Sunday, 2 October 2011

Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley

What if Cleopatra didn’t die in 30 BC alongside her beloved Mark Antony? What if she couldn’t die? What if she became immortal? Queen of Kings is the first instalment in an epic, epoch-spanning story of one woman’s clash with the Roman Empire and the gods of Egypt in a quest to save everything she holds dear.

As Octavian Caesar (later Augustus) and his legions march into Alexandria, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, summons Sekhmet, the goddess of Death and Destruction, in a desperate attempt to resurrect her husband, who has died by his own hand, and save her kingdom. But this deity demands something in return: Cleopatra's soul. Against her will, Egypt's queen becomes a blood-craving, shape-shifting immortal: a not-quite-human manifestation of a goddess who seeks to destroy the world. Battling to preserve something of her humanity, Cleopatra pursues Octavian back to Rome - she desires revenge, she yearns for her children - and she craves blood...

It is a dangerous journey she must make. She will confront witches, mythic monsters, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, and her own, warring nature. She will kill but she will also find mercy. She will raise an extraordinary army to fight her enemies, and she will see her beloved Antony again. But to save him from the endless torment of Hades, she must make a devastating sacrifice.

Queen of Kings, by Maria Dahvana Headley, should have been a book that I adored. It has a fantastic premise; it involves one of the strongest female characters from history; it has both Egyptian and Roman flavour (some of my favourite periods of history); and it includes a cover quote from Neil Gaiman. I should have been proclaiming my love of this book from the rooftops - and yet...

I liked it, but didn't love it. Headley's prose is dark and elegant, and her imagination is vivid. The tale comes across very much as an historical epic such as The Odyssey or The Iliad. It is fantastical and gripping in many ways, but at times I found myself turning the pages only because I had read so far and ought to at least finish, which is not what I envisaged when I started Queen of Kings.

Despite the fact that Queen of Kings is deemed to be meticulously researched, I found that Headley didn't imbue her writing with a true feeling of the time period. Egypt could be exchanged wholesale for Rome, with no issues. I didn't see any of the colour and attitude of the Egyptian people. Certain historical facts seemed to be thrown in just because Headley had discovered it, not because it fit that particular scene. I especially disliked a couple of situations where characters told other characters myths and legends that were incredibly dry and felt as though they'd been taken from Mythology 101.

Added to this, I completely failed to engage with Cleopatra as a character. Now, this is a Queen who ruled at a time when women were deemed only fit for childbearing. She seduced famous generals of the time. She was romantically associated with two of THE most famous Roman personalities: Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. This is a woman who doesn't need any real dressing up to be fabulous and interesting and someone who should leap from the page. Unfortunately, Cleopatra in Queen of Kings is relatively lifeless (and I don't intend any pun there...) I couldn't understand her motivations at all - at one point she seems entirely focused on Mark Antony, then suddenly her children are what she is concerned about.

Like I say, Headley's writing is very skillful and hence I'm sure there are others who will adore this dark fantasy about Cleopatra - in fact, this review details many of the plus points from another reviewer's point of view. For me, the characterisation of this famous queen was lacklustre and I didn't "feel" the historical aspect. If you have any interest in Ancient Egypt, then do yourself a favour - pick up River God by Wilbur Smith and avoid Queen of Kings.


  1. Aww damn - when I read Sekhmet I was geared up to read through this, but maybe not. I'll flirt with a sample on Kindle and see how it goes. Thanks for the review :)

  2. I have an award awaiting for you

  3. Lifeless! You monster. :)

    A sample I think is the way to go, Jamie. It'll not be for everyone, this book. I hadn't thought it would be for me, even, despite the Neil Gaiman blurbage, but I for one had a hell of a time with it.

    Ta for the link, Amanda. And congrats on passing the 300,000 hits mark. Them's some big numbers!

  4. You do a fantastic job of detailing precisely WHY you find a novel lacking. Well done.