The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature from Ancient Greece. So I was thrilled when I received an advanced copy from the author of The Hand of Fire, a novel set during the Trojan War.
In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, the best of the Greek warriors, has taken as one of his prizes the woman Briseis. Briseis is captured from the city of Lyrnessos which Achilles and the Myrmidons raided in their search for prizes, livestock and anything else to help sustain their war effort. The character of Briseis in the Iliad says very few words. But what would it have been like to be a princess of a prosperous Bronze Age city and then taken captive by a Greek warrior? How was Briseis treated by Achilles and did she actually love him? These are the questions that Judith Starkston attempts to answer in her new novel Hand of Fire.
When Hand of Fire begins, Lyrnessos is a thriving city and Briseis has been raised by her mother to be a priestess and a healer who will serve her people. She is betrothed to the prince of Lyrnessos and she will someday become the city’s queen. The aspect of the novel that impressed me the most is the amount of research that the author did pertaining to Bronze Age homes, religious customs, and society. I have read the Iliad countless times, and I have even translated it in from the original Ancient Greek. Hand of Fire let me see the world of the Trojan War in a way in which I had never fully imagined.
This novel helped me to understand better these Bronze Age people as they went about their everyday lives, working, marrying, worshipping and even sharing daily meals. Women like Briseis who were captured in war were seen as valuable prizes (geras in Ancient Greek) just as bronze ware, cattle, textiles and other precious metals. This book helped me to appreciate the human side of this story and what a tragedy it must have been like for these women to one minute be living happy and prosperous lives and the next be a slave to a Greek warrior and having to serve his every need.
Hand of Fire does not give us the warriors’ perspective or the skirmishes on the battlefield, so if you are looking for a modern retelling of Homer’s tale then this is not it. However, this story does give us a glimpse of the suffering experienced by Briseis and other women who were victims of this long and infamous war.