Score 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
The Alexandria Scrolls: Book One by Lukman Clark blends actual historical figures and events with a hint of fiction in what is ultimately a pretty interesting novel.
We've gone through this about six times between us, that means more than once. Each time we uncover more and more about the characters and what's really going on. It can get a bit chaotic, cluttered, and crazy.
If the author hadn't provided the background information they did such as the genre and sub-genre, we might still be a bit lost. Without this information, it would have been unclear if this were even fiction or non-fiction. For one, there's a preface in this book titled “Translator's Foreword” which implies that the origins of this story were actually some papyrus scrolls the author found, something which immediately becomes questionable or difficult to believe when he starts talking about being some kind of a 10th century Arab archaeologist. So, from page one, we're already thinking that the narrator is either 1000 years old or a ghost. The only other option is that this is a fictional account. That immediately ruins the immersion. The foreword then implies that Helen of Troy and Isis (the mother of Horus/wife of Osiris) were real people rather than mythical, which is an interesting presumption that further lays credence that this was written by a fallible, somewhat naive girl from ancient times. If only it were... The book is also double-spaced like it's some kind of extensive college essay. It's a little bit of an eyesore if you're expecting to read a normal book. Another issue we noticed is that characters sometimes don't sound like they're in the 3rd or 4th century, especially when it comes to insulting each other. It gets kinda hilarious in that regard. For instance, there's "you stinking son of a bitch," "bitchling," "cocksucker, butt fucker," and "pip-squeak."
With all that said, let's get to the actual meat of this book. The “meat” actually doesn't start with characters, it starts with context. This book takes place in Egypt around the late 3rd and early 4th century AD. Emperor Constantine has come and gone, making religious tolerance the supposed law and Christianity the official religion in the Roman Empire—an empire which, at the time the book takes place—is split between the east and the west, Constantinople and Rome, Byzantine and Roman, Christianity and Paganism. The Roman Empire appears to be crumbling, and there is political, religious, and social upheaval all around. Furthermore, there is constant talk of a “great deluge” (a large Mediterranean flood which is assumed to be a tsunami based on description of it being a “terrible wave”).
This causes the superstitious folks to act even more irrationally and deranged, resorting to gruesome tortures and executions to appease their god(s). Some of this context isn't immediately clear, unfortunately, and you have to pick up the breadcrumbs. It doesn't help that the primary narrator is too young and naive for most of this to fully understand what's happening.
Something missing from this is a sensitivity to the history of the Christians in the Roman Empire, giving context to what's happening. Context is everything. This book makes the Christians of the 4th century out to be the “big evil.” They are portrayed as mass-murdering, torturing, genocidal, intolerant psychopaths. That isn't necessarily fair or even true, especially given the way the ancient world worked. There were reason why the Christians were feuding with and fighting other groups of people. Those other groups of people feuded and fought back! Believe us, whether the author tells you that or not, they did.
Do you think the Romans just waltzed through enemy territory singing happy songs and patting surrendering soldiers and civilians on the backs? Of course not. The Romans set an example out of anyone who threatened them or stood in their way. That's just what conquering, warring, feuding people did at the time. Do you think the Huns and Visigoths were just super nice to everyone they came into conflict with? No, they would flay you, burn you, and rip out your windpipe while raping and plundering your village. Do you think the Jews at the time were like the Jews who were persecuted during the Holocaust, hiding under floorboards or in attics from the Nazis? No, they actively ambushed, attacked, and killed the Christians at the time. Pagans got in on the mix too. There was lots of killing and torturing to go around.
Christians had been persecuted for centuries, being burned at stakes, crucified, and fed to lions in the coliseum in Rome. They were a group of people who were heavily antagonized to begin, and it's no surprise that, when given power, they antagonized others. Is that “Christlike” behavior? Absolutely not. Christians were taught by Jesus to love their neighbors and pray for their enemies. However, human nature is human nature. Do you blame the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who beat the guards to death after their liberation? It doesn't make it “right” or Biblical, but it makes it understandable. What do most groups of people do when other groups of people are aiming guns at them, especially people who have a history of killing them? They aim their guns back. That's just how that works. It's the same reason why Ukraine is fighting Russia right now. It's the same reason why Israel fought the Arabs in the Seven Days & Yom Kippur Wars. They remember being steamrolled by another power and murdered en masse, and they're determined to never let that happen again. This book seems to practice and invite willful ignorant of all that in favor of a much narrower, more didactic narrative about what's going on.
