Wednesday 22 June 2011

Book Review | Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

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What if Cleopatra didn’t die in 30 BC alongside her beloved Mark Antony? What if she couldn’t die? What if she became... immortal?

As Octavian Caesar (later Augustus) and his legions march into Alexandria, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, summons Sekhmet, the goddess of Death and Destruction, in a desperate attempt to resurrect her husband, who has died by his own hand, and save her kingdom. But this deity demands something in return: Cleopatra's soul. Against her will, Egypt's queen becomes a blood-craving, shape-shifting immortal: a not-quite-human manifestation of a goddess who seeks to destroy the world. Battling to preserve something of her humanity, Cleopatra pursues Octavian back to Rome - she desires revenge, she yearns for her children - and she craves blood...

It is a dangerous journey she must make. She will confront witches, mythic monsters, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, and her own, warring nature. She will kill but she will also find mercy. She will raise an extraordinary army to fight her enemies, and she will see her beloved Antony again. But to save him from the endless torment of Hades, she must make a devastating sacrifice.


"Once, there was a queen of Egypt... a queen who became through magic something else." (p.219) The queen - the Queen of Kings - is Cleopatra, of course. Her from the history books. And the something else? 

Why, it's funny you should ask. Cleopatra becomes... a vampire!

Well, sure she does. Don't tell me you were thinking she'd get her mummy on. Imagine: a cinnamon-scented corpse, swathed in toilet paper and slowly crisping. That's just not very sexy, now is it? And Maria Dahvana Headley's second novel after The Year of Yes is very sexy. It is also - and this last might surprise - superb. Spellbinding, even.

In its first phase, the events of Queen of Kings go much as records suggest. Around 30 years before Christ arrived to put a spanner in the works the world over, Cleopatra is ruler of an Egypt under siege by the mean old Romans, led by Octavian (later Augustus) Caesar himself. When she loses her beloved, Marc Antony, Cleopatra can bear life no longer, and commits ritual suicide, inducing an asp - or a cobra - to bite her breast... or somewhere else.

Here, needless to say, the historical accounts begin to differ. And here, too, is where Queen of Kings diverges from the facts, such as they are, of Cleopatra's rise and subsequent fall, for in Headley's novel - apparently the first in an epoch-spanning saga - the queen of Egypt does not die at all. Instead, tormented by the loss of her one true love, or else - depending on who you ask - "broken by her hunger for power, and by her desire to be the queen of more than her own country," (p.241) she summons the goddess Sekhmet, who rises from Hades to inhabit her.

What follows, as Cleopatra comes to terms with an unspeakable lust for blood, and the state of her soul if soul she still has, is a supremely satisfying hybrid of historical fiction and dark, deeply sensual fantasy sure to seduce all comers this Summer. Possessed of a hunger for vengeance only inflamed by the insatiable wrath of the warrior goddess in her heart, Cleopatra is become a "tear in the tapestry of the fates" (p.293) which in Octavian's pitiful wake rends a bloody swathe across Egypt, then through Rome, and thereafter... the world.

"With every move, she lacerated skin and wounded innocent victims, without conscience, without care. Nowhere in the stories, nowhere in the histories, was there anything comparable." (p.272)

Well, perhaps not in the stories of Cleopatra's era, or the histories, but in ours, there are comparable narratives to that set out in Queen of Kings, and no shortage thereof; see the hot vampire heroine of any one of a vast selection of contemporary paranormal romances seducing her way to victory or vengeance.

However, Headley's novel is not so straightforward, nor so single-minded. For one thing, the reader is not always in Cleopatra's pocket as Queen of Kings powers on, ever onward: though she is certainly the star of the show - her perspective is paramount - from the outset we also watch the legendary Egyptian from eyes other than her own. We are with Antony when Octavian sends a false messenger to cheat the Roman's fate, and with the weaksauce Caesar when he discovers, to his horror, her tomb empty and despoiled. When a terrible Cleopatra comes a-calling to collect on Octavian's mortal debt, our point of view is with him and the three witches he has enlisted in his defence, as much or more than it is with the resurrected queen.

Some advance reviews have criticised Queen of Kings for its variety of perspectives. I would counter that without them - if Headley had us spend the whole novel in Cleopatra's company - there would be no moral ambiguity to her, no mystery, as there is: only wickedness. Without Octavian and Antony, the queen's daughter Seline and the scholar Nicolaus, we would know Cleopatra, when in practice her unknowableness is among her most effective character traits.

So too does the author treat Cleopatra's curse with more delicacy than I'd anticipated. Her affliction is rather more complex than simply: she's a sexy vampire, so there. Instead, she is a creature "dead and yet not dead," (p.103) violated by her own hand and robbed of children she never cared much for in the first place. Though I'm afraid she does, in what is surely Queen of Kings' weakest section, go through the usual vampire rigmarole, wherein "She must learn what she was. She must understand how to control [her power]. She could not afford to surrender completely, to lose herself in the hunger and fury." (p.128) That done - or not; I ain't saying - Queen of Kings pounces on towards its denouement, and I for one was with it all the way to the bitter end.

There are moments in Queen of Kings where it seems situations are complicated for the sake of complicating situations, and a few broad strokes where the characterisation does suffer, but this is fantasy with a swish of alt. history, and as such, it astonishes. As one of the witches - Chrysate - admits, "beauty was a tremendous part of her currency," (p.310) and much the same could and should be said for Maria Dahvana Headley's genre debut. It is well structured, wonderfully judged and lavishly crafted.

Queen of Kings is, in short, a much better and more beautiful book than perhaps it sounds. Read it. Weep, even.


Queen of Kings
by Maria Dahvana Headley

UK Publication: July 2011, Bantam Press
US Publication: May 2011, Dutton Adult

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