Sunday, October 25, 2020

Guest Post: Judith Starkson - Divining the Past - Of Kings and Griffins

I met Judith Starkson at the Historical Novel Society Conference and I've very much enjoyed her books and her presence in the world of unique historical fiction that includes vibrant fantastical elements. It's wonderful to be in that cross-genre space with her! I'm delighted to have Judith here as a guest! While Judith's Tesha series is all really great, I'm pleased to see that her latest novel can be read as a stand alone book, so if you're just hearing about this series, you can start with the latest! Learn more about her exciting new novel, Of Kings and Griffins! 


Divining the Past

One of the intense delights of writing historical fiction—even when it blends into fantasy as mine does—comes from delving into the past via research. Sometimes, before covid, that research involved travel. I write about the ancient Hittites, which took me on trips to Turkey, the location of that Bronze Age empire—to archaeological sites, museum collections, and gorgeous physical settings. Definitely fun. But other times, getting to know the past means deciphering obscure texts. You might assume “deciphering obscure texts” would not be on anyone’s list of intense delights, but you’d be wrong. Definitely on mine.

Not every moment in human history provides equal access to us today. Occasionally, the random events of war and historical preservation nearly obliterate whole cultures. This sort of erasure happened to the Hittites, a cosmopolitan and sophisticated people in the 13th century BCE whose primary rival was Egypt under Ramses II, the pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses. Fortunately, we humans are clever about resurrecting the past through archaeology. The Hittite world thus revealed is irresistible to me for several reasons: this patriarchal society’s greatest leader was a woman, they genuinely believed in what we’d call magic, their politics and intrigue are entertaining but pragmatic, and I feel the sheer joy of escape into an exotic time and place that nonetheless feels deeply familiar.

Cuneiform Tablet

What about those obscure texts? Among the main resources now available about the Hittites are thousands of fragmentary clay writing tablets and their proposed translations. They provide fascinating glimpses from long ago.

In my recent novel of historical fantasy, Of Kings and Griffins, I have a pivotal early scene in which the question of who will rule this vast and powerful empire rests on a divination. In the United States and elsewhere, we have elections; the Hittites had divinations. There are a surprising number of parallels. I spent hours studying the available information about divinations from tablets. Such mining into research produced a rich vein of psychological insights that I hope my readers will find refreshing.

Divinations, curses, spells, and all sorts of magic are interwoven into the Hittite way of life. In the case of my key divination scene, the diviners have determined that the gods are angry and not willing to give their blessing to a ruler until some human failure is repaired. (Imagine a scene in the White House on election eve…) The task of the diviner is to identify that failure and what must be done to fix it—and then convince the ruler-to-be to take that action. All by means of yes and no questions only. And of course, the ruler in question is listening in on this process. Tension, egos, drama. Great stuff for storytelling.

In building this scene, I faced a problem that was also a pleasure. I had to tease out from the tablets a coherent picture of what this diviner would actually say and do, and with what objects or other physical “props.” My favorite scholarly source on divinations, a dissertation by Hannah Marcuson, uses the word “opaque” of the techniques described in the tablets. Sometimes we have “scripts” of what a diviner said in a particular divination, but those words include symbolic references that are hard to interpret. Also, physical actions take place in conjunction with the words, but we can’t identify the devices used in those actions.

For a scholar, the project focuses on presenting the conflicting evidence and leaving the giant holes in it wide open. For a writer of fiction, the project requires weighing and deciding on the details to build one continuous vision, like watching a scene in a movie. No gaps or incomprehensible terms allowed. Sometimes I can fill the gaps with elements from other Hittite activities. I became a fan of Marcuson’s dissertation because she did that very effectively, gathering the actual accoutrements of my chosen divination from the known “tools of the trade” that this priestess used in different contexts. Perfect!

After I filled my head with this historical evidence, I immersed myself via imagination into the body and soul of that diviner and watched what she said and did. Writers are adults who have carried their imaginary friends into adulthood. On that writing day, my friend was a sign oracle diviner from the 13th century BCE.

