In Hand of Fire author Starkston has pulled off a remarkable feat. She has taken a briefly mentioned character from Homer’s Iliad(whether she actually existed is debatable) and brought her to life. Impeccably researched, this fictional realization of the Bronze Age, in all its quotidian and cosmological aspects, ensnares the reader in a story that is both alluring in its strangeness and all too close to our own present day.
Through Briseis, our heroine, Starkston presents an alternate view of the Iliad. Seen through the eyes of a young woman, who because of her status, becomes a pawn in the powerful forces that raged in Troy at the time, we become privy to a version of the story that is unique.
While Homer is a combination of history and mythology this book weds these themes in a straight forward manner that makes it all accessible to the modern reader. I was fascinated by Starkston’s view of Achilles. We see him via the sensibility of Briseis, who loves him, while his struggles, both mythological and existential, rage within and without.
Most readers will already be familiar with the broad outlines of Homers epic so I will forgo reiterating the plot. For those who do not know Homer’s tale then this is a great place to learn about it. What I will emphasize is that once one begins this tale one is transported back thousands of years to a time both ancient and modern all at the same time. Reading Hand of Fire is akin to entering a time machine. I felt the age come alive through Starkston’s subtle manipulation of her research and her narrative skill. These fully fleshed-out characters leap off the page and a time that is far away chronologically becomes all too real. This a wonderful introduction to both Homer and the late Bronze Age. Any reader from teen-ager on up will find this both a fascinating history lesson and a thrilling novel.
Judith Starkston will be appearing at the Poisoned Pen bookstore on September 10th at 7 pm to discuss and sign this wonderful novel.Reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz