Next to my keyboard lies the book I just finished: Queen of Kings, the debut novel from Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Year of Yes (a memoir of the year she spent saying yes to anyone who asked her out). Staring at me from the cover is a striking image of the Queen of Kings, Cleopatra, ruler of ancient Egypt.
All of you have likely heard of Cleopatra, and many of you will probably love her like I do. Hers is a story that speaks to our imagination. It is the story of a queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, loved by her people. First the mistress of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, Cleopatra later married Mark Antony, indirectly leading to a war with Rome. When Octavian—who later became Emperor Augustus—invaded Egypt and Antony’s armies deserted, Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an asp to bite her.
A different Cleopatra
But what if the story didn’t end there? What if there were more to the asp bite than history has recorded? After all, rumors say the asp was never found…
These are the questions explored in Queen of Kings. And let me tell you, the research behind the answers is absolutely extraordinary. While this is a work of alternate history, every part of the amazing story told in Queen of Kings fits within the known history of Cleopatra. This time, she wasn’t bitten by an asp. Instead, in a desperate attempt to stop Egypt’s inevitable defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra resorts to the ancient gods of Egypt. But meddling with gods is not to be done lightly. In an ultimate gamble, Cleopatra sacrifices herself to Sekhmet and is transformed into a shape-shifting vessel of a deity bent on the destruction of the world, craving the blood of mortals. And then there is Cleopatra’s own desire for revenge against Rome and its emperor.
While the idea of a shape-shifting and divine vampire might sound a bit blunt, one of Headley’s greatest talents is her subtlety. Queen of Kings isn’t your regular alternative vampire story. Sure, Cleopatra—or rather the goddess in her—has a particular craving for blood, but this is hardly the defining feat of this new and immortal Cleopatra. Instead, the attention is on her struggles with the evil deity within her. Cleopatra isn’t a killer. All she wanted was to be with Mark Antony. All she still wants is to die and join him in the afterlife, but she isn’t herself anymore. This conflict has been perfectly captured by the prose of Headley, who at times seems like a poet of old, writing a legendary tragedy the likes of which the world has never read before.
The characters beyond our beloved Cleopatra have been carefully crafted, too. Headley’s masterful subtlety shows in all her characters. It shows in Augustus, Emperor of Rome, who, in mortal terror of the undead queen haunting him, meddles with powers he knows nothing about. It shows in Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Antony, who struggles with both feelings of betrayal and loyalty towards her parents, and is left to fend for herself in a hostile world. And then we have Agrippa, loyal general of Augustus, who believes his emperor and friend is going mad, but feels obligated to stand by him nonetheless.
All of these characters and many more are thoroughly explored in a variety of viewpoints. In accordance with Headley’s prose—which seems at times very broad compared to that of other genre works—these viewpoints are explored in a way I haven’t encountered before. Firstly, a multitude of major and minor points of view, each with their own small chapter, enhances the perspective of the story, giving it a very epic feel for a book in the paranormal and alternate history genres. Secondly, the viewpoints in the more monumental scenes, like battles, tend to switch continuously. On one page, you might see a scene through three different sets of eyes. For me, this peculiar style took some getting used to, but I definitely appreciated it in the end. The multiple small chapters and varying viewpoints therein, however, reduced the pacing of Queen of Kings significantly, especially in the middle part of the story.
Mythology, folklore, paganism, legend
I have already mentioned that Queen of Kings fits nicely into the paranormal and alternate history genres. More than those, however, this is a mythological fantasy. Headley has managed to weave many different cultures together in a book that contains elements from Greek legend, Egyptian and Roman mythology, Norse paganism, and North African folklore. Egyptian and Roman gods are seemingly effortlessly combined and lend the basis for some very interesting magic abilities. In this, Queen of Kings has left me with a bit of a philosophical feeling—I found myself contemplating how different mythologies would have coexisted in the world at the time of Cleopatra.
Why should you read this book?
After being thoroughly and unexpectedly—hey, don’t blame me for staying for away from anything with vampires!—blown away by Queen of Kings, I know one thing: Headley is a master storyteller. Queen of Kings is a legend and a tragedy. It is a sexy read and a comprehensively researched book. It is at once a paranormal love story, an epic, and a fast-paced thriller. I recommend Queen of Kings to anyone who enjoys reading fantasy and loves the many myths of our past. A truly wonderful debut from an author worth keeping an eye on. Good thing this is just the first in a trilogy, too!