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Guest Article: Writing Real Historical Figures Into Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

Last week I reviewed Judith Starkston’s first book in her new historical fantasy series about Tesha, a priestess and queen from the Bronze Age. I really enjoyed Priestess of Ishana (see my review here if you missed it) and felt it was the great start to a wonderful series. It published last year and now the second book, Sorcery in Alpara, is available today (see info below under the guest article)! Judith kindly has stopped by to talk about how she modeled Tesha off a real life queen. Isn’t that exciting? To history nerds, myself it is!! Take a look at that beautiful cover for book two and then enjoy the article.

Sorcery cover - 500x750px

 

The Queen Behind the Character
By Judith Starkston, author of Priestess of Ishana

I write historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites (c. 1275 BCE)—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. In spite of the vivid glimpses of this lost kingdom brought to light by recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets, there still remain vast gaps in historians’ knowledge. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, my storytelling combines fantasy and history.

For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names. I also let the magical religious beliefs of these historical people find full expression in the action. My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions. Allowing room for the fantastical elements suggested by Hittite culture makes for the best storytelling.

What really drew me to this forgotten kingdom—one that stretched across what’s now Turkey into Syria and down into Lebanon—was one remarkable ruler, Queen Puduhepa. She ruled for decades over the most powerful empire of the Late Bronze Age, but because the Hittites were lost to history for so long, very few people know about her.

Puduhepa

King Hattusili III and Puduhepa / Wiki Commons

She ruled with her husband Hattusili III as an equal partner—often, in fact, as the more active ruler when her husband’s health limited his work. Queens under Hittite law and custom had high political power and remained rulers even when their husbands died, unlike other Near Eastern queens such as Babylonian and Egyptian. Most of the Hittite queens mentioned in the written Hittite records didn’t exercise this allowed power to such an extent, but Puduhepa had the personality and drive of a highly effective leader.

In my novels the character who represents Puduhepa is named Tesha after the Hittite word for ‘dream’ because the historic woman was famous for her visionary dreams, which she believed came from the goddess Ishtar as divine guidance (a goddess renamed Ishana in my fiction). The character of her husband, Hattusili, goes by the shortened name Hattu.

Puduhepa demonstrated brilliant skills as queen in many areas: administrative, diplomatic, judicial, and familial. Her most famous accomplishment was corralling Pharaoh Rameses II into a peace treaty. Egypt and the Hittites had fought a draining war in 1274 BCE. Neither kingdom was eager for a rematch, but Hattusili and Puduhepa had an even greater need than Egypt for stability. Several of Puduhepa’s letters to Ramses survive. They reveal a subtle diplomat with a tough but gracious core that allows her to stand up to Ramses without giving offense. When the final treaty was put on public display—in the form of a solid silver plaque, which sadly does not survive, although clay versions do—Puduhepa’s own seal was on one side, her husband’s on the other. They did sometimes use a joint seal. I think it’s revealing that on this most impressive accomplishment that depended so much on Puduhepa’s talents, they chose to use equal and independent seals. Thus, Puduhepa’s role is not subsumed under her husband’s.

I could not resist using the life of this exceptional queen as the basis for my main character, Tesha, in a historical fantasy series. The first book of the series, Priestess of Ishana, opens with the moment Tesha and Hattu meet—following the known details of this historical event. There was the ever so tantalizing detail in Hittite records that accusations of sorcery were brought against Hattusili around this same time. A love story and sorcery? Irresistible! The second book in the series, Sorcery in Alpara, carries on their story with a curse that consumes armies, a court full of traitors, a clutch of angry concubines and some fantastical creatures who appear regularly in Hittite art, but may not have actually walked the earth.

Tesha and the real queen behind my character offer an intriguing model of a female leader succeeding in ways that made the world more peaceful and just. So, if you like your fiction to be a mixture of worthwhile ideas, magical fun, and a unique, ancient world, give the Tesha series a read.

Sorcery cover - 500x750px

Sorcery in Alpara, Synopsis –
Tesha series,
Book Two

A curse that consumes armies, a court full of traitors, a clutch of angry concubines and fantastical creatures who offer help but hate mankind.

Tesha’s about to become queen of a kingdom under assault from all sides, but she has powerful allies: her strategist husband, his crafty second-in-command, and her brilliant blind sister.

Then betrayal strips her of them all. To save her marriage and her world, she will have to grapple with the serpentine plot against her and unleash the goddess Ishana’s uncontrollable magic—without destroying herself.

Purchase Link –

Amazon

Judith Starkston, Biography –

Author Photo (1)Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell.

She loves myths and telling stories. This has gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age.

Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award.

Sign up for her newsletter on her website JudithStarkston.com for a free short story, book news and giveaways.

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Stay tuned in November for my review of Sorcery in Alpara!

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Review: Historical Fantasy Priestess of Ishana Based on Bronze Age by Judith Starkston #histfic #fantasy #bookreviews

Priestess of Ishana, Review –
Tesha Series, Book One
Judith Starkston
Historical Fantasy

priestess cover 500x750px

Today I’m doing a review of Judith Starkston’s historical fantasy novel Priestess of Ishana, which is book one of her Tesha series. Book two is coming out soon and Judith will be back very soon with a guest article for us, “The Queen Behind the Character.”

