Although Alice Hoffman is a popular author, The Dovekeepers is the first of her novels that I have read. I was drawn to her subject--the tragedy of Masada--because of our recent trip to Israel where we visited that site.
Hoffman was also inspired by her visit to Israel and to Masada. Although the story is pure fiction, it rests on a solid historical foundation. While reading it I was constantly reminded of our own tour of Masada and the desolate land that surrounds it. Anyone who has had that experience will find themselves reliving it as they read the book.
The Dovekeepers is told from the point of view of four women narrators who are living in the Masada fortress as the Roman legions are encamped around them preparing to storm their defenses and quell their rebellion. The women have been assigned to care for the dovecotes--a vital task because the dove's waste becomes the fertilizer that causes their plants to grow and thrive in the salty desert.
Themes of the story include the spirituality of silence, the brutality of men, devotion to God, the life-giving force of women and the persistent appeal of pagan mystical practices.
It's that last theme that has brought Hoffman the most criticism. Several Jewish reviewers took great exception to the prominent role given to devotion to Ashtoreth and the consistent emphasis on magic expressed by the key characters.
I wasn't perturbed by this until I reached the last part of the book where the narrator is the Witch of Moab. At this point the mysticism became tedious and I began skimming over it. In an afterword Hoffman lists a couple of books on Jewish magic as sources for her writing along with several historical works.
Although I tired of this theme by the end of the novel, I think it is believable. The characters in the story live in the late first century AD. Each of the narrators are women who are not completely accepted by the main Hebrew community--they are outsiders and have a different point of view from the more orthodox Jews. Whenever people face grave danger that they are powerless against, like the Roman legions, it is always tempting to fall back on "magical thinking" as a way of exerting control over your circumstances.
And after all, Hoffman wrote a popular novel Practical Magic (which I have not read), so the reader should not be surprised by the incorporation of this theme.
The Dovekeepers is well written and the four major characters are complex and well developed. Women readers with a background in the history of Masada and/or the experience of visiting it will enjoy reading the book. I'm not sure men would like it because there are really no admirable male characters in the story.