Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: “Written in the Ashes” by K. Hollan Van Zandt

Today, Fresh-scraped Vellum is one of the final stops on the blog tour for Written in the Ashes, a wonderful historical fantasy by author K. Hollan Van Zandt. It’s published by Harper Collins and available here. I was also lucky enough to interview Ms. Van Zandt, and that interview follows my review of the novel.

Written in the Ashes is an epic and magical tale centered around the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Set in the early fifth century, the book introduces us to famous historical figures such as Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most remarkable women and scientists of her age, and Bishop Cyril (later canonized a saint), who sought to cleanse the city of its Pagan roots, with Hypatia being the foremost Pagan among them. 

The story’s main character, however, is Hannah, a slave who was kidnaped from her home in Sinai and sold in Alexandria. There, she is purchased by the son of a wealthy merchant named Alizar, who comes to appreciate Hannah’s intellect and gift for music. He arranges for her to study at the Great Library, where she’s introduced to Hypatia.

The Great Library of Alexandria*
One of the most beautiful facets of this book is the way the author brings Alexandria, and especially the Great Library, to life. The library has its own zoo, a botanical garden, a chamber filled with butterflies, and secret doors accessible only from the maze-like, water-filled catacombs that flow beneath city the streets. The Great Library was a bastion of learning and science, and stands as a symbol of things readers today would hold precious. Though to the Christian clerics of that age, it was the epitome of Pagan heresy. 

If Hannah is the protagonist, alongside Alizar and Hypatia, then Bishop Cyril and his mob of violent clerics, called the Parabolani, are the chief antagonists. Think of the Faith Militant in Game of Thrones, only historically real, though Bishop Cyril is more Tywin Lannister than High Sparrow. When Hannah observes the Parabolani killing women accused as witches and persecuting the city’s Jews, she cannot stand for it, and quickly runs afoul of the Parabolani, who end up hunting her for much of the tale. 

The danger posed by Cyril’s clerics eventually causes Alizar to move Hannah to the Isle of Pharos, where she joins the Temple of Isis. Here is where the book ventures into the realm of historical fantasy, with the introduction of the Nuapar. They are sect of monastic warriors, founded in ancient India, who wield mystical powers. Their leader, Julian, one of Hannah’s love interests in the book, even sends her on a quest for the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a mystical relic that Alizar believes will allow the Pagans to prevail against the Christians.

Religious tensions play a significant role in the novel, but that is a function of the period of history in which the story takes place. Mysticism also plays a big role, though nothing is as important as the hero’s journey Hannah undertakes in the classic Campbellian sense of the term (there’s even a visit to the Delphi Oracle). That journey, mixed with the fascinating settings and characters who inhabit the story’s world, is what makes this novel work so well. If you like intelligent historical fiction with strong female characters, a glimmer of magic, and a fairly unique setting, you will enjoy Written in the Ashes.

K. Hollan Van Zandt

Interview with K. Hollan Van Zandt

Q. What inspired you to choose the Great Library of Alexandria in fifth century Egypt as the major setting for your novel?

Well, I was dating an Egyptologist in my 20’s, and had already been the pen pal of bestselling novelist Tom Robbins for over a decade. So I knew I wanted to write a book, and Tom was encouraging of learning the craft and really committing myself to it. I asked my lover how it was possible that we knew what Caesar ate for breakfast on the mornings of his battles but we don’t know when the greatest library in antiquity burned to the ground. He had no answer, insisting scholars didn’t know. So I began my own research at the UC Santa Cruz, which culminated in the discovery that Hypatia was the last known librarian of the Great Library. (This was before Google.) There was a synchronicity in that I had written a short story years prior about a woman running the library who had been brutally murdered, but I thought the story was rubbish, so I had tossed it in a drawer. Suddenly, my paths converged with chilling accuracy, and I knew I had to write about Hypatia because I had already seen how she died playing like a movie in my mind, even before I knew who she was. What happened to her and Alexandria during a tumultuous time of religious extremism could also have been ripped from today’s headlines.

Q. You really brought the city of Alexandria and its surroundings to life. I suspect those details were based on a mountain of research, but how much of your Alexandria – especially the catacombs and the Great Library – is the product of your imagination?

Actually, there is nothing of the city of Alexandria itself from that era that came from my imagination aside from the structure and organization of the Great Library and the Museion. I studied extensive maps of the 5th century; the modern findings of the French dive team who are still hard at work in the Alexandrian harbor where the city ruins of the era I wrote about now sit at the bottom of the sea; and there was a Nova special I watched that showed the catacombs beneath the city, which were only discovered in 2000, and archeologists had merely 2 weeks to explore them before a freeway, tragically, was to pave over the whole area sealing it off from further research.

Q. There are a number of wonderful characters in the novel, but Hannah is the protagonist and her transformation carries the story. What – or who – inspired Hannah? 

I am a great lover of the work of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. In writing about Hannah, I wanted to explore the heroine’s journey, if you will, because I feel that women have a different path to self-realization than men do, and for us, especially at this time, it is about the courage to find our voices and fight injustice. Our journey as women demands we carry many roles, and so Hannah is also a single mother in the story, fighting for her child as well as her people. She is guided by principles of integrity and honesty and kindness and compassion. Sometimes she is wounded by her own soft-heartedness, so she must learn the balance of loving herself, and fighting for what she believes in.

