Hand of Fire
A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War
By Judith Starkston
Fireship Press, 2014
It’s hard enough to write about an historical figure. Hard because the experts will always be there to find an inaccuracy, tiny or large. How much harder it is, then, to write about a figure from a poem? A figure twice removed from reality.
Judith Starkston has achieved this. In her excellent book, Hand of Fire, she brings to life Briseis, the healing priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa and noblewoman of the city of Lyrnessos, an ally of Troy. In Homer’s epic, the Iliad, Briseis was captured by Achilles during the Trojan War.
Judith started her book with a question. If Briseis, an intelligent woman as her profession attests, was captured and enslaved by the Greeks, why would she develop such an attachment to her enemy, Achilles? After all, he had killed her father, her three brothers and her husband.
Briseis apparently loved her captor. According to Homer the affection was mutual, or when Agamemnon demanded Briseis be given to him, Achilles defied his commander and refused to fight. The decision gave the edge to the Trojans and the Greeks begged Achilles to relent. Only when Patroclus took to the field in Achilles’ armor and was killed did Achilles return to battle, kill Hector, and desecrate the body. Later he is killed by an arrow to the heel.
The novel skillfully weaves complicated emotions into a plot that is built on the edifice of the poem. What we know from the Iliad is that Achilles was a golden hero, beloved of his men. He loved Patroclus, his companion from boyhood. Briseis may have been as star-struck as others in the presence of Achille’s charisma. Judith Starkston knows that it would be too simple to say Achilles loved Briseis and that his jealousy when Agamemnon seized her was the linchpin that caused the crisis of the poem. She shows us that Achilles was caught in a larger psychological web. His mother Thetis, a water goddess, had tried to make him immortal but left a weakness. In the poem, Achilles is fated to die. Hand of Fire ends just before this inevitability. Caught up in a war made by men, Briseis will have to make a choice. A great read. Recommended.