Saturday, July 23, 2011

Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Genre: historical fantasy
Pages: 401 (hardcover)
Published: 2011 by Dutton Adult
Recommended for: fans of both horror and historical fiction

My Take:

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.    

Cover: 5/5
Premise: 5/5
Plot: 3/5
Characters: 3/5


Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

This sounds amazing!

Maria Behar said...

As you know, I don't like the horror genre at all, so I won't be picking up this book. I especially dislike the part about Cleopatra being possessed by a destroying goddess. That turns me off completely.

The reason I'm posting, though, is that I have to commend you on your very thorough, beautifully-written review! I LOVE the way you analyze books without giving away the plot. Kudos to you for that!

Also, I do think that this writer's alternate version of history is quite inventive, if horrible...(shudders!) It sure sounds like something I would enjoy reading, were it not for the possession aspect of the story. From your description of the book, it also looks like the time period has been very well researched. I happen to love anything related to the ancient Egyptians, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Four years ago, I was priviliged to attend the Tutankhamen exhibit that came to Fort Lauderdale -- that's a city located several miles north of Miami, Florida, USA, which is where I live. (This is a helpful note for your international readers.)

OMG!! The exhibit was fascinating!! Of course, I bought the aocompanying book, which I got on Amazon for about $12.95, plus S/H charges. The one they were selling at the Fort Lsuderdale Museum was going for %50.00 plus tax!

BTW, have you ever heard of Elizabeth Peters? She's supposed to be an EXCELLENT writer! I've been meaning to read her books myself. They're mysteries, and all take place in Egypt, and have to do with Egyptian artifacts. Here's the Amazon link, if you're interested:

Happy reading!! : )

Kat said...

@Maria-- I haven't read anything by Elizabeth Peters... but her books look very intriguing! Mysteries set in Ancient Egypt have never disappointed me yet. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

You are so lucky to have seen the Tutankhamen exhibit! I love Egyptian history, too. The historical details in the book were uncannily close. I ended up leaving this out of my review, but one thing which inspired the idea of Cleopatra being possessed is an hieroglyphic image of her and her son Caesarion. Egyptian royalty were always represented with little miniatures of themselves-- kas, or their souls. In this image, her son's ka was present, but Cleopatra's soul was mysteriously absent... creepy!

Maria Behar said...

You're right -- that IS creepy! I wonder why they left her ka out? A historical mystery...I think I need to investigate some between blog posts, I guess! No, but seriously, Egypt and everything Eghptian is so mysteriously tantalizing...

Lisa (starmetal_oak) said...

I'm glad you say it picks up after the firs quarter because I'm on page 30-something right now and I'm finding it really slow and somewhat confusing.

I'll stick with for a while to see how this turns out.

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