Thursday, January 17, 2019

Espionage in full color: The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau, set in 18th-century England and France

“… Color is the next field of battle in the porcelain wars. He who is able to produce the most porcelain in this new revolutionary color of blue will control the market.”

As we learn in The Blue, the color blue surrounds us in the natural world – the sea and the sky, for example – but is surprisingly difficult to capture in physical form. The quest to create a chemically stable form of deep blue for use in art and textiles lasted for centuries. In the 1750s, when this story takes place, delicate porcelain creations are in great demand in high society. If porcelain designs could be painted with this new shade of blue, it would be a lucrative triumph for the firm to accomplish it first.

Nancy Bilyeau has taken a fascinating footnote from the annals of international commerce and transformed it into a captivating story of espionage, obsession, and love. A twenty-something resident of Spitalfields parish in late 1750s London, Genevieve Planché unexpectedly finds herself at the epicenter of the race to develop this elusive blue.

Genevieve is a woman of her time yet with enough feminine spunk to also give her viewpoint contemporary resonance. A descendant of French Huguenots who took refuge in England, she holds fast to her Protestant beliefs. She’s also a talented artist, but no one is willing to help her advance in her craft. Her late father’s cousin is a principal at the Derby Porcelain Works, but she fears that spending her days in the dreary act of painting porcelain would stifle her creativity.

However, an encounter with the debonair and sympathetic Sir Gabriel Courtenay creates a new opportunity: if Genevieve accepts the position at Derby, and secretly infiltrates the factory to discover the formula for blue from a chemist there, Sir Gabriel will help her establish an art career in distant Venice. Her employers are suspicious about possible French spies, but her mission proceeds as planned – until she meets the chemist himself, Thomas Sturbridge, who is the antithesis of the stodgy, self-absorbed scientist she expected.

Genevieve is a resourceful creation who proves capable of thinking with her head even when her heart is engaged. As the story twists and deepens, she must make tough decisions to ensure her safety. Along the way, readers experience the Huguenots’ delicate situation through her viewpoint. Even two centuries after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Huguenots have never forgotten the deadly persecution they faced. With England and France now engulfed in the Seven Years War, Genevieve – with her French name and heritage – must continually defend her loyalty to her birthplace of England, to her chagrin, and despite her revulsion for the French king.

Not only does The Blue cover fresh ground in a genre that often returns to the same well-trodden subjects, but it’s plain fun to read. Historical fiction readers are in for an exciting treat.

The Blue was published by Endeavour Quill in 2018; I read it from a personal purchase and coordinated the review to be published during the author's blog tour.

Giveaway: During the Blog Tour we will be giving away an eBook of The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on January 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open internationally.
– Only one entry per household.  All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

The Blue

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Historical fiction cover trend for 2019: bold colors that pop!

In putting together another visual preview post for 2019, I came upon some historical novel covers with bright colors and designs that refuse to be ignored.  And then I found a few more.  Here are ten, below.  You can make almost a full rainbow with all of these.  What do you think - does the effect work on you?  Just the settings and the book's publishers are listed below... head on over to Goodreads for more.

A family saga set during the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Central Avenue, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A scientific race across Russia in 1914, at the time of a major solar eclipse. Grand Central, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A controversial art scandal involving Van Gogh's paintings, set in decadent and dangerous 1920s Berlin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Glamour, passion, and coming of age in New York's exciting theater world in the 1940s. Riverhead, June 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Historical fantasy involving aerial adventure in WWI France; second in a series.  Simon & Schuster, July 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The female divers of the Korean island of Jeju, spanning from the 1930s through 1950s. Scribner, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Two American sisters' lives, from the 1950s going forward. June 2019, Atria. [see on Goodreads]

Events from the life of future poet Elizabeth Bishop, during her time in Paris in 1937. Simon & Schuster, June 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Espionage and scandal in the Bahamas in 1941, when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are in residence there. William Morrow, July 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

An independent African American woman in small-town North Carolina, between 1941 and the 1980s.  Bloomsbury, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Review of A Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M. Wolfe, first in an Elizabethan spy mystery series

London is drenched with atmosphere and deadly intrigue in this debut entry in a new Elizabethan mystery series.