We know so little of the Hittite culture, don’t we? I’m enamored by the ancient civilizations and especially drawn to some of them as it’s such a puzzle to figure it all out. These people lived but so far removed from us. What were they like? Like us? Or were there supernatural elements of the gods? Art and fiction point us in all sorts of directions. I’m an overall historical fiction reader as well as fantasy and when they mix, I know it’s probably going to be something I might enjoy. With Judith Starkston, we always get strong female leads torching the way who are modeled after real life classical people of the past.

I first encountered Judith’s work with Hand of Fire, which was about Briseis and the Trojan War, and thoroughly enjoyed it. In her new series, we meet fifteen-year-old independent, strong priestess Tesha during the Bronze Age and Hittolian era, when real life queen Puduhepa reigned. Tesha is modeled after her, bringing real historical elements to the fiction. Learning more about the Hittite culture through this book was exciting, and I’d say… magical… but it WAS a magical time wasn’t it? We can’t know for sure, but I think so. Hittite and Greek culture brings us stories of the gods and Priestess of Ishana was no less filled with the magic, drama, and intrigue of these supernatural legends.

First let me say what I love the most about Judith’s writing is her prowess with historical details as a sturdy foundation for her fiction. That makes her world-building phenomenal in the way that her descriptions make us feel as if we are there (as if she herself traveled there and is interposing details she saw). On that level, it feels as if she entered a portal in time in order to bring back knowledge to us. Her ability to create time and place we can visually see in our heads in such a stunning way is the sign of a wonderful storyteller. She has opened our eyes to history in a way that isn’t documented many other places and has woven it into a story that would propel anyone’s learning, let alone entertain readers.

Second, I am always enamored by Judith’s female leads. My daughter is a young, strong fifteen-year-old and so I loved thinking about her in this role (and think this is a great book as well for that age reader), but also, big shoes to fill! I love that Judith is bringing these lost women of history to the stage from these ancient eras. Her character of Tesha is fiesty, intelligent, and a woman of great strength in a time where military action and intrigue was prominent. Her dialogue, her dimensional work on Tesha, was so good it made you feel as if you might really know her. She centers her tale of Tesha in her teen years as a priestess of Ishana and I’m extremely happy we’ll be able to see her grow in this series.

Even if all that is good enough for me, as I read a lot of historical fiction books based on strong females in history (forgotten or otherwise), the addition of the magic and supernatural with a curse from the dark Underworld weaved in created momentum, action, and excitement. Hattu, who Tesha meets at the temple, is the younger brother of the Great King, and is arrested as an evil sorcerer by her father (high priest and governor). Tesha believes him innocent. She starts on a trek to save him but risks her family’s honor doing so. This is where the mystery and romantic elements come into the story and all was well-written and attention grabbing for me as a reader.

Judith has another win for me with this book and this series. I can’t wait to read more and follow Tesha’s story! Grippint, accurate ancient history mixed with supernatural intrigue and mystery, drama and intrigue, and highly-developed characters with intricate details – Priestess of Ishana has for all the makings of a stellar book for readers of YA to adult. This is another must for any shelf of books featuring women lost to history. I highly recommend this book to historical fiction readers as well as historical fantasy and fantasy readers. You’ll be breezing through it’s pages like you were swept back in time and then not want to return home.

priestess cover 500x750pxPriestess of Ishana, Synopsis –
Tesha Series, Book One

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

An award-winning epic fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery. Isolated in prison and facing execution, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

If you like a rich mixture of murder mystery, imperial scheming, sorcery, love story, and lavish world-building, then immerse yourself in this historical fantasy series. See why readers call the Tesha series “fast-paced,” “psychologically riveting,” and “not to be missed.”

Praise for Priestess of Ishana

This time the throne is bronze. – Tinney Heath, Author

What George R.R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, & magic… – Amalia Carosella, Author

Purchase Link 

Amazon 

Start this series with book one now, as book two is available soon.

Sorcery cover - 500x750pxSorcery in Alpara, Synopsis –
Tesha series,
Book Two

A curse that consumes armies, a court full of traitors, a clutch of angry concubines and fantastical creatures who offer help but hate mankind.

Tesha’s about to become queen of a kingdom under assault from all sides, but she has powerful allies: her strategist husband, his crafty second-in-command, and her brilliant blind sister.

Then betrayal strips her of them all. To save her marriage and her world, she will have to grapple with the serpentine plot against her and unleash the goddess Ishana’s uncontrollable magic—without destroying herself.

Purchase Link –

Amazon

Judith Starkston, Biography –

Author Photo (1)Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell.

She loves myths and telling stories. This has gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age.

Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award.

Sign up for her newsletter on her website JudithStarkston.com for a free short story, book news and giveaways.

Sign-up for her newsletter!

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Bookbub

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Filed under Book Reviews, women in history