I, The Sun
By Janet Morris
Perseid Press (534 pages, October 27, 2014, $26.95 in trade paperback)
Cover art: The Seal of Suppiluliumas
This masterpiece of historical fiction was based on the actual writings and historical records of Suppiluliumas I, the great Hittite king who dominated the Middle East around the 14thcentury, BC. He rebuilt the old capital of Hattusas, and from there exercised his Imperial Power over the Hittite heartland, controlling the lands between the Mediterranean and Euphrates. But he was not a king to sit back on his throne and pull the strings of his minions, advisors and subjects. No, he was hands-on, and long before he became king he made his way in the world, fighting and whoring and playing politics. His military career included dealing with the eastern kingdom of Mitanni, and regaining a solid grip on Syria.
I, The Sun was first published in 1983 by Dell Books, and with this classic story of Suppliluliumas I, author Janet Morris laid the groundwork for her most famous fictional character — Tempus the Black, whom she first introduced in the original Thieves’ Worldseries, and in her own, later novels such as Beyond Sanctuary, Beyond the Veil, Beyond Wizardwall, and The Sacred Band, written in collaboration with her husband, Chris Morris.
In I, The Sun, Janet Morris weaves a brilliant, sprawling tapestry of events in the life of this great king of the ancient world, whom we first meet when he is known by his birth-name, Tasmisarri. This historical novel, cleverly written in first-person to stand as the official autobiography of Tasmisarri/Suppiluliumas, begins with the death of his father, the Great King Arnuwandas. Since Tasmi cannot sit the throne until his majority, his uncle Tuthaliyas inherits the crown. But so much can happen until Tasmi comes of age, and so, to keep his own brothers from killing each other — and him, and thus seizing the throne, Tuthaliyas adopts Tasmi and makes him his heir.
From that moment on young Tasmi is surrounded by the political maneuverings and machinations of such players as another of his late-father’s brothers, Prince Kantuzilis, whose nature is far more malicious than princely. Even Asmunikal, Tasmi’s mother, has her own secret agenda, and very soon he is caught up in court intrigue, surrounded by enemies and sycophants, becomes embroiled in one military engagement after another, and grows to become a major player in the game of empires.
Tasmi first becomes a pupil to Kuwatna-ziti, a lord and warrior who is also a servant of the Sun Goddess of Arinna. Kuwatna-ziti recruits Tasmi for the Storm God Teshub of Hatti, husband to the Sun Goddess. And thus begins Tasmi’s education. He later meets Daduhepa, a lord’s spoiled brat serving at the temple to make her holy until she can be sold off in marriage. Tasmi falls for her and then, unable to control his needs and desire for her, rapes and takes her virginity. But she is of high birth, and so Kuwatna-ziti tries to mend things by saying it would do them all good if Tasmi married the girl. So Tasmi agrees to marry Daduhepa, and she becomes his first wife and the mother of first son, who he names Arnuwandas II, after his late father.
When Tasmi is sent to the garrison at Samuha, he learns that Daduhepa is again with child, his second son, named Piyassili. But she will not join her husband at that frontier garrison, and goes instead to Hattusas, the old capital city. In the meantime, Tasmi grows farther into manhood fighting the wild tribes of Gasga, and takes for himself a lawful concubine named Titai, much against the wishes of his friend and comrade, Kuwatna-ziti. (Please note: Titai is the only fictional character in this historical novel.)
After a nasty winter, Tasmi, Titai and Kuwatna-ziti travel to Hattusas, and from there Tasmi intends to return to Samuha with his wife and new-born son. But Uncle Tuthaliyas, the Great King, orders Tasmi to remain in Hattusas. Allegedly, and against Tasmi’s wishes, Titai works magic against the Great King, who grows increasingly ill. (And there is more to her story, to her relationship with Tasmi and her ultimate fate that I will not reveal here.) Soon Tasmi’s thoughts turn toward kingship and how it might best be administered by his own hand.
