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Book Review: Queen of Kings

Queen of Kings

by Maria Dahvana Headley

Dutton, 2011

If ever a book-pitch seemed designed to elicit a cynical, sneering response from the harried reading (and reviewing!) public, surely that pitch would be “Cleopatra, vampire.” Between zombies, vampires, and Republicans, bookstores in recent years have been facing an onslaught of the undead worthy of George Romero, and the faddish interweaving of the supernatural and the superannuated (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, War and Pixies, Our Town and Ghosts)(oh wait … that last one actually works …) has left the last of the ‘serious’ readers feeling particularly besieged. When jumping on this bandwagon can net an author multimillions in book contracts and movie deals, those readers begin to live in fear that no author will be strong enough to resist; will 2015 see Philip Roth’s first middle-aged sexually-frustrated vampire? An Alice Munro story about two vampire sisters in Montreal talking about their (night) gardens for 1000 pages? Perhaps an autobiography from Roberto Bolano, confessing to the only possible explanation for why he’s still the most prolific writer working today? A shudder of dread would hardly be irrational.

Fortunately, there’s more to books than their pitches, and weary readers (and reviewers!) must endeavor to read things before dismissing them. Had I gone with my first instinct when it came to Maria Dahvana Headley’s Queen of Kings, for example, I would have snickered at its “Cleopatra, vampire” premise and fed it to my basset hound – and thereby deprived myself of one heck of a fun reading experience.

The pitch describes the premise perfectly: Cleopatra is in Egypt and very much in love with her husband Marc Antony, and the familiar story of her ruin is gathering from the first page of the book. There’s the disastrous battles, the advance of Rome, the implacable assault of Octavian and his right-hand general Agrippa; there’s the defeat of all hope, then Antony’s suicide, then Cleopatra found dead with only a pair of …. puncture wounds! What follows practically writes itself.

Except it doesn’t – nothing really does. Instead, what follows needs to be written, and Headley could easily have done a lazy job, trusting in her catchy plot to carry the reader along. Instead, she works hard to interest, to instruct, and to thrill. Her Antony isn’t as complex as Shakespeare’s, but he’s refreshingly admirable (“He didn’t have enough men. He had known it from the beginning, and he’d fought anyway”). Her Octavian is suitably reptilian and frantic, neatly counterbalanced by Agrippa, whose portrayal here as a rock-steady pragmatist owes as much to Robert Graves as it does to Plutarch. In response to Octavian’s terrified summary, “Once, there was a queen of Egypt… a queen who became through magic something else,” Agrippa is a skeptic chorus throughout the book:

Cleopatra never died. The snake venom counterfeited death. We should have burned her body. I believe you when you say that she was aboard that boat in Egypt, but I do not believe she worked alone their to kill the crew. She had an accomplice, the scholar perhaps, or a hired warrior. Perhaps a magician to manufacture the illusions my men described. Alexandria is full of magicians, all of them dealing in fragrant smoke and mirrors. It would not take much. You’ve let superstition take hold of you, and everyone in this city has done the same.

And the Cleopatra in Queen of Kings is richly memorable – a confused and passionate woman who understands almost everything and forgives virtually nothing. She has no love for her would-be conqueror, of course:

It was sixteen years since she’d seen him last, during a visit to her then lover, Julius Caesar. She was twenty-one and the new mother of Caesarion, Caesar’s first and only son. Octavian was stretched across a sickbed, a reedy, fevered skeleton by the time Caesar and Cleopatra arrived at his mother’s house.

How she wished that she’d known then what she knew now: that the frail great-nephew of Rome’s imperator would one day besiege her city. She might have killed him and saved herself years of pain.

The contest between Cleopatra and Octavian’s Rome was one of life and death, and in Headley’s addictive debut, it’s broadened to life, death, and undeath. Such an approach should automatically trivialize the great historical saga it embroiders, but that doesn’t happen in Queen of Kings; Headley’s skills as an entertainer, her avid conviction to take her own premise seriously, saves the day and makes for one outstanding piece of summer escapist fiction.

I still have my doubts about Look Homeward, Zombie.