Mort de la philosophe Hypatie*
Q. Did you find it challenging to take an important historical figure such as Hypatia of Alexandria and turn her into a significant character in your novel?

Writing about Hypatia came so naturally to me it was like writing about a long lost friend or sister. Far harder to render was Bishop Cyril, who while an egregious and single-minded antagonist, has a major transformation toward enlightenment at the end of the story—which he also did in real life and was canonized by the Catholic Church for in spite of the near genocide of the Jews he instigated in the city. I wanted Cyril’s transformation to be believable, which was challenging given the many horrible things he did during his reign in Alexandria, including inciting the mob to kill Hypatia, who he perceived as his final roadblock to ultimate power, and he was right. He reigned the city unchallenged after she and Orestes were killed. History is often unfair, and after reading so much about this era, it made it hard for me to believe in karma, frankly.

Q. One of the things I enjoyed most about Written in the Ashes were the magical and mystical elements woven into a tale that otherwise could have been a work of pure historical fiction. Some historical fiction purists, however, dislike stories with fantasy elements. Did you have any concerns about adding these magical elements to your novel?

Thank you! (laughs) It made the book nearly impossible to sell, which was devastating given the success of a work like Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. But the publishing industry is still narrow minded. It is the readers who tell them what inspires them, and they gradually catch on. I took my cue from movies I’ve loved, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my book was optioned for film by an Academy Award winning producer, so there is this hope that there is a place in people’s hearts where history and magic meet. I think the Steampunk movement is also evidence of this.

Q. Speaking of magical elements, the Nuapar are perhaps the biggest practitioners of “magic” in the story. What inspired you to create the Nuapar, and give them such an important role in the novel?

Alexander the Great, you may recall, tried to invade India and failed. During his trek through the Himalayas, he met yogis, called saddhus, who had renounced the world in favor of spiritual discipline. Alexander loved the yogis and recognized their powers, and was possibly won over by their excellent hashish. He befriended a mystic he called Kalanos, and brought him home to Greece to show his people. Their friendship is also the stuff of legend. They supposedly founded a mystery school together that housed the Emerald Tablet. Kalanos was recorded to have died by lighting himself on fire while seated in lotus posture in deep meditation on top of his own funeral pyre, where he simply disappeared. Then legend records him re-appearing throughout the Mediterranean for the next eighty years. So I merely gave the Nuapar the powers of the great yogis. I have 7 yoga certifications and have studied many of these ancient arts both from India and Asia, and they all have documented stories of the kinds of things the Nuapar can do, like levitation, manifesting a second body to appear to someone far away, and super-human battle skills. Some may call it magic, but it does appear with proper initiation, far more than what we think is possible can be achieved with our minds.

Q. The book’s second act involves Hannah’s quest for the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. Was there some historical connection between the Great Library of Alexandria and the tablet? Or was there another reason you chose to feature it in the story? 

I loved writing about the Emerald Tablet, which is a real legend from Alexander the Great, and not one I concocted. Alexander supposedly found the Tablet during his quest to the Siwa Oasis, the one wherein the Oracle proclaimed him the son of the god, Zeus. While there, his soldiers had sex with some of the local women, and so 700 years later, this resulted in the prominence of albinos that still live there in the oasis today due to the limited gene pool—another fact I found too magical to ignore. The Emerald Tablet remains one of the greatest alchemical secrets of our world, and much has been written about it, even by Isaac Newton. It was said the Emerald Tablet returned with Alexander to Alexandria, then was lost again. So I did weave this legend into the novel, knowing what the tablet would have represented during an era when magic and science were considered the same thing.

Q. Do you have another novel in the works? And if so, can you offer a hint on what it’s about?

I just finished a YA novel set in London about an American teenage girl who is discovering she is bisexual and having a very hard time with herself (denying it, mostly, while acting out), and the confusing love triangle that ensues between her neighbor, who is a model, and her Irish boyfriend. It’s a bit of a love letter to London, as well as a fictionalized memoir about my teen years. I wanted to tell the truth about the hardship of being a teenage girl, with all the sex and alcohol, ambition and confusion that entails. I believe kids are a lot smarter and more mature than we give them credit for in most YA novels wherein the hardships are battling vampires or finding a date for the prom. The reality is that LGBTQ kids are committing suicide every day. This book is a love letter of hope to them. Beyond that, I’m working on a memoir. It took me 15 years to complete and publish Written in the Ashes, so I’m taking a break from all the intense research for now. Thanks for interviewing me! Your readers can find me at

Thanks to a new feature on Amazon, you can read a preview of Written in the Ashes here.

* Artwork is in the public domain in the Unites States


Teddy Rose said...

I'm glad you enjoyed 'Written In The Ashes' so much! Thanks for hosting Kaia!

Joseph Finley said...

My pleasure, Teddy!

Bill said...

Good review and questions, Joe. Sounds like a promising book.