Set in the last four years of the Jewish occupation of the Masada fortress in ancient Israel in the time of the Roman occupation, this book tells the events of the lives of four women there who work together in the Dovecotes. I suppose most of you who have an interest in the history of the Jewish people or the area will know what happened at Masada, but I won’t say here, in case you don’t.
The four women are very different, but all are social outcasts, and all have the propensity for magic. Yael is the daughter of an assassin who despises her for the death of her mother in childbirth. Revka was the wife of a baker whose daughter was killed in front of her, and who cares for her silent, traumatised grandchildren. Shirah, the Witch of Moab, is a magic practitioner and secret worshipper of Ashtoreth, who is the mistress of the leader of the fortress. And Aziza, her daughter, a young woman with a secret, outrunning her fate.
Their stories intertwine, and each is given her voice as she talks about her past before coming to the fortress and the tragic events that have shaped their lives.
The story is odd. The historical aspects are fascinating, and give loads of insight into the way that lives were lived and the kinds of things that happened. However, it feels odd to have a book about witches set against the backdrop of a religious war, an event that is important to a lot of Jewish people. Why not focus on that? I also found it hard to relate to the characters, the women were all pushed around and called it “fate” rather than taking responsibility, and they all bowed their heads to the men, which I get is how things were then, but it’s not interesting to read about.
It’s actually rather irritating. The people at Masada are all quite narrow minded and think everything is a portent or that anyone who is different must be evil or a demon, so you care less about what happens to them. They are often cruel, and comfortable pillaging and murdering anyone who comes near the enclave for food and supplies. They also keep slaves. But they hate the Romans for doing the things to them that they are then doing to others.
I think there is a lot in this book that is incredibly well researched and gives an entry into a different time and place. But I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. Which is unusual for me, Alice Hoffman is brilliant. Perhaps if you’ll get more out of it than I did.
Read It If: you ever wanted to know more about the lives of women in biblical times, or if you’re interested in Jewish magical practices and the impact of religion on society and thought.