At its most bizarre—and it does get bizarre—Queen Of Kings: The Immortal Story Of Cleopatra seems like it’s best described by Owen Wilson’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums: “Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t.” Sub in Cleopatra for Custer and “at Alexandria after being defeated by Octavian” for “Little Bighorn,” and Queen Of Kings comes into focus.
Specifically, the book presupposes that maybe she turned into a shape-changing, vampiric avatar of revenge, thanks to botching a spell summoning the destructive goddess Sekhmet. Maybe this led to a Mediterranean-wide conflagration, as Cleopatra tried to negotiate keeping her humanity while punishing her enemies, as Octavian summoned his own supernatural allies and artifacts. Maybe the ghost of Marc Antony convinced the elderly senators of Rome to join Cleopatra’s animal army in a rebellion against Octavian. Maybe.
In the book’s afterword, author Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that she drew part of her inspiration from the unknowable nature of classical history. So few direct primary sources have survived that most of what we know comes from classical historical writing, likely based on propaganda, rumor, legend, innuendo, and the barest of facts. So why not, Queen Of Kings argues, build on that concept? When the legend becomes fact, print a myth.
Queen Of Kings draws upon a fun range of mythologies, starting with the Greco-Roman and Egyptian deities treated as real. But it also delves into Greek heroic myth and archetype, and introduces three ahistorical witches to Octavian’s side: a Medea-inspired Greek priestess of Hecate, a Germanic/Norse healer and weaver of fate, and a snake charmer from Africa married to the daughter of the West Wind. Once Cleopatra is a monster and Octavian has become Augustus, there’s little character drama from the historical figures, and the three sorcerers keep the plot moving when it seems in danger of exhaustion.
The narrative’s mythological excess would be overwhelming if Headley didn’t handle it so well. Her writing is melodramatic or horrific or tender when it needs to be, and it always keeps the book easy to read. At worst, it’s a compellingly pulpy horror/fantasy novel starring famous historical figures. At best, it’s still a pulpy fantasy novel featuring famous historical figures, but one that’s less embarrassing than that description might imply.