Author: K. Hollan Van Zandt
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Egypt / 4th Century / Religious Conflict / Library of Alexandria)
Publisher/Publication Date: Balboa Press (7/2011)
Source: Premier Virtual Author Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did -- for a chunkster, this book reads fast!
One-sentence summary: The story of a slave girl who finds fame, fortune, danger, love, and loss in ancient Egypt.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- although I'm reminded a tiny bit of the decor from Cheesecake Factory. (Which leads me to a total unrelated rant: why is the decorative theme of Cheesecake Factory Egyptian-y?!)
I'm reminded of...: Marion Zimmer Bradley,
First line: All trees hold secrets.
Did... I do a double take when I saw the author thanked Johnny Depp in her acknowledgements?: YES. I don't know if she means that Johnny Depp but wow!
Do... I love the secret freebies for those who've got the book?: YES. The author has a web section of freebies relating to the novel for those who have an ISBN and want more. Fun!
Did... I love the extras in the book: YES. From the map, glossary, and epilogue, this book is fully loaded.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is an epic historical that reads quickly.
Why did I get this book?: Ancient Egypt!
Review: A dramatic, plot-filled historical set in Alexandria Egypt in the 4th century, this novel follows Hannah, a Jewish goat herder who is kidnapped and sold as a slave in Alexandria. She's purchased on a whim but finds herself in the home of a vintner and alchemist who is friends with the infamous Hypatia, celebrated thinker and scholar. In this household, she's educated and encouraged to use her magnificent singing voice to become a bard of sorts, and it is her connection with Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria that leads her into further drama, adventure, and torment.
I'm not sure that summary even does this book justice, but I tried! At times, there might have been just a little too much plot for my tastes -- this had the feel of a Victorian potboiler in some ways, with one over-the-top turn after another -- and yet, the story didn't strain credulity. This is the tale of a woman growing up; the story of a slave who becomes greater than her bond; a woman at the crossroads of history, in a place where religion and science, history and politics all collided.
The cast is rather big for my tastes, but I found everyone pretty easy to know -- again, Van Zandt doesn't stint on details and everyone felt bigger than life. While I found our heroine Hannah a bit too perfect at the start of the novel -- she's exceptionally beautiful, regal in stature despite being a slave, gifted with a gorgeous voice, blue-eyed and fair skinned -- she grew on me as a character, and I found her reputation was warranted. She was smart, clever, a bit impetuous, and talented, and she behaved with courage and wisdom as the novel progressed. In the end, I wanted her as my friend.
Van Zandt's writing style reads easily; she describes everything, from food to clothes to scenery, and it's impossible not to feel immersed in ancient Alexandria. She doesn't shy away, either, from the grim reality of being a female slave, so FYI for those of you who don't like sexual violence. I was uncomfortable, but unsurprised. In the Epilogue, Van Zandt explains her rationale for the anachronistic decisions she made with the story and I appreciated that -- she aged Hannah to twenty rather than the more likely thirteen at the start of the novel -- and she played fast and loose a bit with history and myth. Since I'm not a well-versed in Egyptian history, this didn't bother me, but I don't know how someone who is wedded to the era will feel. For me, Van Zandt's choices worked with the story as she told it.
At 400+ pages this is an epic adventure, and Van Zandt has said she's planning two more books. However, this book ends very neatly, no cliff hanger to make you gnash your teeth, and I think it stands alone marvelously. Still, I'm looking forward to Van Zandt's next venture.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Written in the Ashes. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers. US readers can pick a paperback or e-book; international readers receive an e-book. Ends 6/1.