Cover-up: The Shards of Heaven

My last post talked about the appearance of The Shards of Heaven on Amazon, including the public release of its cover.

Shards of Heaven

Shards of Heaven

What I’d like to do today is talk a bit more about how that gorgeous cover came to be.

Last year, when I signed a contract with Tor Books for my series Shards of Heaven, one of the many questions I pondered was what they would do with the cover. The front of a book can sometimes make or break a book, after all. And of course I had a vague picture in my mind of what it might look like. A few years earlier I had actually spent a lunch break making a mock-up (or perhaps a mockery) of that vision, which was this:

A "cover" I made for Shards back in the day.

A “cover” I made for Shards back in the day.

It’s important to note that my contract with Tor gives me very little say in the matter of art, and as you compare this image and the actual cover you can see why: Tor has professional art directors and marketers for a reason!

At the same time, I do like to be involved in the process of things, if for no other reason than because I like to know how things work. So I was really pleased when my then-editor at Tor, Paul Stevens, began conversations with me about what I felt the cover might look like. I sent him the above image along with a note begging him not to use it as any kind of model but instead to use it just to get a rough sense of my head-space on the matter.

Thankfully, it was clear from those early conversations that we were of one mind. Shards of Heaven is a historical fantasy. The “Tor” brand would establish the fantasy half of that identity, so the cover ought to establish the history half. Because of their success and our mutual appreciation of them, Paul and I circled around the covers of Bernard Cornwell’s novels. Then, in early September he sent the following email to Irene Gallo, Tor’s phenomenal art director (all materials quoted by permission):

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston is a historical fantasy. The fantasy elements are rather light, so we’ll want this to look pretty much like a straight-forward historical.

It’s the first of three books, so we’ll want a style that will carry over to future books.

I really like the look of Bernard Cornwell’s historicals, even though the time period is incorrect for the books we’re doing. A few examples are attached. Livingston’s favorite is 1356.

Here are a few suggestions from the author of elements that could be used on the cover:

“There’s just a lot of imagery here to play with: bright hieroglyphics on Egyptian stone, blood on Roman steel, triremes crashing in a storm, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, Alexander in his crystal tomb.

“The book is set from 32 to 30 BC. Octavian, Juba, Cleopatra, Mark Anthony are all characters. Major events in the book: The fall of Alexandria and the Battle of Actium.”

A few weeks later, Irene wrote back asking whether there was “anything special” that they ought to know if they wanted to show a close-up of a Roman soldier or Roman armor. Given my love of that Cornwell cover shown above, you can imagine that I got all a-flutter and immediately blocked out a couple hours to write a very lengthy email about the matter:

Irene asks a very interesting question, as it happens. For obvious reasons, I think if you’re going to depict someone in armor, it ought to be Pullo or Vorenus. What follows might be more information than any of you want, but ….

Historically, both men were centurions in Julius Caesar’s legions. What happened to them after that is, as far as I know, essentially unknown.

As I’ve portrayed them, they have become members of Legio VI Ferrata (‘Sixth Legion: the Ironclad’) under Mark Antony. More than that, they are in close counsel with Antony and ultimately the royal family of Egypt — which is admittedly abnormal given that they were not of particularly noble status. Technically, then, they probably could not have ranked higher than centurions even in their later years. At the same time, it seems likely that their long role in the court of Egypt would have shown in some way on their armor.

I would suggest, therefore, that the armor be Roman centurion armor of a standard leather-and-mail type

I provided then a number of images, both historical and reconstructed, of Roman centurion armor from the end of the Roman Republic, like this:

Roman Armor

It was a loooong email. (Sorry about that, Irene!)

I focused particularly on the metal medallions that a centurion would have worn on his chest. These are called phalerae, and they are medals of commendation that speak to where the officer had served and what he had done. I made a number of suggestions for medallions that might be found on the armor of one of my characters: the portrait of Alexander the Great, an image of Horus, an ankh, the image of Serapis, or — and this I thought would be really cool — an image based on a coin that Mark Antony created for his Sixth Legion before the Battle of Actium:

Coin of Antony’s Sixth Legion.

Lastly, I emphasized to Paul that if Roman armor was on the cover — which I thought was a great idea — then I didn’t want the armor to be shiny. I wanted it to be lived in. Worn. Stained. Roughed up.

Irene took all this information and then hired the perfect artist to execute the accumulated vision: Larry Rostant.

I know Larry’s work well — he does the covers for both George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories — and the fact that he was tapped to create this cover just floors me.

What floors me even more?

The image Larry created. Just look at it again:

Shards of Heaven

Shards of Heaven

It’s all there, isn’t it? The feel of Cornwell’s historical novels, the “lived in” armor (look closely, there’s stains!), the font styling for my name that matches what little “brand” I have (see my header?), and the phalerae … oh, the phalerae! … there’s the head of Horus, an ankh, an Alexander, and — it’s swoon-worthy — even that image from that coin I referenced.

Is it perfectly historically accurate? No. Is it perfectly fictionally accurate? Yes indeed.

And by whatever gods you believe in, it’s beautiful.

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