May 12, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Maria Dahvana Headley's memoir The Year of Yes, proved she was a clever and inventive writer. Her debut novel, Queen of Kings, takes these literary strengths to new levels. Headley combines historical and paranormal elements, including Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Emperor Octavius, and mythology into a unique thriller that can truly be called epic.
Neil Gaiman wrote of the book:
"It's rare that a first novel is so magical, so dark, so well-researched, so smart or so compelling. Queen of Kings is a powerful work of the imagination, stalking the murky, dangerous territory between Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned and Robert Graves' I, Claudius and should appeal to those who like their historical fiction and those who crave dark magics and sharp teeth in the night."
Queen of Kings is a genre-bender, part historical fiction and part bloody, dark fantasy. It's sex, drugs and rock and roll in the classical world: Cleopatra plus gods, monsters, witches and the Roman Army. I've always been interested in the way that histories get invented over the years, first by the victors, and then by our own desire as audiences for a satisfying story. In this case, the Romans conquered Egypt and Cleopatra, but there are a lot of pieces of that history which don't make sense. As I was writing Queen of Kings I had a ridiculously great time filling in some of the blank spots, using both research and imagination. I grew up inhaling mythology and fantasy books, and there are witches (both good and bad ones) and monsters here, but they're inspired by sources like Ovid, Greek, Roman and Norse myth, and Herodotus. Basically, this is nothing like any book about Cleopatra you've read before – and neither is the soundtrack. Would this be what you'd hear if Queen of Kings was made into a movie? No. (More likely, HELL NO.) But it's what I heard as I was typing this book through the middle of a bunch of long, dark nights.
1. "Queen of Kings" – Sxip Shirey
This song actually IS the soundtrack of the book, or at least of the book trailer. Sxip is an inventor of sounds, and he also happens to be a friend of mine. He composed this short piece especially for the trailer, and its whispers and moans and strange sounds and electric guitar.
2. "Gold Dust Woman" - Stevie Nicks
"Rock on, gold dust woman, take your silver spoon and dig your grave…Rock on ancient queen
Follow those who pale in your shadow. Rulers make bad lovers, you better put your kingdom up for sale…"
In Queen of Kings, Cleopatra sells her soul to the Egyptian chaos goddess Sekhmet, in an attempt to save her kingdom and her husband. Stevie Nicks breaks it down, as Sekhmet comes into the picture, a hungry lioness with vengeance on her mind. I don't know who Nicks was writing about when she penned this song (and from what I've read, she doesn't quite know either), but it's a perfect soundtrack for a book about a tortured shapeshifting queen who both loves and hates the thing that's controlling her. I grew up on the Rumours album, and it infiltrated my brain. There's a thank you to Stevie Nicks in the acknowledgments of the book.
"Yes indeed I am alone again
and here comes emptiness crashing in
it's either love or hate
I can't find in between
cause I've been with witches
and I have been with a queen"
At the beginning of the book, Mark Antony attempts to defend Alexandria, even though he knows he's going to lose. His own Romans – whom he's left for Cleopatra - outnumber him, and his enemy Octavian leads them into the city. Antony receives a false message and thinks he has been betrayed by his wife. I've always loved this Ben Harper song. Heartbreaky chorus, and the lyrics are perfect for the book.
"Now I am cold but a ghost lives in my veins,
Silent the terror that reigned -
Marbled in stone
A Shell of a man God preserved -
For thousand ages,
But open the gates of my hell -
I'll strike from the grave"
My usual tastes run mostly to singer-songwriters, but I got completely crazily obsessed with Iron Maiden while I was working on this book. One day my stepson lifted my headphones from my ears and asked me what I had done with Maria, the person who'd argued him into loving Bob Dylan. I was blasting classic metal. I'd never listened to Iron Maiden before. So, this is a mausoleum scene. It's hard to talk about it without putting spoilers all over the place! But where there is electric guitar, you can guess that there's some major action.
"I jumped into the river
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the things I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt"
Cleopatra ends up on a boat, traveling in search of knowledge, away from her own city, and south to Thebes. On the way, she discovers that some major things about her have changed. This Radiohead song is a gorgeous thing, of course, and the cover I listened to while I was writing the book is beautiful too. Wolf Gang sounds a bit like Jeff Buckley, and I've always been a fan of the mournful song. This feels like a goodbye to country and past, and that's where I'd put it in the book as we move toward Rome.
"Got my hand caught in a cat claw, scream!
On everyone's that time looks around, they're talking trees, you know
Never know who's coming, might easy be me, you know
Give up for my love, cause that's too much, fuck!"
Peace is fleeting. Cleopatra travels across the sea from Egypt to Rome, in pursuit of the new emperor Octavian, who has taken her children from their own country, and back to his own. Maybe there's some violence in this section. Maybe there's some shape shifting. The song is Allison Mosshart full of sexy, dangerous, hungry fury, and this section of the book is that way too.
"You are like a hurricane
There's calm in your eye.