The time is the 1570s. The body of Lady Cecily Carew, an innocent young lady-in-waiting to the queen, is found spread across the high altar of Whitehall’s Chapel Royal, her limbs arranged as if in effigy. The Honorable Nicholas (Nick) Holt, brother to the Earl of Blackwell and clandestine agent for spymaster Robert Cecil, sees political motivation in the terrible crime, since sweet, trusting Cecily would have had no enemies.

Both he and Queen Elizabeth realize that either the Catholics or the Puritans could try to use the sacrilegious nature of the murder to discredit her and throw her reign into chaos. With the assistance of two friends, a Jewish brother and sister who saved his life in Spain, and the protection of his shaggy companion, an Irish wolfhound named Hector, Nick must sort out truth from lies to root out a killer. One immediate clue is an unusual love note found clutched in Cecily’s hand; its tone is more clinical than affectionate.

Nick is a genial, compassionate sort with the capability to move among different strata in society, from the royal court with its oily toadies to the squalid lanes of Bankside, which gives him an advantage. In addition to his noble birth, he’s the proprietor of a tavern, the Black Sheep, which serves to hide his role as undercover spy. The way he goes about his investigation is typical for a mystery of this sort – interviewing different parties as new clues are unveiled – but Wolfe does a good job keeping the culprit (or culprits) concealed until the end. This is the type of historical mystery that lets you sink into the historical setting, though anyone ambling down the street should be attuned to possible surprises from above (gardez loo!).

The stakes are high, not only for Nick, a former Catholic, but also for his physician friends Eli and Rivkah, since anti-Jewish paranoia is rampant. (On that note, anyone knowing their names would be aware of their religion; they can't exactly blend in.) I’m guessing romantic intrigue will play a bigger role in future books. While Nick has a regular bedmate in brothel owner Kat, Rivkah’s beauty and kindness attract him.

Wolfe lightens the mood periodically through gleeful evocation of the era’s repellent odors and colorful curses, of which Elizabeth herself is a master (she “swore like a dosshouse toper” – terms worth the time to look up and note for future use). The author admits that her depiction of the Virgin Queen’s disdain for bathing is exaggerated for comedic effect, but hers isn’t an unflattering portrait overall. Elizabeth is craftily intelligent, and Nick knows never to underestimate her.

In all, it’s well-wrought Tudor entertainment; I’ll be back for book two.

Suzanne M. Wolfe's A Murder by Any Name was published by Crooked Lane in October; thanks to the author for supplying a copy for the blog tour via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  See also my earlier review for the author's The Confessions of X, which was a fabulous read set in a completely different period (the 4th century).

During the tour, we will be giving away 3 hardcover copies of A Murder By Any Name! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on January 17th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

– Giveaway is open to US residents only.

– Only one entry per household.

– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.

– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

A Murder By Any Name

Sunday, January 06, 2019

A dark American heritage: Kent Wascom's The New Inheritors, part of his Gulf Coast quartet

The third in a projected quartet, following Secessia (2015), Wascom’s latest literary saga is his strongest yet. Spanning the years 1890 to 1961, it focuses on two lovers and offers a skillful intermingling of character and place.

After surviving a bizarre, peripatetic Florida childhood, young Isaac is adopted by a caring Mississippi couple. Later, as a reclusive artist, he grows enraptured by Kemper Woolsack, a shipping heiress. However, the coming world war and her brothers’ mutual animosity (Angel is secretly gay; Red is a vicious criminal) disrupt their peaceful lives.

Whether describing the Gulf Coast’s lush vegetation or acts of sudden brutality, Wascom’s writing burns with a raw, elemental power. The story encompasses the era’s white privilege and anti-immigrant stances, letting readers make the contemporary connections, while pondering what it means to be American.

In an inspired move, The Blood of Heaven (2013), the first in Wascom’s series and a Woolsack ancestor's wild, dark narrative, has become his descendants’ origin myth. It all leads to a potent question: Can a family, or country, ever escape the violence in its blood?

The New Inheritors was published in 2018 by Grove; I reviewed it for Booklist last year.  I reviewed The Blood of Heaven back in 2013 (see the link for some additional comments, too).  As a sidenote: I'm not fond of this cover, which seems very generic.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 2), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

And here's the second half of my interview with David Blixt about his new novel What Girls Are Good For.  If you missed the first part, it was online yesterday and can be found here, along with a tour-wide giveaway.

Although some editors warn Nellie not to become part of the story she’s writing about, she (fortunately) doesn’t listen. How groundbreaking was her approach/style to journalism, not just the fact that she was female?

