by Kaemi Velatet


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Cleopatras Wake, April 8, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

There’s a bit midway through the Bell Jar where the protagonist – a top-of-her-class college student with incipient mental health issues – takes a crack at reading Finnegans Wake, since she’s planned to write about it for her thesis. She gets about two paragraphs in, trying to decode the meaning of Joyce starting the novel’s first sentence with a lower-case word, noticing that there are a hundred letters in a long made-up bit of onomatopoeia, and wondering if Eve and Adam’s is a Dublin pub as well as a Genesis reference. Soon the letters are swimming on the page, “grow[ing] barbs and rams’ horns,” and she contemplates giving up on her thesis and maybe being a waitress instead. Within a couple chapters, she’s toying with suicide, then overdoses on sleeping pills and crawls into a crack below her house to die.

The reason I bring this up is that Queenlash is Finnegans Wake except instead of it being about Irishness (I think?) and a wake (probably?) it’s about feminism (sorta?) and the end of Ptolemaic Egypt (I’m on firm ground on this bit). Oh, and sometimes armies get annihilated by giant laser beams shooting out from the Pharos of Alexandria, plus it’s hypertext. While my experience of reading it went much better than did the aforementioned attempt at Joyce’s novel, I definitely felt frustrated and lost much of the time. Some of that’s about me going into it with incorrect expectations (this is a serious literary work and not much of a game – and very long), but there are two or three really significant flaws in the work that undermine its accomplishments – I’d peg it as maybe 30% successful. But given the scope of its ambitions, that’s still more than enough to make Queenlash a kind of masterpiece.

It’ll probably be helpful to go into a little more detail on how the piece works before getting too deep into talking through what works and doesn’t, though. What we’ve got here is a Twine novel in 22 chapters, centering on Cleopatra (VII, the one you’ve heard of) and running from the last phases of her internecine struggles with her siblings through her personal and political alliance with Caesar and ending with her death after his assassination and the ensuing Roman civil war. There’s clearly a deep knowledge of the history (including understanding which bits of the received story are likely scurrilous lies made up by unfriendly chroniclers), though the author does make some departures from fact, of which see more below. The writing is a dense, dreamlike, allusive stew – it’s basically a series of prose-poems, over 200,000 words’ worth from my quick peek at the html source. The introduction positions itself as an “eliuma” – a neologism meant to signify interactive novel – but I think the way the interactive elements work make it quite similar to literary hypertext: in each passage there are usually several highlighted words, and clicking on them takes you to a following passage according to an allusive, typically obfuscated, logic. Each reader starts and ends every chapter in the same place regardless of the path taken through the middle bits, and there isn’t continuity of choices between chapters.

I worry the nature of the prose didn’t sufficiently stand out in the above summary, but it’s very much the overwhelmingly salient feature of Queenlash. Here’s an example from the first chapter, where Cleopatra’s sister Arisnoe reflects on Alexandria’s great library:

"What about the library I love is it does not need me, will survive me. I am in it unnecessary, yet without me merely is it, is not in this, whatever I make of it. In a scroll there is the certainty of once bled to newly unstables, I harness in agonies their majesty celestials, in darkness they are not in they forever shine, I cannot see but how they break into me. Tens of thousands of pinpricks through the shroud scintillate lives I will never."

The key idea of the passage is a lovely one to me – humility in the face of so much knowledge, the agglomeration of books likened to the majesty of the stars – as well as revealing a strand of self-abnegation in Arsinoe’s character. With that said, I think there’s some clear awkwardness in parts – the “without me merely is it, is not in this” part is hard to parse with no clear benefit that I can see. Here’s another bit, though, that I think works less well (Cleopatra is describing a storm that may or may not be metaphorical):

"Lightning looms through clunking tons of clattering metal severed to shards to the lightless a rain each equally thirsting the skykiss, sizzlespear of a sacred violence, in their amalgamated I mosaic selfsame storm, stormtwin venomerator prorated in violence a violence, stunned by the sublimity of toxtricity, irradiated swampcore at critical mass fizzling the thunder toxic, pandemic vector voltburster."

