Burning libraries in the name of Christ.
First Published: 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2012
Written In The Ashes is the story of one girl’s journey from slave to potential saviour of the right to religious freedom, and the way the events of society culminated in the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. At once combining the regular workings of ancient Egyptian life and a somewhat epic adventure, the book is the first in a series.
Unfortunately the beginning section of the book does not express the above. The first part of Written In The Ashes is badly written; there is unnecessary melodrama and plot points are left hanging when they require resolution. The melodrama comes in the form of the main character, Hannah, being unreasonably gallant – she throws caution to the wind many times without thinking about the consequences. An example of a plot point left hanging is when Tarek gets bitten right to the bone and then proceeds to help Hannah, who has sprained an ankle during a show of gallantry, get home, carrying her weight by himself. When they get home Hannah is looked after and stays in bed recovering for weeks, whilst Tarek… well nothing happens, you never hear of his mortal wound again. By all accounts, in an unsanitary society Tarek should be dead.
There is a significant amount of info-dumping about locations and ideas that are not needed. The author describes things that don’t matter, such as telling us that while Hannah was speaking her hair escaped her hair-tie; one can presume from the context that Van Zandt wanted to insert a romantic atmosphere into the scene but without continuation it is superfluous. There is constant repetition of the word “so” that has no meaning, as well the device of “an angel” you’ve never been introduced to, who is doing something, be it smiling, being irritated, and so forth. In the second section Van Zandt finally introduces the reader to the concept, at which time you realise the idea itself is a good one, it’s just a pity it was poorly handled.
So we come to this second section of the book and we do this specifically because suddenly that change in section does everything for the story. The writing style is wonderfully different, plot holes are no longer employed, and the characters come into their own. The story takes on a brilliant mythical religious atmosphere and invites the fantasy genre to stake a claim in its contents. The adventure suggested in the summaries begins and everything here after is much better than the initial first section of the book. It is incredibly easy to get lost in the tale and forget all that came before.
For the most part, the third section continues the goodness of the second, but there are a couple of bad aspects to it, in particular the jump in time. The second section ends with the characters in a rather vulnerable position, and then the narrative suddenly jumps ahead by three years. If this was due to factual events happening that Van Zandt had to subscribe to, it is understandable, but due to the narrative of her fictional characters it does not work – and whilst Van Zandt shows that a threat is still there and must be dealt with hastily, it appears in the backs of the characters’ minds. It would have been better had Van Zandt taken artistic liberty with the historical facts and moved events forward, especially as to all intents and purposes it seems the characters forgot all about their friend for three years for no reason.
Yet whilst it needs editing and duplicate actions removed, on the whole Written In The Ashes isn’t a bad book. Indeed although the violence is strong it fits the period, and there is the element of early Christianity included that is so rarely spoken of elsewhere. Van Zandt really looks into the Parabolani, the so-called Christians (in other words people who believed themselves Christians but behaved as anything but) who took to persecuting anyone who would not convert. The situation was the complete reverse of the Biblical stories of Rome against Christianity and whilst Van Zandt may have created some of the episodes that happen, it is merely the extra details that are fictional. Thus the book is important because in a western world where every other sort of persecution has been publicised, little is taught of this situation. And it gives the library’s female academic, Hypathia, an expanded, if fictional, story, bringing to light both the success and plight of women.
It is unfortunate that the book lacks an air of completion (away from the slight cliff-hanger ending as this is the first book in a series) but there is a deal of goodness here and it would appear that Van Zandt has the potential to be a great storyteller.
Written In The Ashes is a fair look at society and religion in era of the ancients. It will invite research and thoughts to be overturned, though it may be difficult at times to get there.
I received this book for review from the author.
September 17, 2012, 10:05 am
“The melodrama comes in the form of the main character, Hannah, being unreasonably gallant” It is characters like this that lead me to dislike a book.
I think the subject matter sounds incredibly interesting, but I suspect the necessary description may aggravate me.
September 17, 2012, 7:39 pm
Thanks for taking the time to read my book and offer a thoughtful review!
I thought you might enjoy this reveal: The use of the word “So” is significant in 2 ways. First, Hannah is a musician, so this word is employed as a musical rest in the flow of the prose. Since there is no equivalent in the English language to a musical rest, I chose a short word that let the eye pause a moment and then continue. And second, Hannah is Jewish. If you read the Torah, you will encounter the word “Selah” at the end of passages. And so, “So” also represents this ancient word in a modern sense.
There are many other meanings to the story that are quite layered, if you are curious…. Please feel free to ask me any questions at my Goodreads author Q&A:
And I’m excited to share that the Academy Award producer that optioned the novel has just attached the director of The Borgia’s! So perhaps the book will make it to TV soon : )
And thank you again! I appreciate your time.
September 17, 2012, 8:46 pm
Thanks for taking part in the tour!
September 17, 2012, 8:55 pm
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September 18, 2012, 5:03 pm
It’s a shame there is so much character weirdness and info dumping in the beginning! I would probably get frustrated and add it to my DNF list before I got to the better parts….
September 20, 2012, 6:03 pm
Kaia: Thank you for the information. I can see it making a good TV drama.
Teddy: No worries.
Allison: That’s the pity, and it’s also the reason I strove to finish, because reading all the positive reviews I thought there must be something further to it. It’s why I made a big deal of the second section because it does take a long time to get there but it is worth it.