Every fan of horror knows that, regardless of how much the idea holds sway over you, you have to work through a couple thousand vampire stories before you find one that’s actually worth your time. I’ve been spoiled over the years, and I’m picky as a result. Likewise, I’m just as discerning when it comes to historical fiction, preferring history to be intact rather than an author slinging it about carelessly to service a substandard story. Tim Powers set a high bar for me with his novel The Stress of Her Regard, wherein the known details of history were unchanged, and the story he told wove seamlessly between the threads of fate.
So you see, when I came across this novel completely by accident, I was immediately hesitant. In addition to my being spoiled rotten by greatness, it also happens that my first “historical crush” was the queen Cleopatra VII Philopater. The idea of Cleopatra fascinated me to the point of learning about her and her world, and the rest, if you’ll forgive me for saying, is history. Not only do I know Cleopatra well, but her story has already been told in fiction about as well as it possibly can in Margaret George’s rodent killer of a tome The Memoirs of Cleopatra. In terms of the queen’s natural life, there’s literally nothing more to add. The premise for this novel asks a different question: what if Cleopatra did not die as history records, but instead became a vampire to wreak her vengeance upon Rome? One part of me instantly gravitated to the idea. Sounds fun. The other, more discerning, part of me set off every conceivable warning bell. There was no way this would live up to my own ideas.
Here’s another point that made me suspect a high cheddar content: there are no vampires in Ancient Egyptian mythology. Forget everything Anne Rice told you, and forget everything that White Wolf tried to set into motion back in the 90s. Their mythology does not allow for the undead. Not even mummies. Sorry, Karloff. There are only two possibilities for the dead: eternal happiness or oblivion. Sometimes you just have to go with the conceit and know that it won’t be explained. That’s easy to do in a cheesy horror story. It’s not that easy for me when someone like Cleopatra takes center stage, because I demand that the character live up to the her legend.
And yet, something pulled at me to give it a try. Audible’s got this wonderful return policy in the event that something should be as cheesy as I fear, so I lose nothing but time. Ordinarily even that isn’t enough to make me go for it, because it’s not like I don’t have a couple thousand books in my TBR pile already. But something compelled me to get it, despite everything being stacked against this one. In moments like that, I try to trust my instincts, but we all know such things are a coin toss at best.
So help me I was hooked right out of the gate. Before long, the only thing I knew I had to fear was the possibility of a weak ending.
The story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most infamous romantic tales of all time, so I won’t bother rehashing it. If you don’t know it, go read up on it, then come back to this book. It’s worth your time to do so. This book opens some 50 years after the queen’s “suicide” with a personal account that dares to tell “what really happened.” From there we encounter Antony and Cleopatra in the wake of the Battle of Actium, their defeat already a matter of historical record, the inevitable aftermath about to come to pass. For those who know the story, there are points of the story that are well-known but don’t quite add up. This is where this novel picks up the ball and runs with it. At every single turn, if I came up with a question, the author answered it, and it didn’t seem to matter if it was a point of history or of mythology. She nailed it on the head every single time. Even the point about the undead and vampires is handled with genius. I don’t say that lightly. The solution to make this story work is sheer genius, and sitting out in plain sight for those who know mythology. Why no other writer has used this before now is beyond me.
With the gimmick in place, the next concern is one of character. When you deal with the big personalities of history, you go big or go home. There are few who cast larger shadows than Cleopatra. Maria Dahvana Headley stepped up, and there’s no holding back. What unfolds is both a classic vampire-that-is-not-a-vampire story and a classic love story, for Cleopatra’s earthly motivations are well and truly intact after her transformation. Yes, you’re reading this correctly. This book is partly that most hated and insipidly stupid of subgenres, the paranormal romance. This aspect is dictated by the character of Cleopatra herself. There’s just no getting around that if this story is to be told properly. But you can toss away the idea of the slinky, sexy vampire temptress. This is a proper vampire story in the midst of the last remnants of the Roman Republic where the gods are as real as you or me. It’s all about loss, fear, revenge, and power. I almost feel sorry for Cleopatra’s target, Augustus Caesar. Almost.
The use of Cleopatra as both a primary character of legend and as an equally legendary creature of darkness means that there’s a tightrope to walk. If you strip away the mystery, you lose something in the process. Amazingly, the more we’re given, the more it served to add to her character’s legend. The panic and paranoia are offered through other character POVs, which create this larger than life mythos that’s completely appropriate to Cleopatra in either reality or in fiction. As inhuman as she becomes, the woman is still in there somewhere, and we’re made aware of her at all points. In the end, we’re given just enough to want more.
This is where I have a problem. This book is self-contained, and on its own is highly satisfying. It leaves me wanting more. The problem is I know there’s more to be had because the novel was published as the first of a trilogy. Here we are, five years later, and the author has moved on to another series that’s being optioned for film. I’m pretty much convinced a sequel to this won’t happen, and I’m afraid that if it did it would have a hard time living up to the promise of this first installment. But I can’t leave well enough alone because the idea of Cleopatra is captured so perfectly, so impossibly. It’s a good problem to have.
I will look into other works by this author, but I will also look to the idea of someday having the other books in this trilogy.