There’s still some great use of language, especially the early clauses about lightning, but by the end of the passage, the neologisms and wordplay get overwhelming and, at least to my eye, a little silly (“irradiated swampcore at critical mass” being the worst offender). The whole piece is like this, and as mentioned, it’s very very long, so reading it is definitely work, albeit work that’s usually rewarded.
I mentioned a few critiques beyond some overwrought prose, though. I have three, though they’re all related and the first two are maybe just aspects of the last.

First, I repeatedly found myself wishing this were a novel instead of an interactive work – not because reading this much dense prose in the default, ugly Twine style made my head hurt (though it did in fact make my head hurt), but because I found the choice mechanics detracted more than they added from my experience of the story. As mentioned, so far as I can tell each chapter is shaped something like a diamond, with a single opening spreading out into many different passages that then cohere to a single end-point before passing off to the next chapter. The reader navigates by clicking individual highlighted words in a passage – usually there are between two and four options, but occasionally there are more, sometimes many more, like in a sequence where Cleopatra’s going to meet Caesar (I think riffing on the story of her being rolled up in a carpet), which boasts a dozen hyperlinks.

These links aren’t actions anybody in the story is taking, to be clear – in that library passage above, the links are “library”, “bled”, “majesty”, and “scintillate.” “Bled” leads to a passage where Arsinoe relates a vision she’s had to her tutor; “majesty” to one with a new vision of violence featuring Cleopatra; “scintillate” has Arsinoe coming ashore from a journey and having a different exchange with her tutor; and I confess that I can’t easily summarize the nature of Arsinoe’s self-reproaches in the passage linked from “library” (this kind of linking scheme is I think what the literary hypertext folks tend to use). I can see it being really meaningful for an author as part of their writing process, since seizing on a resonant word and spinning out its meaning and implications into a new scene seems like a valuable compositional tool. And If you’ve got deep familiarity with the work, I think it’s easy to appreciate the way pursuing different chains of allusion recast the overall story. But for a first-time reader, it’s pretty unengaging, since it can often feel like you’re just clicking random words with no rhyme or reason or impact on the narrative.

The second issue with Queenlash’s approach to interactivity is that crucially, while the branches don’t usually weave back together – or at least, where they do, it’s hard to discover that without copious use of the “undo” button – it appears that the bits of the story that you miss are still canonically meant to have happened. One example will stand for many more: after Arsinoe burned herself mostly to death in a thwarted suicide attempt and Cleopatra planned to finish the job, I’d thought she’d died, but according to the plot summaries the author helpfully includes in a nod to accessibility (out of perhaps-misplaced pride, I didn’t look at these until after I’d finished), it turns out that a different character –Porcia, the wife of Brutus – interceded with Caesar to spare Arisnoe and imprison her in a temple to Diana. When I played that chapter, you see, the choices I made in the opening passage skipped over that piece of the narrative and went right into some light politicking chez Cicero, meaning that I had no idea Arsinoe had survived – and I was deeply confused by who this new person in the temple of Diana was meant to be and why I should care about her!

My second overall criticism is also related to some surprises upon reading those plot summaries. I’d realized that there were departures from history here and there, but hadn’t fully understood until I dug into the recaps that the story also incorporates some over-the-top fantastical elements. Some of these work OK on their own terms, or aren’t too meaningful in the grand scheme of things – characters having visions of dead relatives which serve as links to their backstories are a nice trope, and the detail of moving the temple of Diana mentioned above from Ephesus to Rome certainly makes the logistics of the plot more convenient. But others felt to me like they undermined the story’s engagement with history. The characterization of the pre-Augustus Octavian, for example, as a self-loathing, gender-dysphoric obsessed with Caesar and lacking all agency took me out of the story since it seems less like an extrapolation of the historical figure, and more like a radical substitution. And this is especially the case with some of the fantasy elements – like, partially the reason Octavian is so weak is that in this story, actually “Augustus” is some sort of semi-undead gestalt of his corpse conglomerated with his psychotic twin sister. Perhaps this is just a genre preference and others who don’t care so much about their historical fiction being grounded would skate right by this stuff, but to me it felt unnecessary and weakened the thematic heft of the game’s engagement with a really rich historical period and set of characters.