Elizabeth Cochrane
(aka Nellie Bly)
She may not have been the first undercover journalist, though I’d be hard pressed to name anyone before her. She was certainly the pioneer of the field. And what’s astonishing is how long she was able to carry it off. The Madhouse exposé was just the start of a two-year run of stories with her infiltrating one illegal or immoral situation after another. At the start of the second novel (which I’ve only just begun writing), she foils a serial rapist in Central Park by posing as a potential victim and catching him!

So it was certainly groundbreaking. But I’m not sure a man could have done it – or, at least, done it so dramatically. There’s something viscerally attention-grabbing about her gender and size being seen as at odds with her experiences. Little wonder that Pulitzer and Colonel Cockerill adored her.

Yet I think what really set her apart was her choice of stories, and I worked to make it a big part of her character. She was a champion for the poor, the dispossessed, the downtrodden. It was not lost on her that the majority of these were women. And I just don’t think a man could have written those stories.

I also think she had to insert herself into the stories to be taken seriously. A woman writing about women in workshops or Mexican natives being denied their rights would sound moralistic from on high – there were plenty of editorials like that. The fact that she put herself into danger made her experiences immediate for the readers, and while she was certainly derided for being a thrill-seeker, I think it also allowed her topics to have an actual impact.

A side effect of this was that she set the tone for what became known as “stunt journalism”. Everyone wanted a “stunt girl." Two years after the Madhouse story, Annie Laurie fainted in a San Francisco street to infiltrate the local hospital. In St. Paul, Eva Gay imitated Nellie’s Workshop Girls series. In Chicago, Nora Marks got into the prison to report on children being held for trial. Everyone wanted a sensation, thanks to Nellie Bly.

My favorite quote about her comes from the humor magazine Puck: “When a charming young lady comes into your office and smilingly announces that she wants to ask you a few questions regarding the possibility of improving New York’s moral tone, don’t stop to parley. Just say: ‘Excuse me, Nellie Bly,’ and shin down the fire-escape.” She terrified the male establishment.

Authors’ background knowledge can inform their writing choices and approaches, and along these lines, I caught a number of allusions to Shakespeare’s plays that were cleverly worked into the novel. Did you find that your experience as an actor influenced in any other way your approach to telling Nellie’s story?

*Sigh* I’m never as clever as I think I am. Yes, I found uses for my vast experience with Shakespeare, and also even a Dante reference, as nods to my readers. At least I didn’t hide any anagrams this time!

I hope that acting has influenced my writing in terms of looking at each person’s motivations, and how motives can be misinterpreted or misconstrued. I want every character to have their own life, even if it’s not part of Nellie’s story. They aren’t just there for her, or to move the plot along. I want us to feel for the people she leaves behind, the ones she writes about and then forgets. I hope they linger for my readers in the way she hoped they’d linger for hers.

In the author’s note, you mentioned that “female characters drive historical fiction,” and you found your ideal subject in Nellie Bly. In addition to the sequel that you mention will be next (and I’m looking forward to it!), do you plan to continue writing novels with women at the center? Do you have any other thoughts on this focus/trend within the historical fiction genre?

Wow. A potentially fraught question.

The simple answer is, yes. I’m working on a non-historical novel starring a women right now. It’s a story I’ve been planning for around fifteen years, and I hope to finish it this coming year.

As for trends in general, historical fiction is one of two or maybe three writing fields where the gender gap is reversed. Whereas in fantasy J.K. Rowling hid her name with initials, in historical fiction men do it. I can count on one hand the popular male historical authors who use their first names. Women dominate the genre as writers, and there are certainly more female readers of historical fiction than men (though I think that’s true of nearly every genre).

So it’s natural – and quite fantastic – that there are so many novels starring women. Historical fiction nearly always passes the Bechdel Test. And stories about women sell better! When the study came out last week saying that female-led movies do better box office than male-led films, it wasn’t shocking to me. Everyone is longing for good stories starring women.

My trouble until now has been, simply, the female figures I’m interested in have been written about before, and often far better than I’d do it. Cleopatra, Helen, Boadicea, Elizabeth – they’ve been done.

But that’s true of male figures as well. I was incredibly lucky with the Star-Cross’d series to discover a leader no one had yet tackled in Cangrande della Scala. But I covered the same ground as several others (including the amazing Margaret George) when I wrote about Nero in the Colossus series, and didn’t much care for it. I feel the same about King Arthur – I have some ideas, but why bother if I’m just treading familiar territory? I want to explore, not emulate.

