, and that his son was adopted by Caesar and became a renowned scholar. Juba, as we encounter him in this novel, is indeed an academically-inclined individual, and he’s the one who first finds evidence of the Shards and of their awesome power: the difference, in the economy of this story, stands in the burning hatred and need for vengeance driving him on. This young man outwardly appears as a well-integrated citizen of Rome, the step-brother of Octavian, but in reality he chafes in his role as Octavian’s useful tool, as a commodity to be exploited and kept under constant surveillance.

Selene, on the other hand, leads something of a charmed life as the daughter of the queen of Egypt, but she’s hungering for more: more freedom, more knowledge, more responsibilities than those enjoyed by a young girl – even one from the ruling class – in that time and place. She possesses a very determined personality that nonetheless never slides into silly stubbornness, and in the course of events she gains depth and a maturity that go well beyond her years.   Her half-brother Caesarion is somewhat less defined, but what little we see of him points to a responsible, thoughtful young man, one to whom leadership comes naturally and who is able to rule through empathy rather than brute strength. Unfortunately the latter is more suited to the times he’s living in…

In this almost-choral set of characters, even the secondary ones are well-defined and worth of sympathy, starting with Dydimus, the Greek librarian burdened by guilt for his past actions, or the comrades-at-arms and friends Pullo and Vorenus, seasoned soldiers whose loyalty can bring them to extreme sacrifices. They, along with the bit players that fill this fascinating scenario, are never one-dimensional figures placed there for a specific purpose alone, but have the definite feel of real, flesh-and-blood people, adding to the wonderful depth of this immersive story.

The Shards themselves become a character as their existence and origins are slowly revealed, their presence throughout history and myth ensuring a continuity that is the true backbone of this novel: from Greek mythology, with Zeus’ scepter and Poseidon’s trident, to the Bible, with Moses’s staff and the pieces hidden in the Ark of the Covenant, to Alexander’s armor, that granted him a sort of invulnerability, these artifacts have passed through the ages leaving behind them the memory of their might, and of those who wielded them.  But like all powerful objects, the Shards cannot be used by anyone, and even those specially gifted individuals are not immune from the inevitable side effects, as we see through Juba’s narrative arc.

Wielding Poseidon’s Trident in service to Octavian – but secretly dreaming of one day mastering it and exacting his revenge on his land’s conquerors – first taxes Juba’s strength, adding to the man’s inner turmoil as he’s forced to be an instrument of destruction in his step-brother’s hands. But as time goes on and his skills improves, the Trident – and later another Shard he manages to acquire – start to transform him in a way that somehow reminded me of the corruptive powers of the One Ring: where there was only the inner conflict of a basically decent person, callousness and thirst for power take its place and threaten to transform him into what he most despises.

Only the next novel(s) in this very promising series will reveal how much these changes will affect both his personality, the course of events and the people he comes in contact with. If this first taste, with its adventurous quest after the Shards that is both epic and informative, is anything to judge the next installments by, I will welcome them with eagerness.

My Rating: