The enduring love story of Anthony and Cleopatra has been retold many times throughout history. In Queen of Kings, Headley has given this famous tale a darker and more mythological twist.
We join the lovers at the point in history when Octavian Caesar, great nephew of the late Julius, is camped outside the city of Alexandria. Octavian sends a false message to Cleopatra's beloved Anthony and he kills himself believing his queen has betrayed him. On discovering the deceit, Cleopatra is driven to making an impossible deal, and uses dark magic to summon one of the old gods, the goddess Sekhmet, and strikes a bargain - her soul for her husband's life. Sadly, through an unfortunate accident, the resurrected Anthony dies again. One could say, to lose your husband once is unfortunate; to lose him again is careless.
As is often the case when humans make deals with deities, the consequences of the bargain are never fully realised until it is too late. The last pharaoh of Egypt becomes a creature driven mad by anger and revenge.
Despite Cleopatra committing atrocities with her new powers, one can't help empathising with her. Desperate to keep her country out of the hands of Rome and distraught at the idea of a future without Anthony, the love of her life, you can understand why she made such a hasty bargain. Her anguish, and frustration, along with the lives she takes fuel the goddess's need for blood, while Cleopatra is left to suffer the emotional consequences.
The characters of Octavian and Agrippa, his general, are written extremely well. Agrippa's stoic scepticism of all things mythical only serves to highlight the increasing psychosis of his Emperor, Octavian as he unsuccessfully tries to combat magic with magic.
Headley's writing is extremely evocative. This is a period of history most people are somewhat familiar with, but it is one that we don't have a great deal of factual evidence about. This ambiguity has allowed the author just enough freedom to weave in antastical elements of mythology from many pantheons.
The 'V' word is never actually used, but early in the novel, Cleopatra is found dead with two puncture wounds in her neck. She then rises from the dead and maintains her after life by surviving on the blood of her victims. The reader could be forgiven in thinking this book is another run of the mill vampire novel. But it isn't.
The book falls squarely into what I would say is the increasingly popular Historical Fantasy genre. At times, it seemed in danger of slipping into Dark Romance territory, but it doesn't. Cleopatra's love for Anthony transcends death, but fortunately for us, nobody sparkles.
The narrative speaks of terrible times, a hell on earth; as the vengeful queen possessed by the goddess of death and destruction, rampages across Rome seeking retribution against her enemies. However, I was personally disappointed at the surprising lack of violence. It is often alluded to, or the reader comes in to the narrative to discover it is all over bar the shouting. I was hoping for something more visceral, but the book seems to not want to alienate a possible young female demographic with too much violence. I am surmising the reason for this, as it certainly isn't due to laziness on the author's part. The amount of detail given to describing Cleopatra's anguish for instance, or the increasing madness and paranoia of Octavian clearly displays excellent descriptive abilities.
I have to applaud Headley for her ability to seamlessly blend historical fact and mythology, it is immensely enjoyable and certainly the key selling point for the book. It raises Queen of Kings above the glut of the average vampire or 'dark romance' novel that seem to be filling our bookshops at the moment, as everyone tries to jump on the (bafflingly) successful Twilight band wagon.
Inevitably, this book will get compared to Queen of The Damned, and while it is true that if you are a fan of Anne Rice, you will love this; this is something with a little more class.
Queen Of Kings is published by Bantum Press and released 21st July