Saturday, July 23, 2011
Pages: 401 (hardcover)
Published: 2011 by Dutton Adult
Recommended for: fans of both horror and historical fiction
Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt is poised to lose her country to Roman forces and their Emperor, Octavian, the man who will become Augustus Caesar. Her lover Mark Antony is said to have died by his own blade and even the citizens of Egypt flock to prostrate themselves before the conquering Romans. This is the part where Cleopatra locks herself in her palace, dresses to the nines in her most royal and fabulous gown, and commits dignified suicide via the bite of a poisonous asp alongside her handmaidens. Only, that's not what happens.
In this supernatural alternate history, Cleopatra is devastated by Antony's death and determined to defeat the invading Romans once and for all. She consults a scholar of the Egyptian religious texts and implements one of the oldest in order to summon up a goddess who is ancient even during ancient times: Sekhmet, the lioness goddess of destruction who long ago led a plague through the streets of Egypt. Cleopatra means to resurrect Antony, but she is reckless in her invocations-- something goes awry, and Cleopatra unknowingly offers Sekhmet a terrible boon in return for her power... the mortal body of Queen Cleopatra herself. Cleopatra, possessed by the ancient, blood-seeking evil that is Sekhmet, leaves her fabled tomb and embarks on a journey to Rome to hunt down Octavian and her captured royal children, a journey unbeknownst to those who recorded history. A journey marked by a telling trail of blood and a terrible black power even Cleopatra of Egypt can hardly hope to expel from her body.
This book seemed like a dream come true when I first stumbled upon it. A cleverly crafted combination of historical Egypt and Rome, layered with dark fantasy and little-known mythology, lingering horror and war all in the name of one of history's greatest and most tragic loves. The first 100 pages are considerably slow and somewhat disorienting as far as the passage of time-- rapid one second, suspended in slow-motion the next. Towards the middle of the book, the story picks up as Cleopatra arrives in Rome and starts searching for ways to exact her revenge and seek out her lost lover in the Underworld. The third-person narrative skips around through brief chapters which reel you in a little farther with each new development, and so the wade through the first part of the book is definitely worth it.
For me, it was one of those books where it's difficult to pick a side in the conflict. This made reading it a bit more like watching a train wreck unfold, albeit a beautifully written, marvelously researched train wreck. I just didn't feel compelled to like one character or another, even Cleopatra. Her being possessed by Sekhmet took away a lot of the strength and swaying charisma which I associate with her. Octavian alias Augustus Caesar wins the award for most entrancing character, simply because I actually got a feel for what he was about-- his cleverness, Roman arrogance, love for his people, and even that secret longing for Cleopatra which has been guessed at in other historical fiction featuring the two of them. The subplots became wayy too many, though, and that was probably my main issue with the book. Queen of Kings's best points are its incredible descriptive writing and the way the different histories of each character are tied together so beautifully and astonishingly accurately, especially for a fantasy whose premise is that Cleopatra escaped her own suicide and became possessed by the vampiric Egyptian goddess of destruction. It is very much a page-turner once you wade through the first quarter of the book and overall a delightfully dark and surprising tale which I don't think readers will likely ever forget. The ending... I have no words, for I will give nothing away. But I liked it. A lot.