Please welcome author Judith Starkstonto the blog. Her latest novel – Of Kings and Griffins – launches today. Here’s what one reader had to say about book #1 of the series: A delightful story that carried me off to a lavish, half-historical, half fantasy world. The result of the author’s mingling of fact with fantasy was a tale I didn’t want to put down.
Mary kindly invited me to join her on her blog today to describe the historical fiction I write and how it has changed over time. In my case, the changes have been so extensive, I have ended up writing fiction that straddles two genres—historical and fantasy.
I write novels focused on the life of an extraordinary queen—which is true, of course, of a lot of historical fiction. As readers, we are eternally captivated by royal women. “My” queen, however, steps onto the page from an unusual period of history, the Hittite empire of the Late Bronze Age, and she brings along some magic.
The queen I call Tesha, (her real name was Puduhepa) first appears in the historical record around 1274 BCE. She ruled for decades over the powerful Hittite empire, stretching roughly across what’s now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Her great rival, Ramses II, the Pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses, is well known, but, unfortunately, Puduhepa is considerably less so, because the world of the Hittites was lost to history for so long—literally buried in the sands of time. This remarkable queen corralled Ramses II, diplomatically speaking, into a peace treaty that suited her needs far more than his. He was a notoriously arrogant bully, so that’s an immensely satisfying moment in history to me. The clay tablets of that agreement, the first extant peace treaty in history, are on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. This ancient female leader doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves. My novels focus on the early part of her story as she met the great love of her life and followed a very bumpy road to power.
Along with being, eventually, an influential queen much admired in her own time even if forgotten later, she was also a priestess who had visionary dreams from her goddess. “Tesha” in Hittite means “dream,” hence my choice of name for her. She performed elaborate rites that we would call magical. The instructions for many of these ceremonies also survive on clay tablets. They often fall into the category of “you couldn’t make this up” and provide a wild and rich source to develop the magical, fantastical elements of the series.
Grounded as I am in history—my training was as a classicist—I didn’t start off envisioning my novels as a combination of history and fantasy. I thought I’d write historical mysteries, using this smart, puzzle-solving queen as my “sleuth.” It wasn’t until I became fully immersed, that I realized the Hittite predilection for psychologically fascinating magic was a vein of gold to mine deeply. I also began to find layers of international intrigue that raised the stakes for my characters and moved the plot of each book beyond the question of who killed whom. My historical fiction had taken “a quarter turn to the fantastical,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s term. It has been a dramatic journey. As you may notice from the cover of the latest book in the series, Of Kings and Griffins, I also adopted as characters the mythical griffins depicted in Hittite artwork and adorning the walls of ancient throne rooms—and griffins are even more fun than dragons!
Of Kings and Griffins is book 3 in the Tesha series but is easily read as a standalone. The two earlier books in the series are Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara.
For more about Judith Starkston, her newsletter, and the historical background of her novels go to her website.
For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?
Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.
Many thanks, Judith! Best wishes for your latest novel. I’ve already put it on my TBR list!
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I’m in awe of authors who write about truly ancient times – and Judith Starkston is one of them! This tale of ancient marriage and political intrigue comes from her novel Priestess of Ishana, the first book in her Tesha series, which is available free on Amazon October 2-6 as part of the launch Oct 14 of the second book, Sorcery in Alpara.
An Unusual Royal Love Story: When Hattusili Met Puduhepa ~~ by Judith Starkston
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 historic 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.
At the heart of my series is a love story—one that spanned about forty years. The historical record tells us about the start of this relationship between Puduhepa, priestess of Ishtar at the goddess’s temple in Lawazantiya, and King Hattusili, younger brother of the Great King of the Hittite Empire. (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. Hattusili goes by the shortened name Hattu.)
The usual path for a royal family member was an arranged marriage designed to solidify relations between kingdoms or powerful families. Hattusili, royal prince, also served as king of one of the most troublesome parts of the empire—a lesser king to the Great King, but powerful and trusted by Great King Muwattalli. Thus his marriage would have been more consequential than most.
Hattusili did make a politically useful marriage, but we have no evidence that Great King Muwattalli arranged it. Instead the record gives us an intriguing tale with mystical elements.
Hattusili composed a document that is sometimes referred to as his “Autobiography” or “Apology.” In form it is the announcement of the dedication of a landed estate to the goddess Ishtar, and it describes the ways Hattusili has experienced Ishtar’s divine providence throughout his life. It’s not an unbiased account—if such a thing exists. However, other documents, such as prayers and decrees, as well as his actions support the authenticity of Hattusili’s devotion to Ishtar and therefore the integrity of this narrative.
