Book Review: Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

by Judith Starkston

Set during the Trojan War, Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire opens with the vain attempts of Briseis to save her mother, Antiope, from a wasting disease that eventually kills her. Briseis’s grief is further compounded by the stress of her duties as a novice healing priestess of Kamrusepa—her skills, she fears, underdeveloped and now at risk without her mother’s guiding hand—and future wife to the violent bully Mynes, heir to the throne of Lyrnessos. The impending union is delayed for the mourning period, but eventually the pair are wed.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Briseis, reared alongside three brothers is, even in the patriarchal society that grew her, a strong and intelligent woman. Her parents—chief military advisor to the king and senior healing priestess—surely set the tone for the brothers, who enable Briseis with an interest in her father’s estate as well as his metal works. So it is that her dread regarding her marriage threatens all that she is, in addition to the physical violence that lay in wait.

Briseis manages to assuage her fears amongst other events of her life, including a visit from Greek traders and a frightening incident in which she heals Hatepa, queen to Euenos and demanding mother of Mynes. She also sees visions of Achilles, that half-mortal whose goddess mother, in her quest to protect him from an eventual mortal’s death, equipped him with the fierce fighting ability that even in his own time already is legend.

At this point many readers will have nodded their heads in recognition, at least at the name Achilles and likely that of Agamemnon, Mycenaean king and commander of the Trojan War. Where though, they may ask, is Briseis in all this? The answer is that she actually plays a significant role in the Iliad of their previous study, though Homer only gives her a few lines. Here, then, is a huge portion of the majesty of Starkston’s novel, that she has crafted an entire story from a few lines in an epic poem of a ten-year war.

Those lines, of course, convey a great deal of Briseis’s life, and reveal her status as a once future queen, the fall of Lyrnessos and death of Briseis’s entire family, her later status and then of the rift between the two warriors when the commander removes Briseis from Achilles for his own pleasure and the half-god’s subsequent refusal to continue fighting for the greedy Agamemnon.

Using these lines, historical research and archeological resources, Starkston presents a multi-dimensional woman character who is much more than the now-standard “strong female behind the scenes.” Homer does assign Briseis a backstage role, but Starkston infuses her with the passion, dreams, fears, understanding and weaknesses that drive her. In the midst of swirling rumors of Greek raids a group of traders seek business in Glaukos’s absence; in her desperation to end her hospitable obligation and send them on their way, Briseis inquires about Achilles.

Briseis and Phoenix, red-figure kylix, c. 490 B.C. via Wikimedia Commons

She loved the bards’ tales. The tale of Achilles had enthralled her the first time she had heard it sung. Some versions even said an immortal, Chiron—half horse, half man—had taught Achilles to be a healer, of all things. It seemed a pleasant topic to her, but the traders looked alarmed. She remembered that her mother had often warned her not to go on about the stories she loved—it was unladylike and wild. Look what she had done—made them uncomfortable with her inappropriate conversation.

Indeed, both Starkston as well as Briseis admit to the latter’s shortcomings, Briseis owning up to dodging temple duty and the possibility of her own incompetence. Nevertheless, with precision she aims to do the best she can. As wife to Mynes she is unsure of her place: “When she had arisen each day at her father’s, she knew what tasks lay ahead[. . .]. She did not know how to live this new life, but she would figure it out.”

Imperfect Briseis certainly is, but her humanity is intact as Starkston shows us, in one of the more shudder-inducing scenes, that even those who lived in ancient times are closer to us than we may presume. They were also people who lived, laughed, loved, labored, hungered and, in the midst of savage behavior, died. They are more than distant characters whose lives played out on a blurry screen. Following the fall of her city and in flight via the back gate, Briseis in anger peers into one of the shops.

The family had not left in time. A man lay dead amidst a pile of broken pots—his trade. Huddled in a corner, three children had been run through with swords; their blood formed a pool around them. A baby had been swung against a wall, its head crushed. The mother must have been dragged off. The Greeks left only the dead. Briseis fell to her knees. She ripped away the linen covering her mouth and threw up, then pulled herself up.

Briseis’s rage alters the course of her life in ways she could never have expected and with the princess we journey through the aftermath of destruction, the intense and complicated emotions and further awareness it brings out in her, how she sees staggering beauty amongst unimaginable carnage and recognizes that love and hate are wed. Starkston portrays Briseis with compassion, remaining faithful to Homer’s place for her while artfully revealing much more, moving at a pace realistic to modern readers, all the while staying true to the Late Bronze Age sensibilities in which the characters all live.

Truth be told, this reviewer was initially uncertain of the novel’s ability to provide satisfaction, owing to it being outside a previously established comfort zone as well as prior lack of love for The Iliad. But “Who doesn’t love The Odyssey?” paired with a summoning from Hand of Fire’s blurb provided unresistable temptation, a magical pull, and once readers are in, Starkston’s ability to weave a story that wraps itself around its audience like a warm and comfortable cloak captures the imagination and beckons a following.

Achilles’ surrender of Briseis to Agamemnon, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, fresco, 1st century A.D. via Wikimedia Commons

While the opening scenes at first seemed to move slowly, Starkston brings us to realize—without having to articulate the understanding—that this reflects a long and arduous process of descent as experienced by the ailing Antiope as well as Briseis, who prolongs her mother’s agony with false hopes and cures. From then on out events in Hand of Fire move as quickly for us as they do for Briseis, Starkston’s own hand skillfully beckoning us within, utilizing history and mythology to see more deeply into the life of Briseis as well as Achilles from her perspective.

Starkston has quite magnificently brought to brilliant, vibrant life one very small portion of a much larger work, showing us in the process how much life resides within the diminutive. Giving voice to an important figure in the Trojan War, she employs vivid and dramatic descriptions, enabling readers often to sense the same emotions that swirl around the characters, to feel as if they, too, are part of the story:

“The air turned chill and the darkness edged in around the torches’ flares as if it were a living presence. The smell of dank mold surrounded them.”

Many other reasons to admire this novel are also within the content of her author’s note, where Starkston succinctly and eloquently explains her methods and some details behind the writing of the book. Not your grade school teacher’s handout notes, this is readable, fascinating and honest; the author speaks of the manner in which characters, even in the process of being written, claim their own identities, all while remaining true to historical fact and documented archeological evidence. Her consideration for readers is also woven in, and she succeeds magnificently, for even those most worried about dry and dull Hittites will quickly observe in Briseis a mirror of their selves, one in which is seen strengths and shortcomings, and the ability to adapt to love, loss and that which we cannot change–a life worth remembering.

The author provided a gratis copy of Hand of Fire in exchange for an honest review. 

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location

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