Which is why I was so excited, late one April night in 2016, to find Nellie Bly. A terrific character, part of her appeal was that she hadn’t been done yet in any real way. That’s about to change. There are two more novels coming next year, and a TV movie on Lifeline, and talk of a whole TV series. Just this once, I wasn’t chasing a trend, but setting one. If I’d found her today, I wouldn’t have written this novel. Timing is everything.

So for me, it’s less a question of gender than of having the right story to tell. Or rather, gender was just one factor in my mind when I was looking for stories. I was keenly aware that I hadn’t written a woman lead, and wanted to correct that, so I was on the lookout. But I was on the lookout for the story more. I knew about the Madhouse exposé. It was reading about how Nellie got the job in the first place that grabbed me. In that moment, I had a story I felt compelled to tell – her story. I couldn’t not tell it.

So next time I write a historical novel with a female lead (and I’m sure I will), it won’t be just for the sake of writing about a woman. It will be because her story is one I simply have to tell.

Thanks so much, David - it's been great having you here again and hearing more about Nellie and your writing process.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Interview with David Blixt (part 1), author of What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

It's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since a copy of David Blixt's first novel, The Master of Verona, showed up in my mailbox. This sweeping historical epic of 14th-century Italy was a wonderful reading experience, and it prompted me to arrange for an interview with the author; you can read part 1 and part 2 of the interview here.

David's newest release is another fantastic read. What Girls Are Good For moves over five centuries ahead in time to America during its Gilded Age; the focus is Elizabeth Cochrane, who used the pen name of Nellie Bly for her groundbreaking investigative journalism at a time when female writers were typically relegated to the "women's pages" of newspapers.  It immersed me in Nellie's story, including her family background, courageous ambition, battles against gender discrimination and other forms of social injustice, and her enthusiastic determination to live life on her own terms. She was a woman who set out to change the world, and did. I highly recommend it.

Thanks so much to David for his detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions!

Since your earlier novels have been set further back in the past, did you find it an adjustment to research characters and settings of the late 19th century? Had you had an interest in the American Gilded Age before discovering Nellie Bly?

A passing interest at best. I tend to look at periods by the art they produce, and I’m not a huge fan of Stephen Foster (ironic in the extreme, given he inadvertently gave my lead her nom de plume). But that’s part of the joy of writing historical fiction – discovery!

As for the adjustment, it was a very large one. While I was free to invent dialogue, all of the people in the novel were quite real – no inserting fictional characters into historical settings to fill a gap in the historical record! There is a vast and deep pool of research about the period, meaning endless rabbit holes. What buildings were where, and when? What train lines got her from place to place? I became fascinated with Pullman cars, and also with Newspaper Row in New York. It means there are more mistakes to be made, and for a historical perfectionist, that’s daunting. I don’t like getting my history wrong, so I put two years of work into the research and writing.

What was the experience like, putting yourself in Elizabeth/Nellie’s shoes as she fought against gender bias and the unjust treatment of women, especially on Blackwell’s Island? How did it feel to write those scenes?

That’s the question I’m most aware of, because it’s the thing I fretted over most. Not only am I a man writing a woman’s point of view, I’m a 21st-century man writing a 19th-century woman’s POV. Add to that I’d never written a 1st person novel before, and I had a lot of trepidation.

I’m quite the humanist. I believe deep-down all people experience the same feelings and thoughts. That said, I was acutely aware of not being a woman. So I listened. A lot. I am fortunate in the women in my life, and all of them have experiences that, while awful, were also true. I started this over a year before the #MeToo movement grabbed headlines, but the stories that were coming out at the end of 2017 certainly influenced my writing and revisions. The thing that seems to be resonating the most with readers was that I allowed her to be angry.

The best boon I had was in my subject. Nellie Bly was forever seeing the injustices perpetrated upon her gender, and commenting on it. So it felt right to comment upon them, not by imposing modern values, but rather her own. She’s wonderfully contradictory – she’s this incredible champion for women, but she’s perfectly willing to judge other women by their appearances, and she lied about her age, even under oath.

