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The next novel on the M. M. Bennetts Award finalist list that I’ll be reviewing is Hand of Fire, by Judith Starkston.

First, a confession. I’ve never been as captivated by the story of the Trojan War as a lot of people. I’ve read The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, The Odyssey more than once, and admired the epic art of them, but the war itself has always seemed to me like a dreary Bronze Age episode of spearing and whacking, a couple of warring tribes whose quarrels would have long been forgotten were it not for the artistry of the bards and storytellers who gave their warfare an immortality that their actions hardly deserved. So I approached this book with some caution, thinking, “Not another swords-and-shields piece.”

I was surprised and delighted! Hand of Fire takes a character who is barely given mention in The Iliad, Briseis, and makes her the center of an original but familiar story. Briseis is the daughter of the king of a small tributary city allied with Troy, and she is also the priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa, which gives her powers of healing and divination. Briseis’ father hopes to keep his city out of the larger conflict, but as is often the case in war, his hopes are dashed. When the town’s warriors (including Briseis’ brothers) are called to fight, and a large party of Greek raiders arrives to attack the city, Briseis is forced to embark on a journey of self-reinvention that takes her through some very grim places, but from which she gains wisdom about life, love, and fate.

Judith Starkston writes with a scholar’s depth about this ancient era, and her detailed descriptive passages give the book a slower pace at the beginning than some readers may be used to. But stick with it – those descriptions are giving you the feel of what it was like to be a princess-priestess in the late Hittite era. And if the phrase “Hittite novel” has never occurred to you before, don’t worry. The passions, jealousies, lusts, and struggles of the characters have plenty of modern parallels. The tone of the novel is unusual, as the characters’ beliefs in the power of the gods and of their fate cause them to face situations with a degree of resignation that we’re unaccustomed to in contemporary characters. But in doing so, they are true to their times. The result is an appealing novel with a rich sense of place and era. You can learn more about Judith Starkston at her website, her Facebook page, her Goodreads page, or her Twitter feed.

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Judith Starkston

SW: Judith, thanks for agreeing to this interview! Could you start by telling my readers a little bit about yourself?

I write fiction set in the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire. Most people know little about this time and place, so my job is to build an engaging and accurate world for my readers, along with telling a good story. I wanted to write a novel that readers would enjoy even if they’d never read the Iliad. My degrees are in Classics so I have the academic background for this fun job. I taught high school English, Latin and Humanities. I live in Arizona with my husband and my golden retriever, Socrates.

SW: Your novel shows a great deal of passion for the ancient civilizations of what is now modern-day Turkey. How did you come by this interest?

As an undergraduate studying ancient Greek, I fell in love with Homer, the poet who tells us the Trojan War in the Iliad, which is set on the western coast of what is now Turkey. The Iliad became the perennial favorite among my students, so I had many opportunities to bring this ancient civilization alive for others. I’d always had a question about Briseis, the woman in the Iliad who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, two of the Greek kings. One of the few details we learn about her is that she is sad when forced to leave Achilles—she apparently loves him. Since he’s killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city, this always struck me as puzzling. My search for who she might have been led me deeper into the world of Bronze Age Anatolia (modern Turkey). Remarkably, history, as recorded in the huge cuneiform clay tablet libraries of this world, revealed a woman who had some very good reasons for loving a half-immortal hero like Achilles—from this arose my novel that combines legend and history.

SW: The main character, Briseis, is mentioned only in passing in The Iliad, but you’ve created a full-fledged character out of her. What did you find stimulating about Briseis?

The Iliad is a patriarchal epic. Women are sometimes vividly depicted, but they take second place and only briefly. The captive women, especially, are largely voiceless. The famous Helen has had many novels and artistic depictions, but rarely did Briseis get to tell her story and never on the foundation of what we now know about her world, knowledge that has come to light only in the late 20th C. I wanted to return a voice to this resilient character who was so central to the epic but so silent!

