Thursday, May 03, 2012

Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt: A Book Review

Written in the Ashes
by K. Hollan Van Zandt
448 pages
Publisher: Balboa Press- July, 2011
Historical Fiction.

When I heard that this novel was set in the time of the Alexandrian Library in Egypt I could not sign onto this blog tour fast enough.  Such high expectations are often a set up for disappointment but not this time.  This story surpassed my expectations.

For a first novel it is amazingly competent on every level of craft: pacing, dialog, plot, character, description, narrative, setting, theme, symbol, metaphor, historical veracity.  I could not find fault with any of it.  If I had not been told this was a first novel I could not have guessed.

The reason I was so excited about the setting of  Written in the Ashes was because of my interest going back to my teens in the history, myth and cultures around the Mediterranean, in Church history, in libraries in general but especially the library at Alexandria, Egypt that was burned in the 5th century B.C.E. an event I'd learned of in a novel in my early teens which had induced a grief in me on a par with the loss of a loved one.

One of the characters in Written in the Ashes is the historical Hypatia the woman who was the last head librarian of the Alexandrian library who had lived in the library from childhood and succeeded her father in the position..  I had first learned of her in my early teens as well, probably in that same novel I mentioned above, and her story haunted me.  I wanted to be her.  I wished that I lived in a library like her.  I still do.

The scenes of the burning of the library broke my heart all over again.

The story centers on young Hannah a Jewish shepardess who was kidnapped from her father's nomadic camp by slave traders who raped her mercilessly before selling her in Alexandria.  Her master, one Alizar the alchemist, was a kind and perspicacious gentleman who recognized her potential right away and set her on a path towards purchasing her freedom.  Education was the first step and for that he sent her to study at the Alexandrian library.

This library was nothing like the Public Libraries most of us are familiar with.  It was more like today's universities combined with museums, botanical gardens and zoos.  Its mission was to gather and preserve knowledge from all corners of the known world which at that time was expanding as merchant caravans and trading ships ventured further and further in all directions from the Mediterranean bringing back representative materials from their travels of flora, fauna, art, literature, science, math, maps and more.  Alexandria as a port town at the mouth of the Nile river was in a prime location for such a mission.

But there were those who feared the accumulation and availability of such things.  Especially the Catholic Church which at that time was consolidating its political power in the region and defining a definitive doctrine that they wished to impose on all and to that end were intent on eliminating pagan knowledge and practice as well as Christian 'heresies', the Jewish traditions and in some cases populations, and all the literature, science and art that countered the teachings of the Church.

In the novel this perspective was represented by Bishop Cyril who instituted the death penalty for pagan practices, exiled the Jewish population from the town, and was putting pressure on the library to turn over certain items for either destruction or 'safe-keeping' by the church.  Of course Hypatia resisted this and of course this infuriated Cyril who stirred up fear and resentment in the populous by accusing her of paganism and witchcraft setting the stage for a trial or lynching once he could accost her outside the well fortified walls of the library.

There is also a love story threaded through  Written in the Ashes.  Two actually as Hannah is torn between two men.  One a sailor and the other a warrior/priest.

The ending though it wrapped up many of the story's threads satisfyingly left a few of them for a sequel.  I understand this is to be a trilogy and I can't wait to read the next one.

I'm also anxiously awaiting the TV miniseries that is in the works.

Note:  I received and ecopy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest reaction on this blog and participation in this virtual tour. 

The following material is from the press release:

Who burned the Great Library of Alexandria?

When the Roman Empire collapses in the 5th century, the city of Alexandria, Egypt is plagued with unrest. Paganism is declared punishable by death and the populace splinters in religious upheaval.

Hannah, a beautiful Jewish shepherd girl is abducted from her home in the mountains of Sinai and sold as a slave in Alexandria to Alizar, an alchemist and successful vintner. Her rapturous singing voice destines her to become the most celebrated bard in the Great Library.

Meanwhile, the city’s bishop, Cyril, rises in power as his priests roam the streets persecuting the pagans. But while most citizens submit, a small resistance fights for justice.

Hypatia, the library’s charismatic headmistress, summons her allies to protect the world’s knowledge from the escalating violence. Risking his life, his family, and his hard-earned fortune, Alizar leads the conspiracy by secretly copying the library’s treasured manuscripts and smuggling them to safety.

When Hannah becomes the bishop’s target, she is sequestered across the harbor in the Temple of Isis. But an ancient ceremonial rite between a monk and priestess inside the Pharos lighthouse ignites a forbidden passion.

Torn between the men she loves, Hannah must undertake a quest to the lost oracles of Delfi and Amun-Ra to find the one thing powerful enough to protect the pagans: The Emerald Tablet.

Meanwhile, the Christians siege the city, exile the Jews, and fight the dwindling pagan resistance as the Great Library crumbles.
But not everything is lost. . 