How did it feel writing those scenes? Thrilling, and terrifying. I was excited by the story I was telling, and how I was telling it. It felt raw and honest. But I was utterly terrified that I would make a hash of it, and that my wife would mock me forever. (I wrote a scene between two women for The Master Of Verona that did not end up in the final version because of her remorseless ridicule. She brings it up to this day). Like I said, I’m fortunate in the women in my life.

Strangely, the scenes on Blackwell’s might have been easier for me because, awful as they were, she had already written them. She didn’t lay them out chronologically, and there’s a lot in other reports that she omitted from her book and articles – it was exciting reconstructing it from several sources at once. But how she felt about it was plain and clear, and one of the reasons 10 Days In A Madhouse continues to be popular today. I just tried to capture it in the context of the life she never shared with readers. There was her Nellie Bly persona, and there was Elizabeth Cochrane. I think the former came out of the madhouse stronger and more dominant. But she never quite lost the Lonely Orphan Girl.

I enjoyed the depiction of Nellie’s relationship with her mother, who is a brave woman in her own right. How did you get behind the scenes to reveal more about these characters and their personalities than Nellie’s own writing did?

I’m so glad you like Mary Jane. As complex as Nellie was, her mother was far more of a puzzle for me. All I had were the raw facts: twice widowed, once divorced, with five children. We have the testimony from the divorce. We have her going to Mexico with her daughter, and living with Nellie on and off throughout the newspaper years. A lawsuit towards the end of her life. That’s it.

author David Blixt
From just those facts I had to extrapolate a woman who would both inspire and infuriate her daughter, a woman who was both guide and a figure to rebel against. Nellie doesn’t want to be her mother, yet in so many ways they are incredibly alike.

It all came together during the trip to Mexico. We have Nellie’s articles from that trip, but she never mentions her mother in them. Yet her mother was there as her chaperone, which allowed me to explore one huge aspect of that experience that her own readers were denied. Putting them in close proximity for months in a strange land led to all the various personal revelations and debates that, to me, are the best part of writing.

Nellie’s narrative voice was one of the highlights for me, since it felt fresh and lively, but also very evocative of the period. What were some of your favorite 19th-century turns of phrase or expressions you came across in your research?

I had the incredible advantage of her own body of written work to draw upon. Her writing is very conversational, likely due to her on-the-job training. Poring through her works, I looked for her particular writing tics, words she preferred, her style of expression. For instance, she likes to begin sentences with conjunctions – And, But– which told me her head was always halfway through the conversation before she opened her mouth. She loves her adverbs – Vehemently, Spitefully, Incredulously– which to me speaks of passion. And she has certain small phrases she likes in inject: Strange to say, Not to mention, Here and there.

I ingested all this information, then let it go. The end result, I think, is that rather than attempting to write in an “oldey-timey” way, I was able to interpret and inject her style without trying to imitate her.

I was also fascinated by things that were new in 1885. Everyone in the novel compares things to locomotives, or electricity. The scene early on in the roller rink was hilarious to me – roller-skating in January, when you could far more easily be ice-skating outside? But it was all the rage!

I also get fascinated by how language evolves. Today we say, “I fell for him” and it sounds romantic. Not so in the 1880s. To “fall” was to fall from grace, to become a “wanton” woman. Therefore falling for someone is not a phrase used lightly.

(To be continued!  This concludes part 1 of the interview; look for part 2 tomorrow.)

About the author:  

David Blixt's work is consistently described as “intricate,” “taut,” and “breathtaking.” A writer of Historical Fiction, his novels span the early Roman Empire (the Colossus series, his play Eve of Ides) to early Renaissance Italy (the Star-Cross'd series) up through the Elizabethan era (his delightful espionage comedy Her Majesty's Will, starring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as inept spies). His novels combine a love of the theatre with a deep respect for the quirks and passions of history.

Living in Chicago with his wife and two children, he describes himself as “actor, author, father, husband. In reverse order.”

For more information, please visit David Blixt’s website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 4 paperback copies of What Girls Are Good For! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on December 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

What Girls Are Good For

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Finding the Fantasy in Hittite History, an essay by Judith Starkston, author of Priestess of Ishana

Thanks to Judith Starkston for contributing a new essay for my site today.  Her new historical fantasy novel, Priestess of Ishana, is set in a land based on the history and culture of the ancient Hittites.  She explains her world-building process below...


Finding the Fantasy in Hittite History
Judith Starkston

“I invoke you, Lelani, Sungoddess and Queen of the world below. May this witchcraft be undone. May the tongue that spoke this evil and the hand that worked it burn into ash which I will bury in the world below.”

