Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley is based on a fascinating idea: What if queen Cleopatra did not die? What if she used ancient Egyptian magic to become part goddess, part vampire, part monster, and wreak vengeance upon her enemies? The cover and the description of the book sold me for sure, as I’m incredibly interested in Cleopatra’s story, and the ancient world in general. Fantasy mixed with history is a potent combination if done well, and Headley created a really intoxicating novel.
I enjoyed reading Queen of Kings and finished quickly, as it’s written like a thriller for the most part, with short, punchy chapters that pull you in and force you to keep reading. I found the writing to be quite good, though as a writer and editor myself, I could tell this was the author’s first novel sometimes. A little awkwardness crept into the prose on a few occasions, which was usually brilliant.
Headley chose to use the third person omniscient point of view, which is fraught with danger, and for the most part the author did a very good job with it. However, when you use that point of view, you generally sacrifice something as many of the other reviews of this book have pointed out. In this case, it was sympathy toward the major characters. The point of view shifted so often that it was difficult to really identify or get into any one character’s head and empathize with them. The Roman emperor, Augustus (Octavian), seemed to have the most page time, and I found him to be much different than I had imagined. I thought he was a very intelligent and strategic man in real life, but he was portrayed as a bumbling villain, rather than an astute politician.
Cleopatra herself was the most sympathetic, as was Mark Antony, but they did not have as much page time as I would have liked. The early parts of the book were probably my favorite, though the string of convenient coincidences bothered me a little, but fate was being manipulated the whole time by the gods, so I can forgive that. This is a big story that covers a huge amount of ground. Summarizing large events and time periods is good with the third person point of view, and to tell this story the author had to go in that direction.
I’m really interested in what happens next, and really enjoyed how the author used historical events and her own inspired imaginings to weave this fascinating tale. I loved reading about the witches that Octavian and General Marcus Agrippa recruited to fight Cleopatra: the Norse weaver of fate, the Greek witch who manipulated ghosts, and Usem, from the African tribe of the Psylli, who had power over the wind and snakes. Usem was married to the Western Wind, and she an awesome character as well.
Overall, this book is filled with unexpected and wild imagining, and you have to just buy into the crazy plot and not think too much about the decisions of the main characters. Most of the old myths read just like this novel, and the author was giving a lot of nods to the legendary stories of old, which don’t make a lot of sense if you look at them too closely. The author really went for it, and the plot evolved in directions I was not expecting.
I applaud the boldness of the author and will definitely read the planned sequels (it’s a trilogy according to the author’s note). If you love Greek myths, Cleopatra’s story, wild historical fantasy, and ancient Rome, this is a book for you.
Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley, 4/5 Stars
Author of the Iron Dragon Series
Editor of The Crimson Pact Series