Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review & Giveaway: Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt

by K. Hollan Van Zandt
Release Date: July 6th, 2011
2011 Balboa Press
Ebook Edition; 401 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-452-53515-9
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review Copy from Virtual Author Book Tours

4.5 / 5 Stars

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. 

My Thoughts
Written in the Ashes is a fantastic read about the late 4th/early 5th century Alexandria and the burning of the Great Library.  A huge loss to humanity, the entire episode remains highly controversial and is a source of great debate amongst historians as to what the library actually contained and who was fully responsible.  Drawing from what little historical fact remains, the author uses fiction to help fill in the gaps left by historical records to give us an account of the time that is intriguing and believable.

One of the things I always enjoy in a good historical fiction novel is the descriptive nature to the story whereby I feel like I am part of the story.  In this novel, the author creates a mystical world using beautiful descriptive language that doesn't overwhelm the reader, but draws them in, instructing them in the way of life of a citizen of Alexandria at the time. The whole society and culture, including the clash between Christianity and Paganism, was so believable and I could feel the tension that lay underneath it all.  That takes an incredible talent to write like that and I certainly appreciated the writing skill whereby the characters could be at an amazing and happy event while I would be full of tension and anxiety, wondering what was going to happen although there would be little in the dialogue to give it away.  I even re-read several passages to see if I could pick up how the technique was done.  I was impressed!! And the picture is not always pretty as Hannah, the main character, is kidnapped right at the beginning of the novel, and sent to Alexandria to be sold as a slave.  I won't describe some of the things that happened to her on the way to Alexandria but it certainly let the reader know very quickly exactly how close to real life things were going to be and it wasn't pretty.  That being said, the author doesn't use a lot of description to describe the violence in the story, but leaving it to your imagination can often be so much worse.  At least it is for me!! 

I really liked all of the characters in this novel, even if Hannah was somewhat impetuous at times.  Some of the things she did I'm not really sure she would have been allowed to get away with in the 'true' world considering her slave status, but I kind of overlooked them because I enjoyed the novel so much.  That she was courageous, brave, talented, kind, and loyal are never in doubt, but I do like my heroines to have somewhat of an edge and sometimes I thought she was too kind and too nice, especially considering some of the things she had to endure.  

I did enjoy the inclusion of some historical figures in the novel such as Hypatia and Synesius.  Hypatia is the last recorded librarian for the Great Library and was a very controversial figure in Alexandria during this time.  While a very-forward thinking society, the clash between Christianity and Paganism was rearing its ugly head and many people were caught in the middle, leading to some extremely violent acts, especially against the Jewish people.  I remember studying Alexandria in university and being shocked when I first learned about some of the things that went on, but reading it afresh in this novel is still shocking even when you know what is to happen.  I think I hoped that the ending would be different here, simply because I felt a connection to these characters and didn't want anything to happen to them.  

Written in the Ashes was a great historical novel about Alexandria and the ancient library, posing the great question: How different would life be if the library had survived?  How different would life be if the Christians and Pagans had reached an accomodation?   The descriptions of the places were beautifully done and I enjoyed the characters very much, although I would like to see some of the secondary characters developed more fully as they are as interesting as the main characters.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in historical fiction and likes a good story full of intrigue, mystery, action, and romance.  I am looking forward to reading the sequel, A Further Shore, when it is released.

Giveaway: One lucky reader will win one (1) ecopy of Written in the Ashes.
1) Open internationally.
2) Contest ends 22 May 2012.
3) Please comment and leave your email address in order to be entered.

Good luck everyone!

Video Trailer


  1. Thanks for taking part in the tour. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

  2. Oh this sounds delightful! I love historical fiction and how it weaves in real history.


  3. Thanks for this thoughtful review of my novel. I really enjoyed reading it. To answer your question about the tension- yes, it was carefully crafted over years of re-writing. I actually learned the technique from reading Herbert's DUNE. In the middle of the book he spends nearly a hundred pages philosophizing and the action is completely dead. I studied it asking- how the heck did he get me to read all that? The answer was he put his protagonist's life in jeopardy as a cliffhanger right before it. I had a lot of my own philosophy to convey, but I didn't want to bore the reader, so I used this technique. I actually made a chart of every scene in my novel rating the scenes on a scale of 1-10 in tension. Scenes that lacked tension required the scene before them be re-written- usually at the chapter's end. Your comment on the "true" world of slaves is also something other bloggers have mentioned. Perhaps you'll have a laugh to find out the only slaves on record back then belonged to the likes of nobles and emperor's like Julius Caesar, so perhaps I did stretch her freedoms a bit- but she would have been educated, as the upper class knew this added great value to a slave. But as a woman..... probably not. Thank you again for this thoughtful review of my novel. I will indeed look forward to sharing the next book in the series with you and your readers : )

  4. Wow, this book sounds incredible so thank you for the chance to read it for free.


  5. I enjoyed your review, especially about the characters. Sounds like an interesting book.