Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Queen of Kings

by Maria Dahvana Headley


Cleopatra already has a kind of immortality. As the queen who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and poisoned herself with an asp rather than accept defeat and a life without Antony, her life was one of splendour, danger and intrigue in equal measure. With all that potential for a good story, turning Cleo into an immortal monster seems a tad greedy.

When the mortal queen Cleopatra summons Sekhmet, a bloodthirsty ancient Egyptian goddess, she's always going to get the worst part of any bargain she enters into. Cleopatra was desperate to save her lover, and willing to give her soul in exchange. But when things went wrong she turns her attention to taking revenge on Rome and the emperor Octavian, who she blames for Antony's death. Octavian also has her children in his custody, and she's afraid of what he will do to them. Meanwhile Sekhmet plans to use Cleopatra to fill the world with blood and to destroy mankind.

The former queen wanders the ancient world with the powers of a goddess and Sekhmet's unnatural cravings. But she fears that she'll lose herself to hate as she turns into something her own family wouldn't recognise.

Octavian isn't without his defences. He has the Roman army, led by Agrippa, but as well as that he enlists the help of three sorcerers. There's an old woman from the north who spins people's fates with a distaff. There's Usem, a member of the Psylli tribe, with the power of the wind at his disposal. Then there's Chrysate, a lovely-looking priestess of Hecate who is barely more human than Cleopatra. Between them Octavian hopes they can defeat the monstrous Cleopatra. But they are divided by different agendas, and the paranoid and weak Octavian doesn't know who he can trust.

The story mixes the magic of Egyptian and Roman legends with meticulously researched history. The pages sparkle with the beauty of palaces and royal barges, with crocodiles, lamias, hydras, serpents, animal-headed gods and ancient cults. But we're not bogged down in the detail of all this research: the chapters are quite short, yet at a certain point in the middle it seems as though every single one of them ends in a cliffhanger. The writing is dark and luxurious and terrifying, but above all it's incredibly taut.

Although Cleopatra's children are mortal and vulnerable she's very hard to hurt physically. Since she's so strong a story told entirely from her point of view might lose tension. The author gets around this by recounting events from multiple points of view, sometimes even swapping over several times within the same chapter. This makes the novel more dramatic, but it's unclear who we're meant to sympathise with, or whose story this really is.

It's a little easier to tease out what Queen of Kings is all about. There are recurring themes of sacrifice, immortality and children, and parents who don't care enough about their offspring. One of the most sympathetic characters does everything for the benefit of kin, for instance. There's also a lot about rule and slavery. The former queen is reduced to the status of a slave or worse, and she struggles under the yoke of Sekhmet's irresistible control.

Although there isn't much sex this story swirls with passion and magic, riches and violence. It's written from the most dramatic perspectives and whilst this can be dizzying it's also intriguing.

11th July 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books


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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson