As a teenager with an increasing interest in historical fiction, I read The Assyrian by Nicholas Guild, and was amazed to discover this civilisation I knew next to nothing about apart from a mention in the Bible. I had the same feeling reading Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar, by Gordon Doherty. This is the first of a new series set in the Bronze Age over three thousand years ago. The Hittite Empire was situated in modern day Turkey, and was contemporaneous with the Ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians and Homer’s Greeks. Doherty has brought this civilisation brilliantly to life, with a combination of detailed research, speculation and imagination. The story follows Prince Mattu, the youngest son of the King, who was considered cursed from birth, as he develops into a skilled warrior. Enemies from within and without threaten the empire, and the Kaskans from the north sack the capital city of Hattusa while the army are away. Prince Mattu joins the Hittite army in its campaign to restore pride and lost territory, and faces challenges from a fierce drill instructor, a distant father, a jealous brother and a ruthless foreign foe.
The story is gripping and kept me wanting to know what happens next. The characters were interesting enough for me to care what happens to them. Conflict between brothers, as seen in Son of Ishtar, has been written about since time immemorial, whether it is in legend such as Cain and Abel or Romulus and Remus, or real life such as Caracalla and Geta, the Roman Emperors featuring in my Imperial Assassin series, or Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis. Sibling rivalry with its flavours of brotherly love coupled with jealousy of each others’ achievements always makes for a fascinating read. But Son of Ishtar is more than a tale about two brothers. It is a tale of an Empire almost lost to is in the mist of times, about the people that inhabited it, their daily life, their struggles, their hopes and fears.
Great historical fiction should be based in solid research, with educated guesses filling in the gaps, and fantasy and imagination fleshing out the characters and the story. Doherty has achieved this magnificently, with an enthralling and thrilling novel. This is great historical fiction.