Judith Starkston was researching her second novel set in ancient Troy, now Turkey, when she came across a powerful Hittite queen who ruled for seven decades.
The Hittites were an Anatolian people who played a role in establishing an empire centered on Hattusa, in north central Anatolia, Turkey, around 1600 BC.
“Her empire goes all the way across what’s modern Turkey, most of Syria, down into Lebanon and it bumped right up against Egyptian land,” Starkston said.
“She signed a treaty with her own personal seal on it with her Egyptian contemporary, Ramses II. She needed somebody to write a book about her, so I did,” she added.
The Ahwatukee resident is not writing just one book about Queen Puduhepa, whom she calls Tesha, but a series of 10. The first, “Priestess of Ishana,” was published in 2018, and the second, “Sorcery in Alpara” is out this month.
The first in her Bronze Age historical fiction novel series set during the Trojan War, “Hand of Fire,” was published in 2014.
A former teacher, historian and classics scholar, Starkston has put her knowledge to good use and secured a comfortable writing niche with her historical fantasy novels. There are two other authors who write on Hittites, but they are more historical and without the fantasy element.
Tesha’s empire ranged from 1400 to 1150 and the lengthy reign has yielded a considerable wealth of archeological information.
Letters and other documents written by Tesha – including her judicial decrees, prayers on behalf of her sick husband and plagues that came through the empire – are available.
Hittite is related to Greek.
“It’s written in cuneiform, in the writing system of the Near East and not the much later writing system that we think of as Greek,” she said. “When taken out of that writing and put into language we recognize, the structure of the language and the vocabulary is anciently related to Greek.”
Since she’s classically trained in languages, she can follow Hittite.
“I can’t translate Hittite, but when somebody is analyzing how they decided to translate it the way they did and why I could interpret it this way or that way, I can follow,” said Starkston.
Starkson studied Greek and Latin literature and history for her master’s degree in classics. She also taught Latin in the Tempe Union High School District several years ago.
“These people come across all these millennia to me from their own documents,” she added.
Don’t look for dense history in her books. Look instead for lively prose, visual description and page-turning plots.
For example, in “Sorcery in Alpara,” you can read about ancient empires coming up against each other, political structures and conspiracies, an indirect love story, sorcery, angry concubines, a dead body and potential war.
To gather authentic details on the settings, Starkston also visits the archeological sites of her novels where her husband, Bob, obligingly captures thousands of photos.
To imagine Alpara (meaning “eagle perch”), she visited the Green River with its Bronze Age ruins of the fortress city perched atop a mountain nearby with a fertile valley below and Amasya, the nearest town to the archeological site.
While she stays true to history, she cannot claim historical accuracy and does create some parts, especially the magic and the curses. There’s so much unknown about the empire.
“I take all the rules, all the elements, right from this culture, but I let them have some fairly magical, fantastical qualities as they would have thought,” she said, adding:
“I don’t think any of my Hittite characters, should they come through a time machine, would find any of this surprising.”
Starkston’s books have hit a chord with people of every age and diversity. But education is the key. “It’s not like anybody goes hunting for Hittite fantasy. They have to bump up against me and read something I’ve said about it,” she said.
So, she presents to diverse audiences.
From 2-3 p.m. Nov. 9, she will launch her latest book at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. She loves to speak at book clubs that are reading her books.
How does the reading public react to her work? Don’t people find it obscure?
“They’re first a little puzzled. If they hear about it, it’s very intriguing,” Starkston said.
She added: “It’s quick and easy to get people enthusiastic. She’s a queen who ruled for so long. Right now, in American culture, we are very focused on women as leaders and the potential that could be unlocked if we would get around some of the prejudices and limitations and that is the story of this women’s life.
“She ruled in a very patriarchal society, and she had legal room. As a woman in America, you have equal right to be president on paper. She had equal right to be queen on clay but nobody but she ever did that as a queen. So, the rights were there, but the opportunity wasn’t there.
“What was it that made it possible for her to do that? That’s a central question of what I’m intrigued with. And who doesn’t think that it’s a great thing to look at these days?” Starkston said.