SHARDS OF HEAVEN by Michael Livingston and PAPER GIRLS by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang are both set int he past, one in ancient Rome as Octavian rises to power, one in the 1980s. They both faces challenges setting a story in the past, but while Vaughn brings it off, Livingston doesn’t.
Shards is a “what really happened in history” saga set during Octavian’s war against Antony and Cleopatra. When Octavian’s Numidian foster brother discovers the Trident of Poseidon, its power to command water guarantees victory in the battle. Beyond that, if they can unearth the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant from the Library of Alexandria, they’ll be able to wield power absolute on behalf of Rome.
My big problem was that the characters all felt contemporary to me. Cleopatra’s son, for example, is a major player. He’s the heir to Egypt’s rule, worshipped as a living god, revered by his people something I’d expect Egyptian royalty of that era to treat normally. But no, he’s written more like a modern celebrity uncomfortable with his sudden fame, more a president’s son than a future monarch. I didn’t buy it.
It’s more pronounced in the scene where a Jewish scholar reveals that artifacts such as the Trident and the Ark are literally shards of god,: to save us from a mechanistic universe, God had to die, and bits of his body fell to Earth, charged with power. The Trident is the same magical talisman as the staff of Moses and all gods — Yahweh, Olympian, Egyptian, Christian — are the same one deity.
That’s a pretty shocking set of revelations; even today being presented as fact would throw a lot of people for a loop. Livingston’s cast? They’re fine with it. They don’t come across like believers of 2,000 years ago, they sound more like the secular scientists of The Seventh Plague discovering the biological cause of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. I just couldn’t believe in them. Particularly the Jewish guy; even given that he already knows this stuff, the knowledge Yahweh and enemy gods such as Moloch and Baal are the same deity ought to have been shattering.
In PAPER GIRLS Vol. 1, the challenge is one I’m dealing with in Southern Discomfort, filling in background detail of the recent past. As someone who was in his twenties during the 1980s, I think Vaughn does a great job.
Much like Max Alan Collins in First Quarry, Vaughn tosses off period references without any context, apparently confident his readers will get it. This does make me curious: are the readers all people old enough to remember the 1980s? If not, do the references throw them?
The references are perfectly appropriate for the time, but some of them are particularly obscure. The 1980s War of the Worlds TV series. Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign. The latter, in fact, isn’t really tossed off, one of the protagonists’ moms refers to him as bringing on the Rapture by seeking political support from gays (or so I interpret her reference to “those people.”). It works for me because I remember Dukakis’ campaign, but millenials?
So am I wrong that when making these kind of references I should be as be unobtrusive and understandable as possible? In which case great, that will help if some of my 1970s references are too obscure. Or is it some other factor I haven’t thought of (not so great for me, probably). Either way, the series clearly works, so I guess Vaughn’s pulling the references off.
Cover by Cliff Chiang, all rights remain with current holder. #SFWApro