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richardabbott

richardabbott

History and myth in the Late Bronze Age brought convincingly to life

Hand of Fire - Judith Starkston

I thoroughly enjoyed Hand of Fire from start to end. Judith has tackled a difficult combination here, blending soundly researched historical fiction with mythic elements. In this she is placing herself solidly in the tradition of the Iliad, from which the basic setting of Achilles and Briseis comes. In the process Judith also pleasingly avoids the common approach of demythologising ancient material. The ambiguities and difficulties of a story integrating both humans and gods are welcomed rather than shirked.

One of the central questions here that stood out to me was whether it is possible to love someone who is more archetype than person. In one sense such a love is larger than life and sweeps everything else aside: in another it is completely impossible, and doomed to disappointment on both sides. That, for better or for worse, is where Briseis finds herself in relation to Achilles.

Religion and spirituality are key themes in the book. Briseis' world view, its habits of thought, and the rituals that attend it, are foundational to the story, and are well constructed and appropriate to her Bronze Age context. I thoroughly enjoyed the blend of faith, doubt, superstition and logic that she displays, which will be recognisable to modern readers just as much as to her contemporaries. Achilles is a step beyond such constraints, operating in a dimension of certainty most of us cannot. His passions are larger than ours, incomprehensibly so at times, and like a spiritual amphibian he moves comfortably in the liminal space between this world and the next, between the terra firma of his father, and his mother's measureless ocean.

As you can tell, Hand of Fire made a great impression on me, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to explore the tail end of the Bronze Age. Read it either as soundly researched history or as an exploration of archetypes: either way it is compelling.