Here are clipped excerpts from that scene as Kantuz, the sign oracle diviner, reads the will of the gods, with the anxious assistance of the Grand Votary and my main character Tesha, herself a priestess and political leader.

The votary leaned closer still to Kantuz’s ear. “If we cannot place Crown Prince Urhi on the throne . . . then who? Keep us from civil war. Restore the divine favor—”

“Are there forbidden questions?” Kantuz asked. Her eye caught Tesha’s.

The Grand Votary hesitated. Drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. His eyes closed for a moment and then opened again. “Listen to the gods. Ask what you must to repair whatever angers them and win them over to Crown Prince Urhi’s throne.” His voice, a whisper, nonetheless carried deep concern. In its sympathetic resonance Tesha heard genuine apprehension about the stability of the throne. She would prefer him to be easier to dislike.

. . .

Apparently, the Grand Votary trusted Kantuz, and he feared hiding the truth more than revealing it. Tesha glanced across the throne. Urhi’s posture had the hardness of ice. He and the votary might not agree on that.

Tesha exhaled and shook out her hands under the cover of her full skirts.

Kantuz lifted a variety of wooden and ceramic figurines from each relevant divider within the three boxes. Some figurines stood for a category of person, like “king” or “heir.” Others represented ideas, like “sin of the heart.” Interpreting what they meant all together when they fell onto the linen was a confusing process that took a great deal of study. Kantuz filled each of the lot vessels with these tokens.

. . .

In a strong, carrying voice, Kantuz asked, “Do the gods bless the throne of Urhi, son of Great King Muwatti?” It had never been the plan to have such a large audience for this process, but the failure of the bird augury left little choice—not for a true and honest reading.

Kantuz shook out a sign from the narrow-necked vessel and placed it at the edge of the linen cloth. Tesha stretched forward to see the carved figure—the token called the “deity.” Kantuz shook from the second vessel, and two tokens fell out. She covered each with a square of linen to mark them as the receiver tokens, the tokens that would be acted upon. Then she shook from the third vessel, and one token fell, a flat ceramic piece with a face etched into the clay and a thin gold band wrapped around it, the “king,” but with a black thread also wrapped around it to add the placement of “to the left.” Tesha swallowed, trying to free the tightness in her throat.

Kantuz uncovered the two receiver tokens and announced the answer. “The deity takes hidden anger and sickness and puts them to the left of the king. The reading of these signs is: the gods say no.” Kantuz cleared her throat and added, “I will continue the oracle to find the hindrance and clear it away.” Kantuz gave the Grand Votary a narrowed glare that pointed to the complexities she would face.


Thank you Judith for the thrilling post! 

Of Kings and Griffins is available on Amazon. For more about Judith Starkston and the historical background of her novels, go to her website. About Of Kings and Griffins:

A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmaneuver foes from these three different worlds?

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.

As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.

Of Kings and Griffins, book 3 of the Tesha series, is also easily read as a standalone.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Make Art Not War Tarot Draw: The High Priestess

I’m very blessed to be a part of the small Make Art Not War collective of diverse creative women. Check out our #MakeArtNotWar hashtag on Twitter to follow what our group is up to.

Our most recent prompt in our group creativity initiative is for one of us to pull at Tarot card and for us each to write our thoughts about the card, discuss the card as found in our own decks (we fascinatingly have so many different decks between us) and any related ideas that the card brings to mind.

Stina Leicht drew the High Priestess for all of us and this thrilled me. It’s my favorite card.

The High Priestess represents wisdom, feminine intuition and power. For me, the card represents a certain amount of “life goals” – exploring ever further and ever deeper into the realms of spirituality and divine insight. I think of the High Priestess as my guiding light; my North star.

