Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Review: 'Written in the Ashes' by K. Hollan van Zandt

This book was sent to me by Kaia's publicist and I absolutely loved it. And there is something else that got me excited: 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. Here's a quick summary first:

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. . .

As I said above, I absolutely adored this book. 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. We are first introduced to Hannah when she is travelling across the Sinai with her father. Immediately I saw how deeply culture and tradition are embedded in this story. The relationship between Hannah and her father is not only important to Hannah but also becomes important to the reader because it forms the motivation for many of her actions. And then we are introduced to Hypatia, shortly in the beginning but truly in the middle.

Hypatia is a spectacular character. Historically she is an absolute inspiration and I am surprised she is so rarely featured in historical novels. Perhaps because smart women rarely feature, but Kaia's book has plenty of those. What is special about this book is that it confront you with 2-D characters. There are no black-and-white characters and everyone is presented in a human way. Hypatia has her weak moments and self doubt, but this is what makes the characters believable. 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. I only wish I could time travel and visit that beautiful place.

Another amazing description is that of Pharos and the Temple of Isis. Forming a contrast to the hectic happenings in Alexandria, it's a time to breathe for the reader and Hannah and another opportunity to see a different side of Egypt, the mystical side. I really enjoyed this part of the book as the preparation for the ceremonial rite is fascinating, as is the actual rite itself. I especially liked how the journey to Delphi is described. I went there as a child and have been fascinated with Greek mythology ever since. I think every book that has a reference to the Oracle is simply magnificent. 

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. The conflict between the Christians and the Jews and the awful conclusion to that are described with respect and very beautifully, with attention to the human suffering on both sides. It also highlights slavery throughout the novel as Hannah keeps on facing prejudice and also feels restricted by her position, even if those closest to her don't treat her as a slave. 

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. Hannah is a strong lead character that does not bore and especially the characters of Alizar and Hypatia form a great set of realistic characters. There are may touching moments  and the description of landscape is bound to make a reader's imagination take flight. 

I give this book...

So, what do you think? Does this sound like a book for you? 

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