I was prodded by that question I mentioned above and that got me digging into her motives and character. That turned out to be only a starting point. As I explored this ancient world—dominated by the Hittite Empire, of which Troy was a semi-independent ally and cultural cousin—I found powerful women, both priestesses and rulers. Not what you expect, but there they were. The details of the rites and responsibilities of one particular kind of priestess, who shouldered the well-being of her society from the flocks to the fields to women’s fertility, had been recorded on clay tablets. Those rich details gave me a fascinating foundation to tell Briseis’s story. I didn’t expect, quite frankly, to have found such a strong woman who really did match up to the mythic Achilles.

SW: Briseis is a priestess and a healer, and thus engages in rituals and practices that a contemporary reader might find quite strange, such as snake divination and the lifting of curses. How did you keep Briseis true to her era while also making her sympathetic to the modern-day audience?

We sympathize with each other by recognizing our common emotional responses—grief, fear, joy, etc. It is always complicated to climb into the mind of an ancient woman. The unconscious temptation to make her think like a modern woman is tricky to resist. But human emotions don’t change nearly as much as our thinking does. So a mother’s grief for her child is absolutely recognizable throughout time. And a novelist can use those commonalities to create sympathy. But Briseis’s thinking is quite foreign—and thus fascinating—to a modern reader. That she faces the uncertainties of the future by performing a snake divination seems strange to us (or that she considers this rite a way to heal a sick person!) The intellectual underpinnings are positively weird, but the desire to know what lies ahead is easy for us to understand. So there’s a process of balancing emotions, which the reader shares with the ancient character, and thinking or procedures, which the reader finds new and startling. I think it’s an appealing combination.

SW: It’s interesting to see Achilles show up as a novel character rather than as the mythological figure we’ve come to know him as. Was the well-known mythological Achilles a help or a hindrance to you in characterizing your version of him?

I actually started including Achilles in the novel in the form of iambic pentameters (my English version of Homer’s hexameter poetic lines) because he felt too mythic and over-sized to fit into my novel in the ordinary way. So I guess you could call that a hindrance! Eventually through the poetry and through Briseis’s understanding of Achilles, I began to understand Achilles’ inner vulnerabilities and his personal voice, as opposed to the mythic persona. Then I was able to write him into scenes in the usual way and cut all the poetry. He still never behaves or feels like a “normal” human being. His half immortal side is always the elephant in the room, so to speak. But Briseis came to terms with him, so through her I was able to. I used to think when authors talked about their characters as if they lived somewhere independently that this was more than a bit insane, but I’ve come to realize that characters do just that. I’m not sure what we writers tap into, but a far richer sense of a human being gradually comes to light than I would have thought possible and I don’t always feel like I’m the one directing that process.

SW: I was struck by the detail and richness of your descriptions at several points. What was the key for you in creating such vivid sensory description?

A great deal of research and travel. There was no way this book was going to work unless I could put the reader into that world without any effort on the reader’s part. That meant I had to know intimately what my characters pick up, wear, eat, see, smell. I did everything I could through archaeological research to know with precision what the physical details would have been. I also was lucky enough to be able to travel extensively through the areas I set my book in, so the physical setting is quite vivid in my own personal experience. That really helped. I had to “build” every city from ruins I’d observed, but the waterfalls, shorelines, mountains remain to be lived. There are changes in plant life and sea levels and that sort of thing, but for the most part, those lived sensory experiences can transfer directly into the writing.

SW: I see that Hand of Fire was your debut novel. What’s next on your plate?

I’m in the editing stages of a historical mystery set in the Hittite Empire and then will send it out to agents. While researching Hand of Fire, I met the remarkable Queen Puduhepa. Had she not been, quite literally, buried by the sands of time, she’d be as much a household name as Cleopatra or Elizabeth I. We have her letters, treaties and judicial decrees, and I felt she’d make an excellent “sleuth” while ruling her empire for over 60 years. I’m hoping to popularize Puduhepa with a series. I’m also writing a sequel to Hand of Fire. Briseis’s story has many directions left to pursue.

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