When I first began giving over to more mysticism in my life, a process and journey that has been nothing short of life-saving and wondrous, the Mythic Tarot deck came into my life, chosen because my debut novel series, the Strangely Beautiful saga, deals with Greek Mythology and that’s how the Mythic Tarot breaks down its journey through the entire deck; through Greek Gods and Classical figures.

The High Priestess in the Mythic Tarot deck is Persephone.

While Persephone has always been one of my favorite figures in Greek Mythology, I also reinvented her in my Strangely Beautiful saga and the Goddess I created remains one of my favorite and most mysterious of characters; frustrating, maddening, breaking apart, inspiring, luminous and ultimately selfless; giving herself over into the mortal form of a strange young woman who is so full of love that by the sheer power of her heart she ultimately saves everyone around her. 

For me, tapping into the wisdom that the High Priestess bids us consider means, like it did for my heroine, opening the heart, sometimes wider than we even think is possible. If we can strain at the seams sometimes, as long as we monitor our boundaries, we can find out what's truly possible emotionally, spiritually, physically. 

It’s a particularly resonant and fitting draw for me and for Stina as well, seeing that “Persephone” is critical for us both. I boldly adopted that classic name and bestowed it upon the heroine of my Strangely Beautiful saga; Persephone “Percy” Parker. The title of Stina’s exciting upcoming novel is Persephone Station, and I can’t wait to read it!

If you don’t know my Strangely Beautiful novels, for those interested in how I’ve adapted Greek Mythology to suit my own needs and blended Mythic ideas with extremely Gothic atmosphere and High Fantasy elements, the Strangely Beautiful saga has been compiled by Tor/Macmillan and remains on sale(for a limited time) and the entire 4-book series, over 1k of fiction, is only$2.99!

May the High Priestess shine and bring wisdom into your life as she has done in mine. I hope you’ll take a moment and meditate on the power of introspection and intuition that she bids of those who draw her.

Follow #MakeArtNotWar on Twitter! Subscribe to my blog here, check out my website at and my Torch and Arrow Etsy shop of Gothic, Neo-Victorian, Steampunk accessories, art, signed books and other reimagined curios! 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

TODAY ONLY! THE SPECTRAL CITY is only 1.99 across all digital platforms! A Perfect Halloween Read!

TODAY ONLY (10/14/20) THE SPECTRAL CITY, book 1 in Leanna's acclaimed, digitally bestselling SPECTRAL CITY trilogy of ghost-filled, Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels is only 1.99 across all digital platforms!

This book features an adorable slow-burn romance, an inclusive, found family of loveable characters alive and dead and an eerie, gaslit, gilded age NYC!

About the book via Kensington Books: Solving crime isn’t only for the living.

Her name is Eve Whitby, gifted medium and spearhead of The Ghost Precinct. When most women are traveling in a gilded society that promises only well-appointed marriage, the confident nineteen-year-old Eve navigates a social circle that carries a different kind of chill. Working with the diligent but skeptical Lieutenant Horowitz, as well as a group of fellow psychics and wayward ghosts, Eve holds her own against detractors and threats to solve New York’s most disturbing crimes as only a medium of her ability can.
But as accustomed as Eve is to ghastly crimes and all matters of the uncanny, even she is unsettled by her department’s latest mystery. Her ghostly conduits are starting to disappear one by one as though snatched away by some evil force determined to upset the balance between two realms, and most important—destroy the Ghost Precinct forever. Now Eve must brave the darkness to find the vanished souls. She has no choice. It’s her job to make sure no one is ever left for dead.
“There is something truly magical about Leanna Renee Hieber’s writing.”
 —Shana DuBois Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog on Perilous Prophecy

Pick your favorite eBook vendor here and follow Leanna on BookBub!  

Like the idea of THE SPECTRAL CITY? The whole trilogy is available wherever books are sold with A SANCTUARY OF SPIRITS and A SUMMONING OF SOULS, which just released at the end of July!

Please tell a friend!

Cheers and Happy Haunting!