With this incantation, the main character of my historical fantasy, Priestess of Ishana, begins a rite to cleanse her city of the deadly pollution of a burn curse. Tesha is a priestess and this magical performance is her duty. The curse might turn against her and torch her in a burst of demonic flame. That is all part of the excitement of fiction set in a historical world that believed in magical rites and supernatural interventions of gods and goddesses.

In Priestess of Ishana, I wanted to immerse my reader in the Near Eastern Bronze Age of the Hittites (~1200 BCE), but at the same time gain the storytelling power and freedom of fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay, a renowned writer of historical fantasy, adopted the phrase “a quarter turn to the fantastic” to describe his melding of history and fantasy—that is, fiction that is “nearly our known history but not quite.” A blend of fantasy and history came naturally to writing the Hittites, steeped as their culture is in practices we call magic. Historical people and places lurk as inspiration behind my fictional world. That’s reflected in changed names that hint at the original (for example, Hittites to Hitolians).

Well-written fantasy has “rules” for the magic therein. My fantasy uses primary historical sources and Hittite beliefs for that framework. The novel’s magical rites are based on specific details taken from the written records—far stranger than anything I could have made up.

In my Hitolian fantasy world, curses are the last remaining magic (or so the characters assume), and the priestesses learn rites to counteract this pervasive danger. This focus arises from historical reality. Translations of the vast collections of clay cuneiform tablets from the royal archives reveal a Hittite obsession with curses in the prayers and rites.

In constructing a “How to Undo a Curse” scene for Priestess Tesha, I dug into the available fragments of curse rituals (nothing is complete or simple in Hittite primary texts). The opening lines in this post, for example, are adapted from a couple sources. The notion that words have tangible power is found in almost all Hittite rites; evil tongues and counteracting magical words abound. Words were the bridge to the gods, the road to accessing supernatural power. They are especially powerful when said in conjunction with analogical magic—actions that reflect what the practitioner wants to happen.


Tesha crept next to the dead man. She raised the loaf high over him. “I invoke you, Lelani, Sungoddess and Queen of the world below. May this witchcraft be undone. May the tongue that spoke this evil and the hand that worked it burn into ash which I will bury in the world below.” The words calmed the beating of her heart.

She shut her eyes and knelt on the damp floor, wincing as the muck penetrated her gown.

She held the bread stuffed with absorbing chickpea paste. The rite decreed she start at the dead man’s forehead. The reek of burnt flesh tortured her nose and pulled her stomach.

She leaned over the body, touching with the bread what was left of the brow below his graying hair. The horror held her gaze. She hesitated. The rite had to be done perfectly. Usually this requirement for proper order gave her joy. Now she clung to it for courage, but something was wrong and she could not say what. Had she skipped a step? She hadn’t. She went on, bread held to the corpse.

“Come into this bread, foul curse. Your pollution endangers all who come near. I bind you into this bread.”

She moved downwards to the man’s chest and shoulders where his tunic had burned away, revealing flesh and bone, charred black.

“Come out of this body, evil curse, so that when this loaf is burnt into ash as you have burned this man, you may return to the dark realm below where you belong. As the smell of bread entices both the good man and the bad to eat, so let the smell entice you into this bread.”

Tesha rose and moved to the altar holding the chickpea stuffed loaf in front of her to avoid the pollution it contained.


Tesha moves the curse from a dead body into a loaf of bread stuffed with chickpea paste, while saying, “As the smell of bread entices both the good man and the bad to eat, so let the smell entice you into this bread.”

The “stuffing” is meant to absorb the evil like a sponge and contain it until the priestess can burn the loaf and thus send it back to the Underworld where curses were thought to originate.

At this point you might be scratching your head, chickpea paste, curses in loaves of bread? I couldn’t make this stuff up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Careful reading of Hittite rituals provided me with great source material for fantasy. My Hitolian priestess is a skillful practitioner of magic that would sound very familiar to a Hittite priestess.


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 two degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. This has gradually gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write fantasy set in the exotic worlds of the past. Fantasy and Magic in a Bronze Age World. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award. Judith has two grown children and lives in Arizona with her husband. For a free short story set in her Bronze Age historical fantasy world (and a cookbook of foods in her novels), sign up for the newsletter on her website.