The Gates of Hell

Written by Michael Livingston

There is certainly much to commend in this alternate history/fantasy series where Livingston imagines how the presence of divine artifacts of power, fragments fallen to earth after the Throne of Heaven was shattered eons ago, might affect the empire of Augustan Rome. The first novel, The Shards of Heaven, set in 32 B.C.E., introduced the young heirs to the Caesar and Ptolemy dynasties in the last century before the Common Era: Selene, the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, Juba, a Numidian Prince adopted, alongside Octavian, by Julius Caesar, and Caesarion, Selene’s half-brother, the natural son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. In that volume, which narrated the disastrous war between Octavian and Mark Antony, the multiple points of view belonged to the young people and also to their loyal Centurion guards, Vorenus and Pullo. Yes, that Vorenus and Pullo, the protagonists of HBO’s series Rome, who were based on historical figures briefly mentioned in Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. In Livingston’s series, they are considerably softened, but essentially the same duo.

In the second installment, the focus mostly narrows to Vorenus and Selene, both guardians of separate Shards and enemies of Octavian, now Emperor Augustus. They grapple with the moral implications of the apocalyptic power of the shards, but Livingston falls into the habit of having his characters narrate a little too simply (and in American slang, which will annoy some readers) their mixed feelings about fate, vengeance, and loyalty.

The plot moves at a breakneck, even cinematic speed, and relies heavily on coincidence and outlandishly narrow escapes. However, Livingston’s command of the sweeping details of Imperial Roman history and geography is confident enough to support the supernatural additions. And if a character introduced in the epilogue is who she appears to be, then Livingston’s plan for the next novel is ambitious indeed.