The head of the Krypteia (Spartan secret police) enlists the high priestess Iliona, ostensibly to bless a crossroads tavern and posting station, part of a communications network designed to unify Greece. Iliona wants to protect Spartan influence against the growing hegemony of the Athenians and their suppression of women. Before long she is investigating the theft of a gold shipment, an Olympic champion’s chariot accident, and the hanging of a popular tavern hostess. Iliona has to drink quite a bit while she is snooping around at various festivals, resulting in a hangover described in a way that brings to mind Lucky Jim. On occasion she resorts to what we might call fraud to establish her powers as a priestess, but always in service of a higher good.
Todd’s best writing involves close observation of nature, such as when the helot physician Jocasta takes advantage of the upcoming autumn equinox to gather medicinal herbs, such as “horehound, whose flowery stems were excellent in combating digestive disorders.” Strong independent women struggle against male dominance in many guises throughout this book.