Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley
Released May 12, 2011, by Dutton Adult
Queen of Kings, by Maria Dahvana Headley, has all the elements needed for a thrilling alternate history and supernatural novel: immortal love, dark goddesses, witchcraft, intrigues, and larger-than-life characters. Cleopatra – Mark Antony – Caesar Augustus – the daughter of the West Wind. The action sequences captivate. As the plot unfolds, one thinks it might all have happened that way.
There are few hard facts to support any story told about Cleopatra, Antony, and Augustus. Headley points out in her Historical Note that victors write histories, and much of these in particular is conjecture, leaving a lot of room for truth to get lost and writers to fill in blanks. As the novel unfolds, the reader hears wheels of what-if turning in Headley’s mind. What if Cleopatra didn’t commit suicide with the bite of an asp? Supposedly, the asp wasn’t found. What if the bite marks on her body came from a completely different source, inflicted for a purpose that had nothing to do with suicide? Where does all this take us?
The questions Headley must have asked herself draw the reader from Alexandria to Rome. Settings come alive with details. The cast expands to include other historical characters, such as Augustus’s long-suffering general, Marcus Agrippa; Nicolaus the Damascene, historian and tutor to Cleopatra’s children; and the children, Caesarion (Julius Caesar’s son in a basically walk-on part), Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, twins, and Ptolemy Philadelphus.
The more interesting, though less layered, characters include the witches: Chrysate of Thessaly, who works to free her goddess, Hecate, from Hades; Auŏr, the spinner of fates; and Usem, chieftain of the Psylli tribe, master of snakes and husband to the daughter of the West Wind. In spite of the ban against witchcraft in Rome, Augustus brings these three into his household as protection against what Cleopatra has become and the vengeance she seeks against him for Mark Antony’s death.
Everyone plays his part to the hilt. Conspiracies and conflicts arise on every page, within and among the characters. Headley spaces her major action sequences wisely, for the most part, though pacing and character development is uneven. At times interior monologues meant to reveal motivation and growth slow the progress of the story. For example, the book begins with too much hand wringing and pining after Antony. Some of the scenes are over-written, if not overwrought, and there are a few too many subplots.
And this novel is really, really hard on the children. For all her professions of love and longing for them, Cleopatra pretty much leaves them to their fates. Granted, the goddess Sekhmet has turned her into a kind of vampire-cobra on steroids, and the goddess cares nothing for Caesarion, Selene, Helios, or Philadelphus, but with all Cleopatra’s power, I couldn’t help thinking she should have spent more energy and ingenuity on saving them.
Clearly, the author reveled in her story and proves inventive at filling in the gaps of history. As a character torn by treacherous fate, lost love, and the nature of some very bad bargains, Cleopatra is sympathetic, if not always likable. Augustus is neither. I sometimes wondered what kept Agrippa from pitching his worm-emperor off a balcony and blaming Cleopatra—so simple. It may not have solved much, but, oh, the gratification!
Overall, I enjoyed this novel and recommend it to lovers of historical and supernatural genres.