Queen of Kings: A historical/fantasy/horror hybrid

fantasy book reviews Maria Dahvana Headley Queen of Kings“Queen of Kings” by Maria Dahvana HeadleyQueen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

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 ceteraQueen 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.


SHARE:  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr

ROBERT THOMPSON is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

View all posts by Robert Thompson (retired)

7 comments

  1. I might like to read this in a few months, but I just finished Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra, and she made the character so vivid that this fades in comparison.

  2. I want to read this too. I have a long-time soft spot for Margaret George’s novel about her–historical fiction, but with just enough mythological stuff to tickle my fantasy brain–and Jo Graham’s book about her handmaiden.

  3. Stacy Schiff’s biography sounds like something Kat might want to check out :) Kelly, I can send you the ARC I have if you want?

  4. You are right, Robert.

    And I’ve read that book by Margaret George. It is my one of my very favorite historical fictions.

  5. For a really intense experience, reread Memoirs of Cleopatra and follow it up with The Light Bearer, which I know you also like. The first time I read them, it was in pretty rapid succession – George is pretty close to Gillespie on the library shelf! – and together they hit like a ton of bricks. I was so indignant (at the emperor in the story, not at Gillespie) when that Antony/Cleopatra angle came up in the gladiatorial games!

  6. “bricks” almost literally — as I recall, those were big books! Yes, I loved The Lightbearer, too. I thought there was supposed to be a sequel, but I’m not sure if she ever wrote it. Not that it needed one.

  7. There is one sequel–Lady of the Light–and there is supposed to be another one at some point. Light Bearer had a satisfactory ending, but LotL has a cliffhanger, so you might want to wait till the third one comes out (whenever that may be).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>