Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Q&A with Judith Starkston, Author of Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara

Please join me in welcoming Judith Starkston to Let Them Read Books! In advance of the launch of the second book in her award-winning historical fantasy Tesha series, the first book, Priestess of Ishana, is available for FREE Oct 2-6 on Amazon. So this seemed like the perfect time to ask her about her intriguing Tesha series, based on the life of a very real Hittite queen. The second book, Sorcery in Alpara, will launch on Oct 14 and is available now for preorder

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery and jails him under penalty of death. Isolated in prison, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

Step into this exotic world of historical fantasy, with its richly imagined details of the Bronze Age, evocative of the Near East. In a whirlpool of magic, politics, family crisis and love, Tesha pursues justice over the dark forces arrayed against her. 

Hi Judith! Welcome to Let The Read Books!

You based your fictional main character, Tesha, on a real Hittite woman, Queen Puduhepa. She is not exactly a household name. How did that source of inspiration come about?

Puduhepa had the misfortune to rule a kingdom that got literally buried and forgotten amidst the upheavals at the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE). Hence, even though she ruled for decades over the most powerful empire of the world at the time, she’s barely made it into the history books and only very recently. I discovered Puduhepa originally when researching my first novel set in the Trojan War (Hand of Fire). The culture of Troy was largely that of the Hittites. Fortunately, recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets have filled in parts of the lost history. As I researched, I came across the letters, rites, and judicial decrees of a highly influential queen who ruled for decades. While doing research, it is enthralling to hear a historical voice coming from across the centuries. Counter to my expectation based on the surrounding kingdoms of the time like Egypt or Babylonia, Hittite queens had full political power by law and custom and remained rulers even when their husbands died. A powerful queen in the extremely patriarchal ancient Near East? I was hooked. Puduhepa caught my imagination with her combination of pragmatic leadership and mystical religious beliefs. I chose her name in my fiction, Tesha, after the Hittite word for "dream" because Puduhepa was famous for visionary dreams sent by her goddess. The other thing she was known for in her lifetime was an astonishingly happy marriage and the equal partnership she maintained with her husband. That also was not the norm in her world.

Given your dedication to historical accuracy, why did you choose to write in the fantasy genre?

I haven’t given up on historical accuracy! I definitely immerse my readers in the historical world of the Hittites. But I turned to a combination of history and fantasy for two reasons—one having to do with full disclosure to the reader and the other having to do with Hittite beliefs and their potential for engaging storytelling.

While knowledge about the Hittites has expanded greatly in the last thirty or so years, there still remain giant gaps in historians’ understanding of this intriguing ancient world power. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, I’m up front that my storytelling combines fantasy and history. For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names.

The other reason I turned to fantasy arose from the prevalence of magic and the supernatural within Hittite religious rites. In essence, I allow those rites to do what the Hittites believed could happen. My main character started her career as a priestess, and her closeness to her goddess was profoundly important to her. Giving her magical beliefs free room also made for much better storytelling. I do extend the fantasy beyond the historical framework when it makes sense for the story, but I start the fantastical elements within Hittite practices, such their extensive use of analogic magic and their obsession with demonic curses. I take the foundational “rules” for my fantasy from Hittite rites themselves, but I find letting my plots go into the fantastical entirely liberating, and my readers love it.

My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions.

Talk about this happy marriage and partnership Puduhepa had. How did that come about?

The goddess of love and war, Ishtar, took full credit for this union. (She’s called Ishana in my novels.) A match literally made in heaven, so to speak. Both Puduhepa and Hattusili, her eventual husband, said Ishtar, via dreams, commanded them to marry. They appear to me from the record to be entirely sincere in this understanding. Hattusili was the younger brother of what the Hittites called the “Great King,” the ruler of the Hittite Empire. Hattusili vowed before leading his brother’s troops into battle against Egypt that he would give all his spoils of war to Ishtar if she gave him victory. He viewed Ishtar as his personal patron goddess. He attributed to her his survival of a childhood illness and the rescue from a couple career-ending situations. When he arrived at the finest temple in the realm to make good on his vow, loaded with Pharaoh’s golden treasures, who was there but Priestess Puduhepa, young, very beautiful, and incredibly smart? That’s how they met. We have this story from a document Hattusili composed that’s often called his “autobiography” although it isn’t anything like a modern autobiography. In it he also says, “the goddess gave us the love of husband and wife . . . and our household thrived.” We also have Puduhepa’s incredibly poignant prayers on behalf of her husband when he was struck down by ill health. Their equality as partners shows up repeatedly over many years, most visibly in Puduhepa’s independent seal on key treaties and letters where she grants lands to vassal kings and other powerful acts. She shows no signs of needing her husband to “co-sign.” I portray from the inside their early meeting and falling in love, but intriguingly, Hattusili also mentions he was accused of sorcery at this time, an accusation that carried the penalty of death in a legal system that otherwise opted for exile. Interesting that! So I took this divinely inspired love story and combined it with some Bronze Age political intrigue, international scheming, magic, and a murder mystery.

