The heroine and alledged sorceress in this book is Glenys, a Celt from the tribe of the Silures in Britannia. Glenys is raised as a druid and has acquired skills in midwifry and herbal medicine at an early age. After her parents are killed she becomes the lover of Ceallaigh, a somewhat dissolute man who maintains the Roman baths in Aquae Sulis (Bath). Glenys practises her healing skills among the residents of Aquae Sulis. She has been baptised a Christian but has no great commitment to the faith. She maintains an alter to Asclepius, the pagan god of healing, but considers it more of a good luck charm than an actual deity.
When the Visigoths under Aleric threaten to sack Rome, the Roman legions are recalled from Britannia and the power in the former Roman province falls to the tyrant Vorteneu. Vorteneu immediately issues edicts that, essentially, forbid Glenys to practice her healing arts. Any use of herbal remedies would have her branded a sorceress and lead to her being condemned to death. Women were also forbidden to travel abroad unaccompanied. Glenys runs afoul of the law almost immediately when she attends to the delivery of a baby by a very young girl. The baby is stuck in the breach position and Glenys is unable to turn it. She gives the woman an herb that she bought from a Jew to try to get her to relax, but it is all to no avail and the mother and baby die. The woman's husband complains to the authorities that Glenys is a sorcerer and she is forced to flee Britannia. Ceallaigh and Glenys' cousin Morcant are traveling to Rome to try to persuade the Pope to accept the Celtic Christian church, which maintains doctrines considered heretical. Glenys flees Britannia in their company.
The action in the book switches back and forth from where Glenys is to Alexandria. Alexandria is the most cosmopolitan city of its day, full of Jews and pagans as well as Christians, but Christianity is now in the ascendancy and affairs are rapidly deteriorating for both pagans and Jews. The library of Alexadria was a repository of knowledge of the western world. It contained millions of books, writings from everywhere in the known world, and on every subject known to the age. The library was run by a Greek woman named Hypatia. Hypatia was one of the very few women educated at Plato's academy and was, very likely, the most learned woman of her day. Hypatia gave lectures on various subjects and was much admired for both her beauty and her intellect. The authorities began to view her as a threat and issued edicts sharply limiting what subjects she could lecture about. Anything but pure mathmatics was hazardous. The library itself was full of Pagan and Jewish works and was, itself considered a threat. The Christian authorities decided to put the library to the torch. With the help of some of her Jewish friends Hypatia was able to save a very small fraction of the books, but nearly all of it was lost. A tremendous amount of knowledge about such things as history, mathmatics, biology, agriculture and archetecture was lost to future generations. (My gosh I wish I had Plutarch's Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africnus for my own historical research on the second Punic war. No doubt it perished in the conflagration!)
Glenys's flight eventually takes her to Alexandria where she becomes friends with Hypatia and also with Aschi, one of Hypatia's Jewish admirers. Ultimately the tensions between the Christians on the one hand and the Jews and Pagans on the other come to a head, with dire consequences both to Hypatia and to the Jews of Alexandria.
Barry Willdorf's novel is supurbly written and a must read for any devotee of historical fiction.
I confess I downloaded this book because Hypatia of Alexandria is one of these women. According to the most reliable authorities, Hypatia did not teach religion or expound on it as this author depicts in one momentous scene. I recommend Hypatia of Alexandriaby Maria Dzielska for those who want a scholarly biography of Hypatia.
Yet this was a lovely novel. I enjoyed reading it right until the unexpected ending.