Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston
Judith Starkston's debut takes the reader deep into the history and mythology of ancient Greece to tell a story of love and war, mortality and immortality. Hand of Fire is the untold story of Briseis, a woman famed for her love of the half-god Achilles, but whose own history is little-known. As Starkston unfurls the early events of the Trojan War, she gives history new life through Briseis's eyes and offers readers a chance to experience the epic legend from a fresh perspective. The novel follows Briseis through her unfortunate marriage to a harsh prince, the loss of her family and land, and eventually through her complex journey of falling in love with her captor, the fiercest warrior of her peoples' enemy.
While Briseis has come to be familiar in name to many enthusiasts of the Greek mythology, her story is often told only in the shadow of Achilles and the Trojan War. By combining what little is available of this remarkable woman in history and myth with the creative freedom of the novel, Starkston creates a beautiful rendering of Briseis as a fully-realized heroine. The open and emotional narrative, carried on Starkston's smart prose, gives the reader an immediate understanding of Briseis from her young beginnings as a healing priestess, the only daughter among several sons old enough to fight when the warriors of Greece reach Lyrnessos. On her own to chart the territory of marriage to a brutal husband, and then eventually as a princess-turned-captive in the Greek war camps, Briseis is on a constant search for strength. It makes her an ideal character to helm a story steeped in the legend and lore of the Bronze Age, and that's precisely what Starkston delivers.
Not least among the challenges Briseis faces in the Greek camps is the complicated terrain of being in love with a half-god. Starkson’s approach to Achilles rests on the more compassionate aspects of his legend, which makes for a compelling exploration into what could have balanced him as an insatiable warrior and also someone with whom Briseis could fall in love. Other central characters appear, such as Agamemnon, Patroclus, and Odysseus, while Starkston also lends her creativity to the tale in the form of original characters, many of which make up the other women held captive in the war. They all blend together to create a cast that recalls the nuances of the classic legend while also reminding readers how timeless and even modern the emotions behind the story really are.
Hand of Fire is superbly researched and thoughtfully plotted, providing an entertaining escape from the modern world into an unforgettable period of heroes and villains. Through Starkston’s careful attention to detail and her natural inclination for storytelling, she explores the spirit of a courageous young woman whose love empowered the vulnerability of a legendary hero, and whose own valiant pursuit of freedom makes her worthy of a legend all her own.