Book Review and Giveaway: “Hand of Fire” by Judith Starkston

I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.

About the book:

Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story.

I was particularly impressed with how Starkston dealt with women’s lives: the endless rounds of chores—particularly weaving—that even elite women dealt with; the emotional toll of being uprooted from home and family and thrust into a life of dependence on brutal foreign soldiers; the gritty experience of camp followers and slaves cooking, nursing, and hauling water. This is not only Briseis’ story, but that of her fellow captives, as well. The author provides us with a set of fully developed supporting characters—both female and male.

Starkston also explores the role of religion in this Bronze Age society. In a time when gods walked the earth and took sides in battles; when every stream, mountain, and  cave had its sprite or guardian; when harvests, business success, and health depended on propitiating the gods; religion was integral to everyone’s life. Briseis is a healing priestess and steeped in the rituals that will protect her people. What happens to her faith when her city is devastated, her people murdered, and she is carried off into slavery by the son of a foreign goddess?

The author’s background as a classicist and her research skills add immensely to the historical details and setting of this book. She tramped the fields around Troy, visited Hittite archaeology sites and museums, and studied the latest research on Bronze Age culture. I like historical fiction that takes me to a different time and place. The best stories immerse me in a foreign culture and give me insight into the differences in societies and the commonalities of the human condition. I like to feel the fabric on my skin, smell the plants, taste the food, hear the music and religious chants, as well as see the craggy mountains or the wine dark sea. Starkston delivers.

In conclusion, I found Hand of Fire to be a very satisfying read and an impressive debut novel. Highly recommended. If you’d like to put your hat in the ring for the giveaway, see the details below.

About the author:

Author photoJudith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

If you’d like to get in touch with Judith, read more about her research and books, you can contact her at her website, twitter or Facebook. I recommend her blog where she has a weekly roundup of history in the news and writing advice. Judith is on a virtual blog tour and has several interesting guest posts and interviews up. You can check out the tour here.

Book Details:

Giveaway Details (restricted to US and UK):

Thanks to Fireship Press for providing the book for a giveaway. Entry is easy: leave a comment on this post by midnight Tuesday, September 30 (email not necessary in the comment). If you want a second entry, sign up to follow the blog or indicate you’re already a follower. For third/fourth/etc. chances, repost this giveaway on your Facebook, blog, Twitter, website, etc. and post the link(s) in your comment. Don’t worry if your post doesn’t appear immediately, because I moderate comments and don’t spend my life at my computer. Raffle King will randomly select the winner and I’ll announce it (and get in touch with the winner) on Wednesday, October 1.  Good luck!

Congratulations to the winner: Denise!

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