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

Welcome to my first book review of 2018! I’m totally a month behind on books, but I’m a fast reader so I hope to catch up soon. The first book I’ve picked up for my 52 books in a year challenge is Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt. This book is for prompt #8 on my list, “a book you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.” I originally received this book for free on Amazon Kindle, and it just sat in my library for way longer than I expected. I have finally read it and am now prepared to give a full review. These are my thoughts on Written in the Ashes.

The full list of my reading challenge here.

Book Synopsis (From Goodreads)

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.

My Thoughts (Spoilers)

I kind of hated this book. Okay, so that’s not altogether true. Let me break it down a bit further.

I would also like to state this plainly and obviously, this book has graphic depictions of sexual violence which can be extremely triggering to survivors. I further address this in my “things I don’t like” bullet point one if you need to skip this section.


Starting with the things I liked about this book (The Good)


1. Cast

A diverse cast of characters. We have a mix of gender, religion, ethnicity, and culture. There is also a collection of historical figures in addition to the book characters.

2. Setting

Alexandria. For someone who loves ancient cultures, a story in one of the centers of the ancient world is what put Written in the Ashes on my to-read list.

3. Hypatia.

Of Alexandria. The woman credited as the first female philosopher and scientist. THAT Hypatia.

4. Quotable

Some sections were well written and could be excellent advice even out of context.

5. The Library of Alexandria.

This alone was almost worth it. The way the author wrote the library and its culture was wonderful. She mentions in the epilogue that she researched what she could about it and filled in the rest, and I think the Library was wonderfully done.


And now we go into the things I didn’t like (The Bad)


1. How the Sexual Violence Was Handled

To start with, the first few chapters of this book feature Hannah’s kidnapping and repeated rape by her slavers, in addition to the rape of the other women captives. While the author attempts to give Hannah a reaction on the matter, the character’s fear of pregnancy is about the only effect of that, and any other emotions she is given have been drastically downplayed. THIS IS EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC. We live in a world where 1 in 3 women are victims of sexual violence and the long-term effects are cataclysmic. PTSD, distrust of men, panic attacks, and depression are just a few of the very common impacts on survivors.

Hannah deals with none of these as a result of the actions of her slavers. This gives the impression that it is a non-issue, and downplays the realities of millions of women around the world.  In later chapters, Tarek attempts to rape Hannah under the influence of alcohol, causing her to injure him allowing her to escape. Afraid of the consequences of her actions, she says nothing of the encounter. Hannah attempts to avoid Tarek fearing the outcome, which is the only time in the story she reacts like an actual human.

2. Boring Main Character

Hannah’s lack of depth. She feels very much like a one-dimensional character. Her negative experiences do little to nothing to affect her, and her only real personality changes are as a result of having sex with different male characters, turning her into a lovesick fool. She spends a ridiculous amount of the book pining after the different men in her life, despite her reality. In part 2 we learn Hannah is pregnant despite WEEKS of attempts to end her pregnancy, and then she goes through the desert in search of a probable fictional place because it is her “quest”. In doing so, she places herself in an incredibly dangerous position being too weak to travel and causing the party to spend additional time to care for her. She contributes nothing to their quest aside from saving Tarek from a scorpion. In Part 3 we see Hannah as a mother, which gives her one additional facet, but ultimately she is incredibly uninteresting.

3. The Writing Style

The majority of this book is choppy and poorly written. The dialogue feels forced and what story elements exist feel out of place. The words have the effect of bringing you back to reality mid-sentence due to their lack of flow. I struggled to read some parts because of it. There are unexplained time jumps, some occurring in the same chapter. The overall pacing of the story is off and not fluid at all. Additionally, the story itself does not make a whole lot of sense. It feels like the author attempted to cram a bunch of things that could be cool into a small book, and they all just warred with each other. There are a lot of things in the story that is useless to the overall plot and just feel included because they can be, not because they contribute anything.

4. The characters.

I found that most of the characters in Written in the Ashes are one-dimensional. The is almost no character growth in the entirety of the story, which takes places over several years. We suffer character losses in the story, and the impact of their deaths is… empty. There is little acknowledgment of them, even when they were people greatly important to their loved ones. It’s soulless.

5. Pharos.

Everything that happened on this island was a disaster. Hannah training with the Temple of Isis, the nonsense with the Monks, all of it. This island felt like an excuse to throw in a “forbidden love” story that ultimately served no REAL purpose. Not to mention, the coronation of Master Junkar felt insulting from an anthropology standpoint. Historically speaking, the Temples of Isis and Posideon would be greek, with Greek rituals. The inclusion of yogi monks in the Temple of Posideon was bad enough, but to give us belly dancing priestesses vying for the attention of Master Junkar to win a place to participate in the Great Rite is just gross. This is a problem for a lot of reasons starting with belly dancing being created for women by women as a method of storytelling, and ending with “The Great Rite” or “Sacred Marriage Ceremony” being a nod to Wiccan practices circa 1950. Or Mists of Avalon fanfiction. Really? Ugh.

6. The Angel.

At numerous points in the book, there are little-italicized lines saying “the angel smiled” and I thought they were weird and awkward to include. They did not offer anything to the story, nor were they ever really explained. They were strange and really did not flow with the story.


Final Thoughts

Written in the Ashes was a weird, badly written book, with a wonderful library at the center. Unfortunately, that library is not enough to save it, and I would rate this book a 1/5. I feel like the concept of the book was interesting and could make for an excellent story, but this author was not the one to deliver it. It could have been a lot better.


Stay tuned for my next book review in this series!


Elizabeth Aedyn

Written by Elizabeth Aedyn
Hello and welcome! My name is Elizabeth. Twenty-something, married with a cat, Idaho Native, and chronic illness warrior. I like poetry, sword-fighting, and talking about 16th-century clothing, especially all in the same day. I believe in wearing black year round, in the soul soothing comfort of a cup of tea, and that everything is better with red lipstick. You can find me across the internet at @fieryoneco, I'd love to chat with you! Thank you for stopping by, I hope you like it here.