And I'm gettin' blown away."
The Emperor of Rome is comforted by his storyteller and defender, Usem, a Psylli, or snake sorcerer from Libya. Usem tells him a tale of a young man who falls in love with the West Wind's daughter. I've always loved this Neil Young song, any version of it. There's a peaceful rendition on the Unplugged album, or you can listen to the original, Crazy Horse version, which is more rock and roll as the singer pines after his impossible, maddening love.
"You're such a dirty witch when you're holding out your hand
But when you smile, it shines across the land"
Egypt is (or maybe, was - I think they broke up a few years back) a 3 piece metal-y doom band from North Dakota who wrote a whole demo album of nasty little perfect little songs, among them this one, which serves to encapsulate Chrysate, a witch from Thessaly who does a variety of terrible things in service of the Roman Army. She's beautiful and toxic. I had a good time writing her character, because she does a bunch of things I'd never think of doing – and I sourced most of them in classical texts. One particularly bloody spell she casts is right out of Ovid's Medea, but it would be just as at home in a contemporary horror novel. Out of all the characters in the book, she's the one I'd never want to meet in a dark alley.
"The flesh will all be tearing
But the tail will be my own
In the colosseum tonight"
The Colosseum didn't exist in Rome in 30 BC, but the Circus Maximus did, and a variety of very messy things went on there. The things that happen in Queen of Kings are no exception, and here, they also include magic. There's a big battle scene midway through the book, and these lyrics are pretty accurate to what goes on in it. Plus, Tom Waits is one of my first and most lasting musical loves. This is a great song about Rome, and about the present day as well. Can I call it timeless? Normally that'd mean it was romantic. Um, though I did once have a questionable one-night stand to Waits' Bone Machine album, the songs on it are not the least bit romantic. Brutal. And awesome.
"Hold me baby, cause your eyes are
The prettiest eyes I've ever seen in my life, honey we're bound for the night.
You and me, dancing on our graves…"
So, here we transition into a new section of the book – one in which we visit the Underworld. The Cave Singers are a Seattle band, and they're terrific. This song, like most in this playlist, has its share of wailing, but it's also a love song. Even though the love is heading into the dark.
"The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
No dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart
I took the stars from my eyes, and then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you"
I love Florence's untamed howl, and (in contrast with the last song) I love the huge romance of this song. The driving force of Queen of Kings is the love affair between Cleopatra and her husband Mark Antony. Even though he dies, their relationship isn't finished, and she spends the entire book trying to get back to him. There's a section of the book that takes place in Hades, where there are no stars and no moon, just the fake, pale versions constructed for the underworld, and that's where this song belongs.
"Elemental line, 'mental line
Your fire's contagious
You step right by me
You're Hades' Lady"
In the underworld, Persephone and her husband Hades play a part in the story. This song is very Zeppelin-esque, and addictive. I'd never heard of Pop Levi before I listened to it, and I haven't heard any of his other songs, but this one is a great 70's throwback. And the sentiments, of a man dealing with a woman who is way out of his league, and perhaps does not even belong to him at all, are universal.
"you could be the King but watch the Queen conquer
ok first things first I'll eat your brains
then I'mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs
cause that's what a muthafucking monster do…
now look at what you just saw this is what you live for
aaaahhh, I'm a muthafucking monster!"
When I started writing battles, I needed to crank up the volume. Battles have to be written really fast, typing hard, and muttering obscenities as you type. Or at least, that's how I do it. Any song that has a chorus that goes "Everybody knows I'm a motherfucking monster" is perfect battle writing music, and the Nicki Minaj section of the song is full of crazy growling yowling and shrieking, combined with a few words in the dollbaby voice of a Barbie doll - and it's all her singing it. That's pretty badass. Unfortunately, the rest of the song and video is filled with dead women and dudes talking about bitches and whores. I'd prefer it if the whole song was just all Nicki Minaj kicking ass. That's why I wrote a book in which a woman kicks ass for 400 pages. I get weary of women being stuck offstage (or worse) while the dudes defend the world.
"Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down.
We make a little history baby
Every time you come around.
Come loose your dogs upon me
And let your hair hang down.
You are a little mystery to me
Every time you come around."
The final song on the playlist probably shouldn't follow "Monster" at all. But it sums the book up. It's a song about a love that transcends all the other stuff, that remains fascinating, bewildering, and worth it. I put two versions here, because by the end of this book it could as easily be sung by Antony to Cleopatra as by Cleopatra to Antony. Cave's original is off of Boatman's Call, which I listened to, oh, 9 million times circa 1997, wishing I could find a guy who looked at me the way he looks at the girl in this song. My friend, the exquisite Amanda Palmer, covered it this year, and tore it up. What can I say? I love songs like this one - I have a great marriage, and I believe in the complicated, unlikely miracle of love. By the time this book ends, their story's not over. That's why it's a trilogy.
Maria Dahvana Headley and Queen of Kings links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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