Monday, April 22, 2013

Long Live the Queen

Queen of Kings

by Maria Dahvana Headley

Published by Dutton Adult

5 Out of 5 Stars

Despite the fact that it combines two of my favorite obsessions--vampires and Ancient Rome/Egypt circa the lifetime of Cleopatra--I almost didn't read this book.  I was leery that it was going to be a bodice-ripper in disguise (nothing triggers my gag reflex like the words "paranormal romance") or, worse yet, a poorly written, poorly researched historical novel with just a dash of fantasy so it could jump on the increasingly burdened Twilight bandwagon.  After weeks of circling it like a vulture over highway road kill, what finally caused me to buy it was seeing that it had Neil Gaiman's seal of approval.  I live by the "WWNGR" code (What Would Neil Gaiman Read?) and so it was done.  I'm pleased to say that the book exceeded my expectations and avoided all of the pitfalls I feared.

In Queen of Kings, Headley has taken a unique approach to reimagining the death of Cleopatra.  I was surprised to find that this isn't exactly a vampire novel and it certainly isn't a rip-off of Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned.  After losing the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra becomes desperate to stop Octavius's impending conquest of Egypt.  She commands her scholars to search for a solution in the form of divine intervention.  What they bring her is an incomplete spell that will allow the pharaoh to call upon the gods of Ancient Egypt.  As the forces of Octavius invade Egypt and a dying Mark Antony is brought to Cleopatra, she uses the spell to call upon Sekhmet, a vengeful goddess of warfare also known as the Lady of Slaughter.  Sekhmet, angry over Egypt's worship of new deities as well as Ra's banishment of her, takes over the body of Cleopatra in return for bringing Mark Antony back to life.  Things go awry, Mark Antony still ends up dead, and Cleopatra is now a servant to Sekhmet's bloodlust.  Now immortal and possessing the powers of a goddess, Cleopatra has all of the weapons needed to wreak havoc on Rome and punish Octavius.  However, she struggles to maintain her humanity as the goddess within her begins to crowd out the woman she was.

The first part of the novel skillfully weaves together historical detail with parts of the vampire mythos (the reasons for why Cleopatra craves blood, can't withstand the light of the sun, and is pained by exposure to silver are all cleverly tied to Egyptian mythology).  After that point, the novel becomes increasingly fantasy based but still manages to bring events back to historical correctness.  As Octavius begins to fear Cleopatra's vengeance, he surrounds himself with sorcerers:  an African tribesman with a gift for controlling serpents and the wind, a Norse seer with the ability to reweave fate, and a high priestess of Hecate who plans to harness the power of Cleopatra/Sekhmet to free Hecate from her imprisonment in Hades.  All of these characters bring a fascinating array of possibilities to the story and, through them, Mark Antony's ghost is resurrected, gods and goddesses are called upon, and we are taken through Hades.

There are flaws in the novel.  Another reviewer said that there's not enough violence given the elements at play here and I agree; Cleopatra often talks a lot of smack about punishing her enemies in cruel and horrible ways consistent with Sekhmet, but, to quote Shakespeare's Antony, she never truly cries "Havoc!  And let slip the dogs of war that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial."  There is violence, but it's watered down and certainly not of the kind one would expect as being the right of ancient gods and goddesses, emperors and pharaohs.  Also, it seems as though Headley doesn't want Cleopatra to come across as a villain or a monster, highlighting her true love for Antony, her children, and her country.  While I respect the attempt to show Cleopatra's humanity, there's little in this character to suggest the kind of ruthless intelligence she was capable of or her hubris as a goddess on earth.  It would have been nice to see Cleopatra given more of an edge--she and Sekhmet probably had more in common than is shown here.
In the end, the novel is a fun take on historical events that are as likely fictionalized as the novel itself.  The first part of a planned trilogy, I'm definitely looking forward to the next novel.  I hope I'm not wrong when I say it seems as though perhaps Headley has set the novel up to move out of the ancient period and into more modern times--perhaps a vampiric Cleopatra causing mayhem in 2011?  I'm definitely game for that. 

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