(2011) Maria Dahvana Headley, Bantam Press, £12.99, pbk, 448pp, ISBN 978-0-593-06704-8
Well, how can you fail with a cover like this: close up of two-thirds of a pale face, full red lips, a penetrating blue eye shedding a tear of blood, oh, and a nice little quote from Neil Gaiman comparing the book to Anne Rice’s Queen of the Dammed and Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.
It is the year 30BC, and after some trickery and treachery by Octavian, Mark Antony is dead Cleopatra is dead too, long live the queen - shhh, of all things to say, don’t say that, not when she died by the bite of…… something, with two puncture wounds to show what happened, or what you think - hope – might have happened. A snake killed her, right? When your lover is dead and the legions of Rome are knocking at the door there isn’t much else you can do but sell your soul to the warrior goddess Sekhmet and get your revenge on Rome and save your children who are being held captive at the same time, which is a particularly pressing task given that one of them has been murdered already. But that selling your soul business to save someone else’s soul never really works out the way you planned, does it, even if it does gives you super strength and the ability to shape shift and a taste for human blood. But when you sell your soul you leave a void, and things can fill that void, things you would rather not have inside you. Cleopatra is Sekhmet’s agent on earth, and a doorway through which her seven children can enter: plague, famine, earthquake, flood, drought, madness and violence.
The Emperor Octavian, or rather Augustus as he becomes knows that Cleopatra is coming for him and enlists the help of three sorceresses, all from different parts of the known world, all with different powers, and agendas. Can they save him? Can he even trust people with powers he doesn’t understand who come from countries that hate the Romans?
In a world of horror and dark fantasy where vampires and zombies are prevalent and we have had a series of literary mash-ups involving all sorts of critters gate-crashing the world of literary characters, or tongue-in-cheek novels involving the supernatural exploits of historical characters/real people such as Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln. The next step (and possibly the more logical and realistic one) is to go back in time and take a major historical character, or characters that people think they know about, mainly through TV and films, and the odd play, and mash them up with lots of detailed historical research about all aspects of Egyptian and Roman life into something that is slightly superior to the standard vampire fare of recent years, and part of the fun is what Headley does with the familiar vampire constraints and tropes - yes, Cleopatra cannot bear sunlight or silver, but fire does not harm her as Sekhmet is the daughter of the Sun God, Ra, and she is a major league shape-shifter too.
Queen of Kings is a glorious mixture of history and fantasy and horror and starts with a prologue, ends with an epilogue and in between consists of seventy six chapters within three books – the Books of Rituals, Divinations and Lightning, that’s about six pages a chapter which is my kind of book, in more ways than one.
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