Two from 2019: Priestess of Ishana and Call Upon the Water

I’ve been gradually catching up with my backlog of 2019 reviews throughout January and today I’m going to talk about the final two books I read in December – two books with very different settings and subjects.

First, Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston. Historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age isn’t necessarily something I would usually be drawn to, but as I’ve previously enjoyed Starkston’s Hand of Fire, the story of Briseis from the Iliad, when I was offered a review copy of this one I was happy to give it a try.

The novel opens in the Hitolian city of Lawaza with a curse, a death and whispers of treason and dark magic. Suspicion falls on Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, who has recently arrived in Lawaza, and he is quickly imprisoned and sentenced to death by the city’s Grand Votary. Tesha, the Grand Votary’s daughter, believes Hattu is innocent and sets out to clear his name, but this brings her into conflict with her father. But this is not the only challenge Tesha faces – as a priestess devoted to Ishana, the goddess of love and war, the people of her city are relying on her to overcome the evil of the Underworld.

The characters are fictional and so is the story, but the world in which the action takes place – the Hitolian Empire – is based on the real Hittite Empire. Tesha herself is inspired by the historical Puduhepa, a priestess of Ishtar (renamed here Ishana), although as I know nothing at all about the history of the Hittite Empire and hadn’t previously heard of Puduhepa, I have no idea how close the parallels are between fact and fiction. I think the setting would have provided an interesting enough story even without the sorcery, evil curses and magical creatures, but I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and other readers might feel differently. I did love the atmosphere, the strong female characters – both Tesha and her sister, Daniti – and the element of mystery. Tesha’s story continues in a sequel, Sorcery in Alpara, which is available now.

Moving on to Stella Tillyard’s Call Upon the Water, this is another historical novel but one set in a much more recent period – the seventeenth century. It follows the story of Jan Brunt, a Dutch surveyor and mapmaker who arrives in England in 1649, the year of King Charles I’s beheading. Jan is part of a team working on a new engineering project: the draining and development of the Great Level, a large expanse of marsh to the north of Ely in the English Fens. It is here that Jan meets Eliza, an illiterate young Fenland woman with whom he falls in love.

Switching between two time periods and locations – England in 1649 and Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement which would later become New York City, in 1664 – and told in two voices, Jan’s and Eliza’s – this is a beautifully written novel and a moving, poignant story. However, I found the pace very, very slow and I struggled to stay interested in the long, detailed descriptions of Jan’s work in draining the marshes and directing the flow of the water. I don’t think I was the ideal reader for this book as I do prefer novels with stronger plots, but I did like Stella Tillyard’s writing and wouldn’t rule out reading another of her books.

Call Upon the Water has also been published as The Great Level but I have used the title of the edition I received to review from Atria Books via NetGalley.

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Have you read these books? Do either of these subjects interest you?

Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

perf6.000x9.000.indd In this wonderful combination of historical fiction and Greek mythology, Judith Starkston reimagines events from the Iliad, telling the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a woman who plays an important role in Homer’s epic despite being only briefly mentioned. In Hand of Fire, Briseis is finally given the attention she deserves.

At the beginning of the novel, Briseis is a young priestess of the healing goddess Kamrusepa, but is sadly unable to prevent her own mother from dying. There is more sadness to follow for Briseis when she is married off to Mynes, a prince of Lyrnessos, and finds him to be a violent and abusive man. Sustained by the compassion of her elderly nurse, Eurome, and by visions of the handsome, half-immortal Greek warrior, Achilles, the turning point comes when the city of Lyrnessos falls to the Greek army and Briseis is taken captive. How can she reconcile her love for Achilles with her new position as slave?

Hand of Fire surprised me; I really didn’t expect to enjoy it quite as much as I did. I love reading historical fiction but tend not to choose books set in the ancient world. I often find that I have trouble identifying with the characters – I sometimes feel that even the non-mythological ones seem more like mythological beings than real people. That was not a problem here: this is a very human story with characters I could love and care about. Briseis herself is a great protagonist and I liked her from the beginning. She has great strength and resilience, all the more impressive when you consider everything she has to endure – the loss of her mother, marriage to a man who treats her badly, personal tragedy in the face of war, life as a captive slave, and her tumultuous relationship with Achilles.

Achilles is more difficult to understand. His personality is complex and conflicted; in battle he is a fierce, mighty warrior gripped by an unstoppable rage, but when he is alone with Briseis we see the gentler, more sensitive side of his nature. Of the secondary characters, there are two in particular that I found very well developed and memorable. One is Eurome, Briseis’ elderly maid, a caring, warm-hearted person and a devoted friend Briseis can trust and rely upon. The other is Patroklos, the beloved companion of Achilles, the only person apart from Briseis who is able to quell his rage.

This is a novel that has been thoroughly researched, which is evident from Judith Starkston’s author’s note in which she describes her reasons for writing this story, the things she discovered during the writing process and the decisions she needed to make. She does an excellent job of drawing on her knowledge of the period to create a convincing picture of what life may have been like for a woman who lived during the Bronze Age. The history of medicine is something I’ve always found very interesting, so I enjoyed the parts of the book that describe Briseis’ work as a healer (which consists mainly of using herbs and magical rituals as unlike her brother, Iatros, she is unable to study to be a physician).

Even for a reader like myself who only has a limited knowledge of Ancient Greece and hasn’t actually read the Iliad, I found this novel very accessible and easy to follow. I appreciated the fact that the author takes the time to flesh out the background to the story and doesn’t just assume that every reader will be familiar with the time period and the mythology. I was also pleased to find that there’s not too much emphasis on the battle scenes! This is Briseis’ story and the focus is on her personal life and on her relationships with Achilles, Mynes and the others. I really enjoyed spending time in her world and will be looking out for more novels from Judith Starkston in the future.

Hand of Fire tour graphic I read Hand of Fire as part of a Fireship Press Virtual Book Tour. You can find the tour schedule here.