Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 28, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Dovekeepers

Current Status
In Season
Alice Hoffman

We gave it an A-

The women in The Dovekeepers are physically and spiritually strong, they have elemental female desires when it comes to love, sex, and children, and many of them possess magical powers: In other words, they’re Alice Hoffman Women. But in a striking departure from her previous books, the author of Practical Magic grounds her expansive, intricately woven, and deepest new novel in biblical history, with a devotion and seriousness of purpose that may surprise even her most constant fans.

Hoffman takes her inspiration from the events that occurred at the Israeli mountaintop fortress of Masada almost 2,000 years ago when, according to first-century historian Flavius Josephus, some 900 Jewish rebels held out for months under Roman attack, then set their storerooms on fire and committed mass suicide rather than face subjugation. Josephus reported that two women and five children survived. And from that extraordinary possibility, the author imagines four Hoffman Women — Yael, Revka, Shirah, and Aziza — each of whom was a dovekeeper in her day (the Masada dovecote remains an awe-inspiring tourist attraction). Yael, of the flame-colored hair, grew up with a father who despised her because her mother died in childbirth; Revka survived the killing of her husband and daughter and raised her grandsons. Shirah, who excels at spells and medicine, saw her daughter, Aziza, fight alongside men as a warrior. The four embody aspects of not only femininity and feminism but also spiritual expression, Jewish tradition, and — in the biggest picture — the world’s never-ending cycle of peace and war and peace, among both nations and families.

Hoffman put years of research into The Dovekeepers, and at times the story slows from a scholar’s desire to dwell on details of custom or ritual. But for those like me who’ll follow the novelist anywhere, that pacing becomes its own powerful incantation. A-

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