It is not an asp that Cleopatra takes to her breast in this novel. It is Sekhmet, the daughter of Ra, the Sun God, summoned by the distraught queen and thereafter shifting into the form of a viper.
Antony, defeated at Actium, is besieged at Alexandria by Octavian, fragile boy turned emperor. A false message from the Roman camp reaches Antony saying that Cleopatra has betrayed him. Cleopatra, however, has retreated to the couple's fortress mausoleum and conjured a spell written by the old god-kings, a spell discovered and translated by Nicolaus, a scholar. With its incantation, Cleopatra became that which the Romans labeled her: fatale monstrum. Headley (The Year of Yes, 2007) carries the reader beyond history, beyond Shakespearean drama, and into the realm of angry gods, shape-shifters and vampires. Imbued with Sekhmet's power, Cleopatra becomes a night creature, flesh burnt by sun and metal, nourished only by human blood. Cleopatra, bent on revenge for the death of Antony, must watch as Octavian, her nemesis, provokes the murder of Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Octavian then carries Cleopatra's three remaining children to Rome. After a visit to temple at Thebes, where a priestess keeps watch in the name of Sekhmet, Cleopatra shape-shifts into a lioness, steals aboard a slave ship and is transported to Rome. Octavian has been declared emperor, taking the name Caesar Augustus, but he still fears Cleopatra, and so he gathers three sorcerers from the Empire's edges to protect him, one of whom conjures up Antony from his ashes. Headley's complex plot also includes visits to Hades, circuses and gladiators, an epic battle at Avernus and the seven children of Sekhmet (plague, famine, earthquake, flood, drought, madness and violence) loosed upon the world.
First of a trilogy, this book, replete with descriptive language and a magical narrative, will appeal to fans of the fantasy genre.