Hisdadukh, daughter of respected rabbi Rav Hisda in late third century Babylonia, is learned, beautiful, passionate, and an aspiring sorceress of great talent. A young widow who has had to give her son over to his father's family to raise, she leaves her home in Sura to apprentice with Em the Healer in Pumbedita. In Em's house, she is living under the same roof with another rabbi, Rava, a firend and rival of her late husband, and a man with whom she shares both deep attraction, and shared conflicts and misunderstandings.
This is the starting point from which Hisdadukh and Rava spend the next six decades learning, loving, and growing together, as she becomes mistress of a now-lost tradition of Jewish women's magic, and he studies the Torah, priestly magic, and the secret Torah, and becomes a leading light in the growing tradition of the Talmud and rabbinic law. Set in Babylonia, a.k.a. Persia, or the country we now call Iran, it's a different look at the third and fourth centuries than most of us have learned, east and south of the Roman Empire, in a culture where the dominant religion is neither the Roman or Greek gods, nor Christianity, but Zorastrianism.
Anton does a marvelous job developing this alien culture and forgotten history, as well as the personalities and lives of her characters. Though we inevitably know some better than others, and like some better than others, they all feel real, complex individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, and inconsistencies. No caricatures or cardboard stock figures here. The important characters and many episodes and uses of magic are drawn from the Talmud, woven together in a beautiful tapestry.
Aramaic words and terminology are used as needed. In most cases, the meaning is reasonably clear from context, but there's a glossary at the back of the book for anything the reader stumbles over.
I found this wholly compelling and fascinating. Highly recommended.
I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher via Penguin's First to Read program.