Describe one of the strangest details about the Hittites you found from your research.

The Hittites were obsessed with curses of all sorts—what we might call dark magic. They believed sorcerers could sicken and kill their enemies, for example. We find this expressed in places as diverse as court cases and public prayers. One extended rite describes a precise method of removing such a curse. Not all of the text survives in a readable way, but my favorite part (which I used in Priestess) describes touching the cursed person with a loaf of specially made bread to absorb the curse’s pollution. The bread is stuffed with chickpea paste (hummus, in essence) as the absorbing substance. Once the bread touches all the prescribed places on the victim’s body, the priestess is commanded to burn it and thus send it back to the demons of the Underworld whence curses were thought to come. I hope I haven’t ruined hummus for any of those reading this interview. It’s one of my favorite foods. I actually wrote a cookbook of Bronze Age foods that people receive (after a short story) when they sign up for my author newsletter, and I have recipes for three different styles of hummus in it, so I’m pretty dedicated to good chickpea paste!

What’s an aspect of the historical evidence about Puduhepa’s life that you hope readers will absorb from your portrayal of Tesha?

Puduhepa provides a worthy model for leadership—particularly the value of female leaders, which we’ve been thinking about lately, so this seems timely. She certainly wasn’t perfect, and some of her actions are hotly debated among historians as possibly self-serving or politically motivated rather than ethically driven. She gave me nuanced material to work into my hero’s character. But, despite that human complexity, or perhaps because of it, she had brilliant skills as queen in many areas: diplomatic, judicial, religious, and familial. Most famously, she corralled Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt into a lasting peace treaty. The surviving letters to Ramses reveal a subtle diplomat with a tough but gracious core that made her able to stand up to the arrogant Pharaoh without giving offense. She also took judicial positions that went against her own citizens when the truth wasn’t on their side. Fair justice wasn’t something she was willing to toss overboard when it was politically inconvenient. Her equal partnership with her husband was a much-admired model even in the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East.

You’ve traveled extensively for research purposes. Can you share some highlights of those travels? 

When planning which archaeological sites to visit on my second trip to Turkey, I bemoaned to the Turkish archaeologist who guides and translates for me that the site of Puduhepa’s hometown, Lawazantiya, had never been identified. We know the name, its general location, and that it had seven springs from numerous documents found in the court library excavated from the empire’s capital city, but I thought we lacked even a tentative site location. But my archaeologist friend was more up to date than I was.

A new archaeological excavation, with preliminary results published only locally in Turkish, had made a strong case for being Lawazantiya. Sure enough, there are seven springs in the area around this dig and also extensive Bronze Age ruins on the mound, including parts that could correspond to the famous temple of Ishtar we know existed there (where Puduhepa was priestess).

We arranged to go to the site so that I could study the physical setting and ruins. That would have been splendid all on its own, but, even better, the director of the dig spent the entire day with me, explaining and examining the excavation. We also visited each of the seven springs—locations that I found very useful later as I l drafted Priestess of Ishana. Accompanied by the rest of the dig’s excavators, we had a delightful lunch of freshly caught fish at a restaurant beside the largest of the springs. It was easy to imagine my Tesha and Hattu sitting in the shade of the willows in that lovely spot, although I confess when that spring appears in my novel, it’s all conflict and trouble, not quiet picnicking!

What are you working on now?

I’ve now written the first two books in this series based on Puduhepa’s life, Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara. I’m laying out and drafting the third book—no title yet. If readers are interested in my book news, special offers, and the history and archaeology of this ancient civilization (and the cookbook I described), they can sign up for the author newsletter on my website.

Don’t miss downloading an e-book copy of Priestess of Ishana FREE Oct 2-6 from Amazon!

And book two, Sorcery in Alpara, will be published on October 14 and is available now for preorder!

A curse that consumes armies, a court full of traitors, a clutch of angry concubines and fantastical creatures who offer help but hate mankind.

Tesha’s about to become queen of a kingdom under assault from all sides, but she has powerful allies: her strategist husband, his crafty second-in-command, and her brilliant blind sister.

Then betrayal strips her of them all. To save her marriage and her world, she will have to grapple with the serpentine plot against her and unleash the goddess Ishana’s uncontrollable magic—without destroying herself.

"Based on historical events in the Bronze Age, Starkston wraps history and magic together in an unforgettable package."

If you like unique world building, ancient sorcery, and mythical beasts, with richly portrayed characters and enthrallingly complex plots, then immerse yourself in Sorcery in Alpara, the second in this award-winning epic historical fantasy series. See why readers call the Tesha series “fast-paced,” “psychologically riveting” and “not to be missed.”

About the Author:

Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and 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. Her solution is to write historical fantasy set in the Bronze Age. 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. Find Judith on her website or Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for Judith’s author newsletter for a free short story, book news and giveaways.

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