Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

Queen of Kings is a rather campy, sometimes overly melodramatic and at times keenly mythological novel; part romance, part horror, part fantasy and part historical thriller. Quiet frankly it is a bit of a mess. But I was interested in how the author would handle the historical and mythological aspects and thought it might make an entertaining read.

It did – sorta.

Basic Plot (short version): Cleopatra in death reborn as world threatening vampire.

Basic Plot (longer version): As the Romans prepare to conquer Egypt, and trick her husband Marc Antony into suicide, Cleopatra desperately seeks the help of an ancient goddess. But insted of simply adding a powerful ally to her side she inadvertently unleashes a monster she can’t control, loses her soul and turns a traditional war into a supernatural one.

Sounds interesting, no?

The book gets off to something of a slow start as we are introduced to Cleopatra and the cast of characters: The Roman Emperor Octavian (Augustus); Marcus Agrippa – general and friend of the emperor; former Roman general and husband to the queen Marc Antony, Nicolaus the Damascene – historian and tutor to the queen’s children, etc.

What makes the book awkward at times is its position between literary and genre fiction. Without getting into that age old debate, the book doesn’t seem sure which conventions it wants to utilize. This type of genre-bending, and mixing of history and fantasy, can be well done, and entertaining, but it takes some skill not to have it turn out choppy and confusing. Headly holds it together in stretches but it has fits and starts where things are less than smooth.

She wants to both tell an epic tale and a thriller all while describing things in detail and exploring the internal worlds of her characters. This is a lot too take on in one book.

There is a long section which basically sets up the battle that underlies the entire story: Octavian’s paranoia about Cleopatra and his resulting gathering of witches and warriors and Cleopatra’s search for vengeance.

This section drags in spots but the action really picks up once Octavian has his supernatural allies and Cleopatra beings to hunt him in Rome. What slows the story down in the middle section is the complexity of the plot and the multiplicity of characters. Headly clearly wanted to jam in as much mythology and characters/subplots as she could. Some are clever and interesting while others seem less so.

Once all the characters have been in a sense brought on stage and their mythological background told and motives explored the last battle is ready to start. And it is quite the battle!

This is one of those books that is hard to get a handle on.  In many ways all this messiness really got in the way of what is a good story. And at times you are asking yourself: where is all of this going? And the sort of Gothic romance aspect frequently seemed corny.  But despite all of this there is just enough interesting myth and action to make it entertaining.

If you are interested in mythology played out in fantasy, or like stories that blend styles and genres, this would make for good beach reading this summer.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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