Monday 10 March 2014

Queen of Kings

(March 2014)

Big book. Short Chapters. Love, sex, and death in the underworld. What’s not to like?
I’ll refer you all back to The Book of the Dead, in which the same author’s Bit-U-Men eventually established itself as one of my favourites. It was a slow build infatuation, as it was and remains a downright weird story, but as time went by I found myself liking it more and more, whereas in the normal course of things these things tend to fade away. So I figured I may as well give her full-length novel a try.

It’s good stuff. Taking us back to ancient Egypt again Maria Dahvana Headley gives us a world where Cleopatra didn’t die after Octavian’s invasion, but made an unwitting pact with the goddess of destruction to become her vessel and conduit for revenge on all humankind. And as we all know, these kinds of deals rarely work out well.

The plot is, given the thickness of the book (close to 500 pages) pretty straightforward, following Cleopatra and her divine co-pilot as they seek revenge on the Emperor Augustus, but this is really a novel of prose and character. Cleopatra and her internal conflicts are wonderfully drawn, in language I’m obliged to describe as ‘evocative’, and if as an antagonist Octavian does occasionally come across as a bit of a one-note insecure bully then the other supporting characters (including Anthony, Agrippa, and a veritable coven of witches) are all given their time in the sun and emerge as complex, wholly formed individuals. I was especially taken with Usem, African sorcerer and husband to the wind, and Selene, Anthony and Cleopatra’s disregarded daughter already hard beyond her years. At heart this is a book about love, its maddening presence and burning absence, and these two characters sum up the two sides of that coin for me in a way that’s (necessarily) more ambiguous for some of the more major players.

Given this is a debut novel there are remarkably few weaknesses. Those short chapters means that it reads much quicker than the page count would suggest, but even so the pacing is a touch uneven: it never drags exactly, though on a number of occasions it ebbs when some flowing might have been better. Likewise, losing 150 pages could have made this a much tauter novel, but then you’d have lost a lot of that characterization, so it wouldn’t have necessarily been better, just differently good.

The first of a trilogy, apparently, and given the chilling visions of things to come which Octavian experiences throughout this book I’m genuinely intrigued to see what’s in store the next time Headley gets to play fast and loose with the historical record.

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