Book Review: Written in the Ashes

Written in the Ashes
Published By: HarperLegend
Publication Date: September 27, 2016
Page Count: 530
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - Historical Fiction

The history of the written word and its preservation through time has always fascinated me. Enough so that I got a degree in library and information science, and that I write book reviews for fun! So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to read a book about the demise of the Library of Alexandria, the Library of All Libraries. Written in the Ashes follows the story of Hannah, a shepherdess who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Alexandria. Through her great fortune of being acquired by the household of an important patron of the library, the reader is brought into the conflict between pagans and Christians, and into the great library at the center of that conflict. 

There are at least three semi-competing explanations about the burning of the Library at Alexandria, and Van Zandt follows the theory that the most of the destruction occurred in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD after Emperor Theodosius made paganism illegal in 391. This dramatic setting brings to life the politics surrounding the unrest between Christians, pagans, and Jews. The author has clearly done her research and the novel contains a wealth of historical detail, as well as a glossary to explain unfamiliar terms. Kindly, Van Zandt also notes in the epilogue where her tale takes liberties with actual historical figures and trends. 

I did find that some of the inconsistencies and intentional anachronisms in Written in the Ashes didn’t sit well with me. Early in the story, Hannah can’t swim and Tarek literally has to save her from drowning. It was jarring that not long after, Hannah was swimming around ships in the harbor without any explanation. As far as anachronisms, I understand that Hannah had to end up with a fairly enlightened master in order to have contact with the Great Library, but Alizar keeping a slave he didn’t need and paying for her education at the library felt over-the-top progressive to me. Also the odd moments of mysticism (the closest comparison I can make is that it was somewhat like astral projection) in the story felt more like the deus-ex-machina saving of characters than something that grew out of the story itself. 

 I definitely enjoyed reading Written in the Ashes, and for more than just the chance to geek out over the subject matter. Hannah’s story drew me in and Van Zandt’s descriptive prose kept my attention locked on the story – no mean feat when reading the book over a weekend with six kids at home. I felt like I could have been strolling the streets of ancient Alexandria myself!

After she is abducted from her home in the mountains of Sinai, Hannah is enslaved and taken to Alexandria, where she becomes the property of Alizar, an alchemist and pagan secretly working to preserve his culture. Revered for her beautiful singing voice, the young slave is invited to perform at the city’s Great Library, where she becomes friends with the revered mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, as well as other pagans who curate its magnificent collections. Determined to help them uphold pagan culture and traditions, Hannah embarks on a dangerous quest to unite the fractured pieces of the Emerald Tablet—the last hope to save the pagans and create peace.

On this odyssey that leads her to the lost oracles of Delfi and Amun-Ra and to rediscovered ancient cities and rituals, Hannah will experience forbidden loves, painful betrayals, and poignant reunions. But her efforts may be in vain. Returning to Alexandria, Hannah finds a city engulfed in violence, even as her own romantic entanglements come to a head. Now, it’s not only her future, but the fate of all Alexandria that is at stake.