I first heard Maria Dahvana Headley read at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts this past March. It was after 11 p.m. and I was tired, a bit irritable, and sitting by China Miéville trying not to act irritable because, well, I was sitting by China Miéville (who’s rather wonderful). I don’t remember much about the first reading because I was in that listener daze where you hear every third word or so. But then it was Headley’s turn to read from the prologue to her new book, and I was instantly hooked. The language was sensuous, exotic, erotic, liquid prose that melted off her tongue and created vibrant scenes of another time and place, another race, in fact.
Within two days, I had ordered Queen of Kings, hoping and praying it would be just as good. I wasn’t disappointed. Headley’s prose leads us on a wicked romp through ancient Egypt on the eve of its invasion by Rome. Caught up in that chaos are Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, their children, and of course, Octavian, and Marcus Agrippa: the usual suspects. But Headley also introduces the reader to Chrysate the witch and Sekhmet the goddess, and a whole new hybrid mythology unveils itself. That is the strength of this book—one is always torn between the real and the unreal. I found myself Googling facts as I read (because yes, I am that nerd) just to see which parts of the story were historically accurate. This made for somewhat slow reading, assuredly, but it also made for fun reading, since I wasn’t a very passive audience. I was always interacting with the language, which was breathtakingly beautiful, and the story, which broke my heart, and then the historicity of it all.
This novel is hybrid of sorts—neither straight up historical fiction or a fantasy or erotica, although it has elements of all three. Even Cleopatra, in her most monstrous forms, is a freakish conglomeration of woman, monster, mother, lover, queen, goddess--always trying to reclaim her humanity; always desiring to be reunited with her family. And a novel that at its core is driven by love and a thirst for redemption will always carry me through any other brutality that I must experience. For certainly, this is ancient Egypt. Things got ugly now and then, especially during war. I think we need more novels like this one to grace our bookshelves—novels that bring us into to the past, into the possibility of magic and myth; novels that help us see the Faustian deals we make on a daily level in the name of love, or lust. I root for Cleopatra whether she is a lost mother trying to find her children or a serpentine monster feeding off whatever might sustain her one more day. Because once you connect to someone’s story, you withhold judgment, and merely walk with them on their path to redemption, no matter how long the journey.