What They're Saying:

“A stunning epic about the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt from a brilliant young novelist whose depiction of the ancient world is sure to capture the hearts and readers everywhere.”- Mark R. Harris, Academy Award-Winning Producer (Crash, Gods & Monsters)

“Written in the Ashes is one of those rare novels that sets ‘history’ afire, to bathe readers in the glow of a greater, hotter truth. Fans of The Mists of Avalon will find this romantic/alchemical/feminist/spiritual epic equally captivating.” – Tom Robbins, international/ New York Times bestselling author Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Jitterbug Perfume

“Van Zandt’s vivid description of the Great Library instantly transported me to a lush fifth century Alexandria. Her lyrical writing style and breakneck storytelling kept me riveted to the very last page.”-Robin Maxwell bestselling author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Signora da Vinci.

“In her captivating debut novel, Written in the Ashes, K. Hollan Van Zandt brings to life a fascinating and forgotten woman of history: Hypatia of Alexandria, who may have been one of the greatest female minds of all time. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to walk the streets of long ago Egypt, then look no further. You will be enthralled!”-Michelle Moran, international bestselling author of Nefertiti and Cleopatra’s Daughter

“Written in the Ashes is a story that could have been ripped from today’s headlines. It opens the door into a magical, fascinating and frightening era in our history. With hope, it’s one we will not be doomed to repeat.”-Josh Conviser, Executive Consultant HBO’s Rome, author Echelon and Empyre

“This book has been optioned for a TV mini-series by Academy Award-winning producer Mark Harris (Crash 2005). I cannot wait to see this beautiful story on my TV. Once I started this book I worked my way through it in 2 days. And when I say work, I mean it was a perfect read. It is clear that a lot of research has gone into this book, which is perhaps most beautifully expressed in the description of the Library of Alexandria. Next to a beautiful story, the book also shows respect for the time in which the story is set. As a historical fiction novel it is one of the best I have read in a long time. Kaia has truly achieved creating a story that is both captivating and interesting. With beautiful attention to detail and tradition, it is bound to ensnare every reader.”-Juli,

“The story is extremely detailed in historical fact, but by no means is it dry and dusty. The author manages to weave the facts seamlessly into the exciting and romantic fictional story. So much so, that it becomes difficult to separate the two while reading – it just sucks you right into 5th Century Alexandria. I found myself absolutely riveted while reading this book! I highly recommend this book for anyone that appreciates a strong female character or two.” Theresa Jones,]

Note: Written in the Ashes has been snatched up by Academy Award-winning producer Mark Harris (Gods & Monsters)) of Agape Media Productions. (He won best picture for "Crash" in 2005).  He plans to create a TV mini series with it.  For those who may be offended easily, you should know that there is some rape, violence, sex, and a bit of profanity.  If it were a movie it would be rated R.

K. Hollan Van Zandt has always loved libraries, oceans, ancient history and migrating birds. Her mentor, novelist Tom Robbins, instilled in her an abiding love and respect for language.She lives in Southern California, and dreams of a home in Greece. This, her first novel, took ten years to complete.

From her website:
I am a Scorpio born in the year of the Rabbit in California. (Though American by birth, I am convinced my soul is Greek.) I am a nature lover, deep ecologist, and a devoted yogi who holds 7 yoga certifications. My writing mentor is best-selling novelist Tom Robbins, author of Jitterbug Perfume, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Another Roadside Attraction. You probably know his quote, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Visit her web page

Join her group on goodreads to ask her any questions you have about Written in the Ashes and the Great Library of Alexandria.

Follow the blog tour to see more reviews, and guest posts by the author and giveaways:

Tour Host:    Date of review:    (GP)Guest Post, (I)Interviewor(G)Giveaway?                   
Teddy So Many Precious Books            April 30      GMeg A Bookish Affair                             May 2        GP & G May 3Joy Renee Joystory                               May 3        None   Ana Book Spark                                    May 4        G
Siobian The Owl Bookmark Blog           May 7         I & G May 8
Gwenddolyn Sea of Books                    May 9         None
Stephanie Curling Up By the Fire          May 10      G
Patty Broken Teepee                            None         GP & G May 11
Brittany Book Nook Club                       May 11      G
Angela Royal Reviews                          May 14       None
Christine Reflections of a Book Addict  May 15       G & GP May 16
Rebecca A Words Worth                      May 17       None
Audra Unabridged Chick                      May 18       G
Ruth My Devotional Thoughts              May 21       G & GP May 22
Dana Let's Book It                                May 23       None
Deb's Book Bag                                   May 24        I & G May 25
Farrah Book Faery Reviews                May 25       None
Valentina Carabosse's Library             May 28       None
Courtney  Stiletto Storytime                 May 29       GP & G May 30
Heather The Maidens Court                May 30       G & GP May 31
Shellie Layers of Thought                   May 31       None

1 tell me a story:

Teddy Rose 5/03/2012 1:02 PM  

Thanks for taking part in the tour. Sounds like you loved Written In the Ashes as much as I did. I cried because I didn't want it to end!

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