Review: Queen of Kings by Maria Dahvana Headley (Bantam)

Maria Dahvana Headley  Queen of Kings

I tend to avoid the plethora of vampire novels on the shelves these days. I’ve had my moment indulging with vampires. Loving Queen of the Damned most of Anne Rice’s portrayals. Reading Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls and Drawing Blood. Devouring most of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. And embracing the original (an arguably the best) incarnation in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To name but a few.

So there has to be something special in order for me to embrace a new take on vampire mythology. And at first glance Cleopatra being a vampire could be mistaken for a gimmick. Especially seeing titles like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter are doing the rounds.

Queen of Kings tries to blend fantasy and history, aims for an mythological feel but also, oddly, an emotional grounding. This is quite a big ask for any writer and for a debut author, if they manage to get it right, it’s going to put them on the map.

So does Maria Dahvana Headley manage it? There is a reason it carries a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. She does, almost effortlessly. It’s quite astonishing when you read the historical note at the end (and I mean after you’ve read it. Don’t skip!) where some of the seams of fantasy and historically reported reality lie.

It’s not all perfect but we’ll get to imperfections shortly but for now let’s stick to history. Cleopatra was killed by an asp, wasn’t she? Not in Headley’s version of history. Headley’s twist seems quite natural (considering we are dealing with the myths of Egypt and Rome and elsewhere) especially Cleopatra turning to the goddess Sekhmet.

What was surprising is that I was expecting her to rise to power again in Egypt and basically being continually being bathed in blood. Though this isn’t what happened. Instead we see her as a loving and devoted mother and wife whose actions are underscored by the needs to protect or avenge her loved ones.

I really enjoyed the way that Headley plays with myth and history especially when she starts mixing different pantheons as her  logic shows how Roman and Egyptian gods and their domains can be both exist and interact.

Though being a debut it’s accepted that they’ll come with imperfections. And for me it wasn’t to do with the story, or the characters, or problems with choices of what and where the important parts of the story should be. All that felt natural.

What makes it feel rough in places was the tightness of the storytelling and the tendency for chapters to constantly build to payoff even if that meant splitting up scenes that would have gone smoother without starting a new chapter.

I’d definitely say it’s better to be too lean than overly flabby but as this isn’t a thriller and doesn’t need to be constantly moving. I think Headly could have indulged herself and the reader a little bit more by lingering on minor descriptions, and in some places taking time to explain more. I do need go back and check when happened at point near the end that seemed to melt away forgotten or perhaps dealt with in a throw away line or two.

But those skills will, I’m sure, mature with future books. And as much as it does make for an occasional pause for clarity I’d much rather that than wading through pages of filler trying to make a story longer.

Headly is a very accomplished storyteller and myth maker who has marked out her own place in this years releases. One who I can see loosening up and indulging a little more whilst building on her storytelling strengths in future books.

Queen of Kings is my fantasy debut of the year so far.

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