Hattusili described in this document how when his brother decided to go to war against Egypt, he served as his brother’s general and brought his small kingdom’s troops and chariots with him. A good deal later, on the way home from this military encounter known as the Battle of Kadesh, Hattusili made a detour to dedicate his portion of the battle loot to his goddess Ishtar at her most illustrious temple in Lawazantiya. He believed he owed his victory over Egypt to his goddess, and he put his money on that belief and paid her back. Of the unexpected event that occurred while making these offerings, he said (Hoffner’s translation):
At the command of the goddess Ishtar I took Puduhepa, daughter of the priest Pentipsharri, as my wife. We joined in matrimony, and the goddess gave us the love of husband and wife. We had sons and daughters. On this occasion the goddess my lady appeared to me in a dream saying: “Serve me with your household!” So I served the goddess together with my household. The goddess was there with us in the household which we made, and our household thrived. This too was a sign of Ishtar’s honoring me.
Ishtar arranged, even commanded, his marriage, and the results were harmonious.
In the same autobiographical document, Hattusili also mentioned accusations of sorcery brought against him around this same time. I used this bare outline of events as a foundation to build the plot of Priestess of Ishana.
We know from the poignancy of Puduhepa’s prayers on her husband’s behalf (he suffered poor health) and many other indications that this historic couple gained profound support from their love for each other. They worked as equals, which was allowed under Hittite law and custom, but wasn’t the common king-queen relationship. Puduhepa showed brilliant skills as his queen in many areas: administrative, diplomatic, judicial, religious and familial. Ishtar’s command, which they both said they received via dreams, suited them well. Their long partnership certainly suits my fiction well.
Of course, no marriage is without troubles, and I do not spare these two characters—conflict is the sustenance of good storytelling. The insiders’ view of this marriage’s unusual beginning serves as an excellent starting point for the first book in the series, Priestess of Ishana, and the overall arc of their relationship underpins the other books. I chose in the second book, Sorcery in Alpara, to put their love to some striking tests because I have observed that long-lasting, happy marriages get there by slogging through bad times, not by having fairytale endings.Although these “tests” qualify as one of those gaps I fill imaginatively, I cannot believe two rulers of a fractious, problematic kingdom who were beset by enemies on all sides could have entirely avoided marital crises. They would have had to learn by trial and error how to conduct that enduring partnership. There were few if any models around them, and their marriage stood out among the ancients as famously remarkable—a true equal meeting of minds and hearts.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7,Priestess of Ishana, depicting the moment Tesha and Hattu first lay eyes on each other, the beginning of this unusual royal love story:
Cries of alarm arose from the courtyard of Ishana’s temple.
“It’s a curse.”
“No one’s safe!”
“It will kill us.”
Hattu worked his way through the throng to the base of the steps that led to the sacrificial area. A curse? His limbs hummed with tension as they did in battle.
At the center of the crowd, a trembling boy leaned against an old man with a white beard and weather-beaten face.
Hattu looked at the frightened child, then signaled his men by the entryway to be watchful. Marak caught his eye and nodded.
A distinguished, gray-haired man dressed in the fur-trimmed, black robes of Grand Votary of Ishana appeared at the top of the stairs and raised his hands to order silence.
“Where are these shepherds?” The Grand Votary spoke with forbidding sternness.
The child shrank against the old man.
A servant stepped forward and pointed. “There, sir.”
The shepherd, pushing the boy along, stepped closer. Hattu thought they must be the same two he’d seen earlier on the lower trail.
In the shadows of the portico behind the open area for sacrifices, folds of a red gown swung into view. One of Ishana’s priestesses. For a moment, the striking profile of a woman leaned into the light and then slipped back out of sight—all but the outline of her shapely arm. Hattu stretched to catch a better view.
“This old man and his grandson say they found a dead body,” the servant said. “They saw signs of sorcery in the cave.”
“The cave?” The Grand Votary’s voice grew shrill. “What’s this?” He descended the stairs. The old man panted with shortness of breath. The boy’s small chest rose in jerks of fear and the sound of his sobs carried to Hattu.
The young priestess came into the open, down the stairs, past the Grand Votary, close to the grandfather and child.
At the sight of her, an unfamiliar surge in Hattu’s heart caught him off guard. Slipping from under her veil, her long black hair glistened with the iridescence of a dragonfly over water. He could imagine it pouring through his fingers. He took in her luxuriantly proportioned body and recalled his conversation with Marak about bedmates. He ducked his head to clear it. This wasn’t a moment to let a pretty girl distract him.
He stepped closer. Her gaze went straight to him for an instant and she nodded, as if she recognized him. A sense of familiarity drew him to her. Impossible. Hattu shook off the sensation. A curse threatened.
Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston, available free on Amazon Oct 2-6 ~~ 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.
What a wonderful story, Judith. Some day you’ll have to tell me how you became fascinated with the Hittites!
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