Bantam Press, 2011. 429p plus historical note and acknowledgements.
Published in Interzone 236, Sep-Oct 2011.
US author Maria Dahvana Headleyâs first novel is a historical fantasy set in the founding days of the Roman Empire. Not only Mark Antony and Cleopatra but Octavian/Augustus and Marcus Agrippa feature prominently. Even the poet Virgil pops up in one scene. The novel swiftly deviates from the accepted history as it has Cleopatra, in an attempt to frustrate her final defeat along with Antony, use a fragmentary spell to unleash the ancient Egyptian deity Sekhmet from her long incarceration by the sun god Ra. (No passing acquaintance with Egyptian, Roman or Greek mythology is required as Headley provides the requisite detail.) The partial spell, however, provides no protection for its invoker and Sekhmet enters Cleopatraâs body, allowing her to shift shape – serpent, lion and sea snake the creatures of choice. But Sekhmetâs influence also turns her into a killer and drinker of blood.
In the subsequent mayhem, Antony is revived from the dead not once but twice, albeit the second time as a shade, the action moves on to Rome where Cleopatra seeks revenge on Augustus who employs sorcerers of his own to combat her – a Norse weaver of life threads, a Psylli who has an affinity with snakes and Chrysate, a devotee of Hecate – all of whom have their own agendas. In a series of false climaxes Cleopatra almost kills Augustus, is subsequently trapped and then set free to roam through the underworld with Antony while Sekhmet looses the first of her arrows of pestilence upon the world. After the lovers return to the living world more mythological mining involving the labours of Hercules sets up the true climax.
This is all entertaining enough if you donât like rigour but throughout we are given little to flesh out the characters who as a result never convince, being for the most part no more than plot enablers. In addition, no real flavour of life in ancient Alexandria or Rome is presented. Since Headleyâs story concerns aristocrats that may be fair enough but it fails to ground the story and the fantastical elements end up becoming one damn thing after another.
The prose is a curious mixture of archaisms and modern usages and, irritatingly, the point of view within a scene sometimes changes, often more than once. There are, too, frequent instances of not quite appropriate word choices. Suspension of disbelief is also made more difficult by the fact the narrative keeps hitting a succession of wrong notes. The prologue suggests we will read the personal memoir of Nicolaus of Damascus, tutor to Cleopatraâs children, though the main text and the epilogue are both actually narrated in standard third person. There are anachronisms – in a piece of dialogue, despite Augustus barely having invented the post, the position of Emperor is held in too great a reverence, âbleachersâ for open air seating is surely too modern, and at one point someone wields a bayonet. (Roman technology was advanced in all sorts of ways but even they did not have access to rifles, nor muskets even.) After Cleopatra has been transfigured her skin blisters in the sun but Headley seems to forget this for most of the novel till apparently suddenly remembering it again in the aftermath of the climactic battle. Finally, the pet endearment used – endlessly – between Antony and Cleopatra, and stated to mean, âYou are mine,â is rendered as, âVos es mei.â Vos is the plural of you (the singular is tu, but either is redundant in Latin.) Headleyâs formulation – âboth of you are mineâ â thus makes no sense. It might have in the one scene where two Antonys appear were es not actually a singular verb form.
When belief is being stretched so much by the subject matter small details like these loom larger and annoy more than they might otherwise. If you can ignore them, do so. If not, youâll struggle.