FORMAT/INFO: Queen of Kings is 416 pages long divided over a Prologue, Epilogue and three Books with each Book divided into numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person via several different POVs including Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Octavian/Augustus, Nicolaus the Damascene, Chrysate, Usem, Auðr, Marcus Agrippa, the Senate, Cleopatra’s children, and various minor viewpoints. Queen of Kings is self-contained, but is the first volume in a trilogy. May 12, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Queen of Kings via Dutton. The UK edition will be published on July 21, 2011 via Bantam Press.
ANALYSIS: What if Cleopatra, one of the most famous women in history, was a vampire? That’s the basic concept behind Maria Dahvana Headley’s entertaining debut novel, Queen of Kings, which combines the historical events surrounding Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC with Greek and Egyptian mythology, resulting in a historical/fantasy/horror hybrid that brought to mind The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, Douglas Clegg’s The Vampyricon, and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Starting out, Queen of Kings is decidedly more historical than fantastical, with Octavian’s invasion of Alexandria, Marc Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra’s imprisonment and eventual suicide, the execution of Cleopatra’s son Caesarion, and other historical events taking precedence over Cleopatra’s summoning of Sekhmet, the “goddess of the end of the world,” and the new powers that Cleopatra gains. This disparity remains so for the first one hundred pages of the novel, which also happens to be the weakest part of the book. The problem with this section of Queen of Kings is twofold. One, the novel’s historical elements lack detail and authenticity, making it seem more like I was reading something off of Wikipedia instead of being transported back to Ancient Egypt. Secondly, the decision to narrate Queen of Kings through multiple point-of-views coupled with shallow characterization prevented me from connecting with or caring about any of the characters in the book.
Fortunately, once the novel starts focusing more on the fantastical than the historical — Cleopatra’s new abilities (shapeshifting, commanding animals); Sekhmet’s children (Plague, Famine, Earthquake, Flood, Drought, Madness and Violence); a journey through the Underworld in order to bargain with Hades and Persephone; the search for a weapon that can kill an immortal; the three sorcerers Marcus Agrippa finds for Augustus: Chrysate, a priestess of Hecate who can summon shades; Usem, the Chieftain of the Psylli tribe, who can control snakes and is married to the daughter of the Western Wind; Auðr, a seiðkona (fate spinner); et cetera — Queen of Kings is not only much more interesting and fun to read, but it also becomes easier to ignore the book’s deficiencies, which includes the aforementioned shallow characterization and an unconvincing love story between Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Negatively, the novel’s supernatural/mythological elements are occasionally too fantastical, which made it difficult at times to suspend my disbelief.
My biggest complaint with Queen of Kings though is with Cleopatra herself, who is not even the star of her own book. Instead, Cleopatra is overshadowed by Octavian/Augustus and numerous supporting characters like Marc Antony, Chrysate, and Marcus Agrippa. This is particularly disappointing because the author could have significantly fleshed out the love story between Cleopatra and Marc Antony and the motivations behind Cleopatra’s vengeance — important factors in the book — if she had focused more on Cleopatra instead of the supporting cast. On the plus side, Maria Dahvana Headley’s writing is smooth and accessible throughout, heavily contributing to the novel’s overall charm and readability.
CONCLUSION: Shallow characterization, unconvincing historical detail, and too much time spent with the supporting cast instead of Cleopatra may prevent Maria Dahvana Headley’s Queen of Kings from living up to its full potential, but the author’s debut novel is still primed for success thanks to an accessible writing style, a thrilling story full of heart-pounding drama and adventure, and its appealing to a wide audience — fans of historical fiction, supernatural fantasy, romance, Greek and Egyptian mythology, and horror should all take note. Plus, all of the problems that can be found in Queen of Kings are issues that can be easily corrected, meaning the sequels could be even better. For myself, Queen of Kings started out slowly after an interesting Prologue, but from the Book of Divinations through to the end of the novel, Maria Dahvana Headley’s debut was as exhilarating a thrill ride as any big budget blockbuster movie, leaving me with high expectations for the sequels.