Written in the Ashes
K. Hollan Van Zandt
Balboa Press, July 2011
Also available in trade paperback and electronic editions
From the publisher—
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. . .
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Way back in the Dark Ages when I was a teenager, I fell in love with history and, in particular, with the ancient lands of Egypt, Greece, Italy, Britain, etc. I seriously considered going into archaeology as a career but, fortunately, I figured out early on that I’m a couch potato at heart and really not cut out for all that sweat and hard work. Despite that setback, I’ve never lost my love for those places and their stories.
Then, in 1989, I had the great good fortune to go with my younger daughter to visit my older daughter who was studying in Greece. We did the tourist thing in Greece and then went on to Egypt. I don’t expect to ever again experience anything like it and that wonderful trip confirmed my belief that those two countries, in particular, have history that’s magical.
That magic is what the reader finds in Written in the Ashes. From my first introduction to Hannah, I was captivated by her and by what happens to her, and she became a very real person in my imagination. I could feel her emotions, her fear, her strength. I could once again experience the heat, the red dust, the intense sun, the incredibly blue sky, the sense of being in a place that would have an immense effect on the rest of humanity for eons to come. And Hypatia—what an incredible woman she is in the author’s hands and must have been in real life. To think that she played such an integral role at a time when religions and the empire were in great turmoil, a time when an intelligent woman was looked upon with suspicion and distrust, is mesmerizing.
These two very different women and the secondary characters that touch their lives for good or bad, bring to life the story of what happened in Alexandria and the massive changes that occurred in the religious world of the 5th century. Whether the reader is Christian or Jewish or pagan or of any other belief—or even atheistic—really doesn’t matter because we all live today with the ramifications of those events. Ms. Van Zandt has done a masterful job of creating a compelling and absorbing story around a fascinating piece of history.
Ms. Van Zandt is also to be commended for her meticulous research but, most of all, for her flowing, striking prose that frequently caught my breath; I’d find myself re-reading passages just to see if they sounded the same a second time. (Hint: they did and, sometimes, were even better.) I really do hope this author will offer us either a sequel or another novel entirely without making us wait too long.
One note of caution for those readers who are easily offended—while you’ll find love and excitement and danger and even a little humor, the author does not hold back when it comes to scenes of violence and abuse and I applaud her for that. After all, slavery, rape, murder, arson and mob behavior are all about brutality and should be portrayed accordingly, but I highly recommend Written in the Ashes for any reader who enjoys tales from our past that are grounded in truth and written in beauty.
Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2012.