Dear Readers and Followers of Al-Alhambra,
Sometime ago, I had ventured into the ancient libary of Alexandria, and I had found a scroll that told of an author named Judith Starkston. The name was strange, rather odd. I checked and found this book, a story that had not been told for thousands of years. This was the story of the Priestress of Ishana.
That aside, I’m joking. As Judith contacted and happily sent me an ARC of the first Hittite fantasy/mythological/historical novel I had ever set my eyes upon. The Priestress of Ishana. A fantastic book with rich development and elaborate description of a culture that many do not know about. If you’re interested in Mesopatamian Mythology, then this book is for you.
Below is an author bio from her website:
Judith Starkston has spent too much time 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 is her brand: Fantasy and Magic in a Bronze Age World. 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. Judith is represented by Richard Curtis.
You can order the book here:
This is free on KU!
The sequel, Socrery in Alpara is free from Oct 2-6th on KU! Grab it NOW!
Q. How did you contact historians to help you with research? I am pretty brave about writing key historians of the Hittites with questions. I’m good at making sure I don’t ask for too much time or effort from anyone. Academics are way over busy. When Hittitologists read my books, they like them and say my history is accurate, so that pleases me a lot.
My “rules” for the magic in my books comes straight from the Hittite rites written out on clay tablets, but I do allow the magic and fantasy to go well beyond strict adherence to history. The story is much more fun that way. I like Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase “a quarter turn to the fantastic” to describe my style.
Q. Who was the inspiration for Marak?
Marak is a pure product of my imagination. We don’t know anything about any of Hattu’s actual commanders. There are so many gaps in what we do know about this ancient people. That’s part of why I write fantasy–it’s honesty with my readers that I’m making a lot of stuff up. That’s also why I shift the names from the actual known ones–Hittite to Hitolia or Egypt to Egarya, for example. It cues my readers that I’m filling in the vast gaps in historical knowledge with my imagination and fantasy. That is also the best storytelling–which is really what I’m going for.
Q. How deep was the research you looked into, and what little nuggets of stories did you discover that was unknown about the Hittites?
I have gone deep into the research, both the book/reading part (years of that) and the travel. I’ve gone to the archaeological sites, landscapes, and museum collections in Turkey that are the source material for my world-building. I contact the dig directors and museum curators so that I can talk with them and learn first hand from the people who really know.
I spent a whole day at the site that we think was Tesha’s hometown that I call Lawaza, but was called Lawazantiya by the Hittites. It’s the archaeological site of Tatarli near the city of Adana in Turkey. The key reason they think it’s her hometown is that the dig mound with Bronze Age ruins of the right kind is surrounded by seven springs.
The Hittite records from the capital of the empire describe this town as having seven springs. The dig director took me to each of the springs–one of them appears in a key scene in Priestess of Ishana and I could never have gotten the atmospherics of that scene right if I hadn’t been there. My favorite nugget of Hittite magical rite that I use in Priestess involves chickpeas. The Hittites were obsessed with curses that they believed sorcerers used to cause all kinds of evil.
If you had to remove a curse from someone, you baked a loaf of bread with chickpea paste in the middle (basically humus) so that when you touched the bread to the cursed body while saying the right spell, the paste would absorb the pollution. I couldn’t make up this stuff in a million years, but the Hittite culture hands it to me. I just have to write it into compelling page-turners.
Q. Hattu seems to be an ambitious King, but his good nature can lead him into turmoil with the nobles. Will we see more of Egyara in the future?
Hattu tries to be a fair and just ruler, but his much more powerful brother, the Great King, accidentally set him up for having long term hidden enemies when he appointed Hattu king of the Upper Lands and in the process removed the previous ruler who was one of the nobles. That slight has a long memory life among the powerful families of Hattu’s kingdom and any time he shows signs of weakness, it bubbles back to the surface and spawns rebellions.
Then there is Egarya (Egypt). He totally pissed off the Pharaoh when he shamed Pharaoh by bettering him in battle. So, yes, you’ll see plenty from Egarya in future books. Historically, we know that the primary foe of the Hittites much of the time was Egypt, and I reflect that history in my plots. An arrogant Pharaoh with a ton of wealth, assassins and magic at his command makes for a great enemy in a fantasy series.
Q. Will we see Greece, i.e the fantasy version appear in the series?
Greece and the Hittites did bump heads in history. And yes, I’ll get to that in my Tesha series, but I haven’t quite yet. In my first book, Hand of Fire, I definitely have the Greeks because that book is set within the Trojan War. I’m planning to get back to writing that series and write a follow up to Hand of Fire, but I’ll first finish a couple more books in the Tesha series.
Q. Will we see more interactions with Gods in the future? Do you intend to add the fantasy Phonecians?
The gods–in particular Ishana–will continue to be a regular character in my series. That’s founded in what we know about Tesha and Hattu from history. Tesha, especially, had visionary dreams from the goddess that guided her actions throughout her life. Hattu attributed his power and military success to the goddess also. I don’t plan on incorporating Phoenicians.
Q. I fully agree with you that when you are researching the Bronze Age, it is difficult to separate fantasy from historical fiction. The people of the Bronze Age were really the creators of the Sci-fi we know and love, and influences of the Annunaki, the Kings, Genetic Cloning, Airports, Kings ruling for thousands of years have seeped into Star Trek and many shows. Do you intend to add a sci-fi element to this in your future novels?I am committed to immersing my readers into an accurate Hittite world, for all that I allow the magic built into Hittite beliefs free rein and have a blast with the fantasy. Going into sci-fi would be a really different direction for me. I might go there someday, but not in this series.
Q. After the fantasy Hittite Saga, where will you go? Egayra? Babylon? Assyria? Indus Valley? Would we see more incorporation of Gods and Beasts and fantasy adventure plots in other such projects?The fantastical beasts are already storming this series. You’ll find griffins in Sorcery in Alpara, book 2 of the Tesha series (launches Oct 14). Babylon, Assyrian and Egypt (my Egarya) are already in this series or coming soon in the third book, which I’m drafting now. This series has a lot more books to come, so I haven’t thought at all about some other series.
Thank you to the wonderful Judith Starkston for this excellent interview. I hope it inspires more authors to pick up Hittite Mythology and do more historical fantasy because it is such an under-rated genre!
For more links, also check out Gordon Doherty who’s written a historical fiction novel on the Hittites. It is now £2.99 on Amazon. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07SN67R24
Judith can be found here: