Ben Mercer, a young archaeologist fleeing his estranged family in Oxford, finds his way to Athens and thence to Sparta, Athens' nemesis in the 5th Century BC. Confused and lonely, he insinuates himself into a team digging the site of ancient Sparta, an austere and introverted society whose warrior elite practised a form of eugenics by exposing unwanted children and for three centuries managed to keep subdued huge numbers of local people through terror.
Ben desperately wants to feel he belongs somewhere, to be part of the multi-national group of archaeologists, but is the dig all that it seems? As he gradually melts their hostility towards him, and begins a relationship with one of the women on the dig, one is led to wonder whether there is something behind their apparent willingness to admit him to their number. Worryingly, ritual appears to be as important to the modern-day team as to the ancients...
My first encounter with Tobias Hill was his novel `Underground', a smart thriller with a strong sense of place. In his latest novel, Hill similarly ratchets up the tension as the reader tries to work out what is really going on. Aspects of the story, and particularly its dark tones and exploration of the tribal instinct, are reminiscent of Donna Tartt's `The Secret History'. But this is better.
For Tobias Hill is also a poet and what really sets this book apart are his beautiful descriptions of the mountainous landscapes and Greek winter, and the undercutting of any tourist's-eye view of Greece by reference to its troubled and unresolved recent political history. And if characterisation, admittedly of some pretty unpleasant people, sometimes loses out, the romantic moments are entirely convincing and the ending packs a satisfying punch.