During Tuthaliyas’ illness, his brother Kantuzilis — Tasmi’s other uncle — assumes the throne and plots to rid himself of Tasmi by sending him and his men to war against the Arzawaens, the Gasgaeans, and the other tribes of the lower country. Suspicious of the machinations of both is uncles, and uncertain of even his own mother’s loyalty, Tasmisarri confers with Kuwatna-ziti and his most trusted men. But at this point they have no choice other than to march off to war — securing all, conquering all in the name and for the glory of his uncle, the Great King Tuthaliyas. But Tasmi’s suspicions and fears ride with him, and he begins making plans of his own.
Upon their triumphant return to Hattusas, where they are to be honored, Tasmisarri and his men find that the Great King Tuthaliyas has fallen even more ill, and is now half-mad. The Great King denounces Tasmi and his heroes, and right then and there Tasmi realizes that he must now follow through with his plans. He in turn confronts and denounces Tuthaliyas: swords are drawn, blood is spilled, and uncles are slain. Tasmi, victorious, is now proclaimed “Tabarna, my lord, Great King and all other appellations…” When Tasmi’s mother Asmunikal denounces and turns her back on him, he exiles her to the isle of Alashiya. Now Tasmi begins to round up the families of those lords who opposed him — to be executed or sent into exile. Tasmi then renounces the name Tasmisarri, the name his mother gave him, and declares himself Suppiluliumas, meaning “Pure Spring.”
There is so much more to this grand historical novel that for me to keep relating events in this review would be an exercise in exhaustion. Suffice to say that Morris’ characters live and breathe and bleed, driving the story forward, providing all the drama and intrigue one expects from any novel, fictional or factual, that deals with kings, queens, and dynasties. This novel is textured, layered, and rich in intrigue, action, and complex characters that stand at the center of this “autobiographical” novel. Suppiluliumas is no two-dimensional character by any means: he is truly one of the most engaging, interesting, and perplexing characters I’ve encountered in a long time. Cruel, vengeful, even blood-thirsty at times — he is not unkind, not without heart. And because Morris used his own writings to add depth and texture to this novel, she has given us greater insight to his thoughts and feeling. Here he speaks of what it is like to be king:
It is a lonely thing to be a king unloved by his land. It is anguish deep beyond measuring, to be a general separate from his armies. Power’s curse comes in an ache behind the eyes from reading and folds around the belly a snakelike girdle of fat from sitting.
Or here, in this passage, where he broods about war:
Never again have I felt such loathing for war and death. Some say it is a thing of youth; personally, I think every man whose word sends others to their deaths must experience it, or become like the stone god Ullikummis; with no heart in him to speak like a mortal man’s.
A little research will reveal to you the accomplishments of this ancient king, whose name was unfamiliar to me until I first heard of this novel.
Although established in the Bronze Age, the Hittites were forerunners of the Iron Age, developing the manufacture of iron artifacts from as early as the 14th century BC. The Hittites were also famous for their skill in building and using chariots, a skill which gave them a military advantage. Janet Morris truly nails their time and their place in history; the settings, traditions and customs of the various people in this part of the ancient world, the very grandeur of their era ring true with the vivid poetry of her writing. This is a well-executed and thought-provoking historical novel, filled with character drama, romance, tragedy, action, plot and counter-plot. There is a certain power that comes through while reading this novel, a power derived from knowing that this is real life as it was lived nearly 2000 years before Christ, told to us by a master of storytelling and history.
Janet Morris paints a solid portrait of Tasmisarri, Prince of the Realm — wild, reckless, a rebel, who later in life becomes Suppiluliumas, the Great King, the “Pure Spring.” At first, in his youth, Tasmi comes across as arrogant and even heartless, but beneath all that we can see the makings of a brilliant leader, a ruler who cares about his people and his empire. Just thinking about the amount of research Morris did in preparation to writing this epic, the note-taking, the outlining, the planning, staggers my mind. These ancient dynasties were complex and convoluted, and keeping names, dates and events straight alone are worthy of praise. Janet Morris is, besides being a wonderfully gifted writer and storyteller, a devoted scholar of history, and this novel was truly a labor of love for her.