Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Death of Knowledge: A review of Written in the Ashes by Kaia Van Zandt

Although such things go in cycles, many people are often seduced by a sort of Whig view of history, wherein the barbarous past steadily advanced to the morally, scientifically, and politically superior present. People have repeatedly pronounced many times that the "End of History" or some variation.

Some of this comes from the ignorance of what our ancestors truly knew. While some ignorance is just the result of arrogant presumption, there's the sad reality that the carefully gathered knowledge of the lessons of the past were also dispersed by the more brutal forces of history and humanity.

Such is the case with the legendary Great Library of Alexandria. This storehouse of knowledge and wisdom was attacked multiple times throughout its history. It's final fate is unclear, and different sources have conflicting information.Nonetheless, we know that we loss a great collection of knowledge. This final destruction of the Library is the focus of Written in the Ashes by Kaia Van Zandt.

The novel details the experience of Hannah, a Jewish shepardess, who is kidnapped by slave traders and brought to Alexandria. Her natural musical talents and intelligence quickly have her leaving the life of a manual servant and bring her into contact with the philosophers of the Library, including Hypatia, the headmistress. Of course, Hypatia had political and theological enemies, as thus Hannah is drawn into the dangerous conflict in an unstable Alexandria.

One of the difficulties in historical knowledge is presenting setting information in enough depth that readers appreciate the setting, but not in a way that is intrusive and distracting. As Hannah starts an outsider, her exposure to Alexandrian society, the Library, and certain mysticism elements (and local romantic interests) flows very naturally. She's a likable and believable protagonist with good emotional depth. In addition to Hannah, numerous other characters, including Hypatia, are well-drawn, though some of the antagonists could perhaps have benefited from being presented with slightly more nuance.

The presented historical detail is rich and engaging. Though the librarians and philosophers of the Great Library are romanticized more than a little bit, the often harsh nature of the city and the time are generally presented in a forthright manner.This is definitely not a sanitized version of the ancient past, and there is more than a little casual violence and frightening scenes.

It is important to note, however, that given the paucity of information on the time and general dramatic license, that several key elements of the book are as perhaps as much legend as history (including some of the aforementioned mystic elements). The author, however, makes no claims that this is a straight-forward historical narrative, but instead directly explains in her notes that she's presenting a synthesis of legend and what's known to present a plausible narrative.

The tension is built effectively from the slave catchers at the beginning to the burgeoning discord in the city. I found the dramatic flow gripped me just as effectively in this novel as in many of the military-related historical fiction works I've been consuming as of late. While this may or may not be the true historical account of the fate of the last vestiges of the Great Library of Alexandria, it certainly is a gripping tale.

Please visit for more information.


Teddy Rose said...

Thanks so much for taking part in the tour. I'm really glad you enjoyed the book!

J.A. Beard said...

My pleasure.