Inspired By: The Novel That Started Everything

When I sat down a couple of years ago to start researching what is now The Sibylline Chronicles I had no clue where I’d end up.

In fact, if you can believe it, the only thing I knew for sure was:

  1. The genre

Gulp!

I had a few other ideas. I wanted the story to be anchored in the Middle East and North Africa. It needed to be set some time in the roughly thousand years between Alexander the Great and the end of Roman Empire. The protagonist had to be a woman.

That left a lot of room for the story to evolve. And, if you ask anyone who has been around listening to me talk about it all since that light bulb moment, each person would be able to tell you about 100 rough-draft versions.

Then, one day, a friend who knew I read endlessly and wanted someone to talk to about the Arabic literature she loved passed along Azazeel – an incredible novel written by Egyptian professor Youssef Ziedan.

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Here’s the book jacket summary:

“Set in the fifth century AD in Upper Egypt, Alexandria and northern Syria, Azazeel presents two parallel fights of the new religion (Christianity) and its believers on the one side and the old pagan religions and their believers on the other side. The other parallel fight takes place inside the monk Hypa whose life is a permanent fight between the two elements of his personality: the heavenly and the earthly elements, the pagan and the Christian.”

I pored through it, finishing in two days, wowed by Ziedan, that world and particularly the mysterious life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria – whose murder, for all intents and purposes, marks the end of the ancient era.

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Her introduction into my life marked an obsession with a woman about whom almost nothing is known. Yet she was able to rise to the highest of ranks at a time when women were nothing more than property – garnering a huge following of high-born from across the Roman Empire and beyond who came to learn math, science and philosophy from her in Alexandria.

Ziedan’s book became the entry point for every part of her world with which I spent years researching, reading and learning about. He led me to Syria, Tunisia, Libya and even Rome – now all significant settings in the Sibylline Chronicles.

But, most of all, he led me to the Sibyls and the questions left unanswered in history books about this elite group of women to whom kings and emperors bowed – all powerful, even in death, painted into the frescos of the Sistine Chapel and memorialized beside Christian saints. Yet, we know so little about them.

Then, there’s the matter of Hypatia’s brutal murder – really the only thing history tells us of her.   Kidnapped and killed in  415 a.d. by a Christian mob with her body torn to shreds and burned in the streets of Alexandria – Hypatia’s death is attributed to her pagan beliefs.

So many mysteries, so many holes in our own written history, made for SO much room to create a rich fictionalized world seen through the eyes of these ancient women.

So, there it started. Kasey Mackenzie was born. The Sorores came to life. The Sibyls ruled. A fictional version of Hypatia’s life emerged. Relics of an ancient culture that had been intentionally written out of history surfaced, and finally – a story bubbled up that wanted to be told .

All it took was one book.

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