Now, if this book were a legitimate (real) memoir or autobiography, we could better excuse all of that, but it seems like the author was in total control of the content and deliberately chose to transmit information this way. If this were the making of an actual little girl/young woman living during the 400s AD with limited knowledge of what was going on, then we could understand why she sees things the way she sees them. The problem arises that it seems clear that a barrage of information was selectively presented while a bunch of information was deliberately withheld to serve an agenda, and that's an approach we don't necessarily like. But it's not our book, that's the author's choice. They're free to present things the way they present them.
The issue in the previous paragraph is also an issue in terms of excusing the pacing and randomness of the book. There's less of an excuse when you consider that this is a fictitious retelling of events masquerading as an autobiography. Things just happen. That's how real-life is. To emphasize, let's say that again: things just happen. This book jumps from one thing to another thing to another thing, seemingly without reason or purpose. The characters, who are supposed to be real people, often have random conversations with each other that are akin to the ones the hit men have in Pulp Fiction.
The one topic that comes up over and over and over again in these random conversations is breasts. Breasts, breasts, breasts. There are more breasts described in this book than there are breasts in most adult magazines! Our favorite part of this entire book is the line “stay clear of evil witch tits lady.” Another favorite line is “she also has a pair of walnuts beginning to pop up on her chest. Actual line! This is supposed to be the 4th century.
Ok, we're kinda exaggerating with the breasts talk, but it was a topic that seemed to pop up time and time again. These girls are more preoccupied with breasts than 16-year-old boys are. And they linger on the topic. Second to that is menses. The menstruation of these women is constantly brought up and dwelt upon.
This book is suppose to focus on two fraternal twins, Tuya and Tem. We can assume they're fraternal twins because they differ in various physical ways including their hair and skin-tone. Tuya is slightly older (being born earlier on the same day) and seems to take control most of the time. Let's be honest: Tuya is the main character. Tem is an afterthought most of the time. Sometimes we forgot she was even around. That's not entirely unprecedented. In Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is very clearly the main character; meanwhile, her sister, Prim/Primrose, really doesn't do much other than serve as a catalyst for Katniss to do stuff. What does Prim even do in the series beside milk her goat? We don't remember. Tem is kinda similar in that regard. This is really a book about Tuya and Hypatia.
Hypatia really saves this book. While Tuya and Tem are kinda passive protagonists who just witness stuff and have things happen to them, Hypatia—like her historical, real-life counterpart—makes stuff happen. Who is Hypatia? Glad you asked because the author assumes you know who the heck Hypatia and her dad, Theon, are. They also assume you know who Theophilus is. It's a good thing at least a quarter of our judges aren't uncultured swine and actually took advanced history lessons (dig dig). Hypatia is the greatest female mathematician of the ancient world and objectively had one of the most tragic and worst deaths imaginable. She is also one of the cornerstones of neoplatonism and basically led her own big school/cult centered on the concept of becoming one with “the One” (Hypatia's idea of a monotheistic God) through a denial of carnal attachment. Many of her followers practiced chastity and asceticism because of this.
Something that's a little off about this narrative is that there is a very heavy emphasis on Theophilus, the powerful and idealistic bishop of Alexandria. You could argue that he is the main villain of the story (although Peter or the hypocrites in general vie for that position). The problem with that is that Theophilus was not Hypatia's enemy historically-speaking. In fact, they respected each other and considered each other allies. Theophilus enabled Hypatia's movement to grow. His nephew on the the other hand is another story. Theophilus had a power-hungry and ruthless nephew named Cyril who acts a lot more in the severe and dogmatic manner that we see Theophilus behave in this book. It almost feels like Theophilus and Cyril were conflated for the sake of this novel. Perhaps there will be more about Cyril and Hypatia in the sequel?