Beyond issues of taste, though, I think use of these elements is also in tension with the requirements being placed on the reader to decode the challenging, incomplete prose and comprehend what’s happening. Since so much deduction is required to sift out meaning in many of Queenlash’s passages, including such out-there elements feels unfairly obscure, since I think most readers wouldn’t be likely to figure out that they’re reading about such strange events and would tend to interpret things metaphorically or allegorically.

This review has grown dramatically overlong, so it’s not without a certain sense of hypocrisy that I turn to my third criticism, which is that Queenlash is very much need of an editor. This isn’t a role that’s typically filled when it comes to IF – we tend to think in terms of “testers”, who do something different – but over and over, I would brush up against a frustrating element of the piece and wish the author had been able to work with a sympathetic reader to smooth out rough edges, strengthen the key themes, make sure the reader gets a sufficiently-good understanding of the story regardless of the path they take, and work out the pacing. As it stands now, it feels to me like an incredibly impressive first draft, but one in need of tightening in all the ways first drafts always require. Take the prose – I’ve lifted up some of the infelicities I noticed, but there are also some idiosyncrasies that a good editor could help iron out, like an overuse of words like “purls”, “gawps”, “icicle”, or “actress” being used as a verb, which are neat to come across once or twice but stick out with repetition, as well as some typos (“chilton” for “chiton”, “Cambryses” for “Cambyses”). Thematically, there’s a strand of anachronistic scientific imagery that runs through the prose, like the “critical mass” and “pandemic” stuff in the passage I quoted earlier, or mentions of “industrial flourescents” (sic, though this might be a pun) and, heavens forfend, a “volt turbid turbine”. As I read it, the piece doesn’t engage with technology or science in any significant way, so these bits of metaphor felt like were taking space from images and metaphors that would be more thematically resonant.

The pacing is where I think there’s the biggest gap between what Queenlash is and what it could be. Obviously this is far harder to wrangle with an interactive piece than a work of static fiction, especially here where any individual chapter could be much longer or much shorter depending on a reader’s choices, but still, there are some critical areas that feel either like a slog or too rushed. I found that the story sagged after the end of the Egyptian civil war and the transition to Rome – there were a lot of new characters introduced and the politicking felt lower-stakes since of course everyone knows where things are headed. And some of the sequences here, like Porcia’s dialogues with Arsinoe at the temple of Diana, sometimes felt interminable. Then when Caesar is assassinated, there’s immediately a long digression through Greek myth that serves a thematic purpose (it transitions Calpurnia’s fury as a woman scorned into cathartic violence by connecting her to antecedents like Medea) but it drains momentum at a time when action should be rising to the climax. And that climax felt quite hurried to me, with the last three or so chapters feeling underdeveloped as they rushed towards the inevitable suicides, as though the author was just ready to be done (to be fair, at that point I kind of was too).

There’s still so, so much more I could say about Queenlash – I haven’t touched on the FAQ or the primer, which are helpful resources that I wish I’d looked at before reading (though the FAQ made me feel bad for the author, who seemed to picturing a really hostile reception!). Nor have I talked about my favorite characters (Charmian was the best, and I really dug Octavia too) – and as is my wont I’ve spent far more time moaning about faults than celebrating what’s a unique, beautifully written, and thematically rich work that I could honestly see winning literary awards, after that round of editing, if it were a traditional novel. Since I do want to get to the rest of the games, I’ll leave things here – and just say for all its warts and somewhat forbidding aspect, Queenlash is a monumental effort that very much deserves to be read.