Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Published: Eos(2000), Gollancz(2000)
Awards Won: BSFA Award
Awards Nominated: Campbell, Clarke, and Locus Fantasy
“If history could be changed, how would we know?
Historian Pierce Ratcliff has plans to publish a new translation of historical documents detailing the life of a 15th century female mercenary commander, known as Ash. What starts out as a simple contemporary translation becomes increasingly strange, as unexplainable discrepancies from established history come to light within his supposedly genuine latin manuscripts. Is this a case of simple scholarly error, or is something far more extraordinary happening?
Within his translation, Ash is a woman of legend in continental Europe—a kind of mercenary Jeanne d’Arc, who is credited with hearing voices that help lead her to victory. She and her company, the Lion Azure, are inexorably drawn into the machinations of a (mysteriously undocumented) Visigothic civilization in northern Africa, which seems inexplicably driven to wipe the wealthy duchy of Burgundy completely off the face of the Earth.” ~Allie
This is the first book I’ve ever read by Mary Gentle, and my fourth entry in WWEnd’s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. To help no one else to fall into the same trap I did, I want to explain some publication details. Ash: A Secret History was published as a single book in the UK, and it has a sequel called Ilario. However, in the US, Ash: A Secret History is published as a series of four books. The first US book, which corresponds to roughly the first quarter of the novel, is titled A Secret History: Book 1 of Ash. This last is the book I initially bought secondhand in a US bookstore, believing that “Book 1” was a reference to the existence of Ilario. As I approached the end the book, it became abundantly clear that it was a piece of a larger novel. I ordered the full book, and so this review is of the entirety of Ash: A Secret History.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started reading Ash: A Secret History, and I kept that feeling through most of the book. I absolutely adore fiction that defies my expectations, and my inability to tell where the story was going kept me glued to the book. I’ve been reading Ash since January, but that isn’t evidence of any reluctance to read on my part—it’s just that long of a book. From the beginning, I had a really hard time telling what kind of a story it would be; Ash’s backstory made me think of standard medieval European fantasy, and then a plot twist made me suspect it would be a romance (it isn’t, really). I think the official genre is science fantasy, and I would agree with that classification. Despite its setting, I think it is much closer to science fiction than fantasy, as everything that could be considered ‘magic’ does have a scientific-style explanation. I’m going to try very hard not to spoil any of the many twists or revelations that made experiencing this novel so enjoyable.
The world of Ash, for the most part, seemed like a surprisingly realistic take on medieval life. I’ve read that Gentle earned a War Studies MA during the writing of the novel, and it shows in the detail with which the life of Ash’s mercenary company is portrayed. Ash’s world is one where armor needs to be constantly cleaned of rust, and battles involve a lot of confusion and death (and no epic single combats between heroes). The violence is not sugar-coated, and neither are the psychological effects of making your living out of brutally killing people for money. I am no historian, but the accounts of battles, mercenary politics, and daily life seemed much more believable than I am accustomed to in fantasy. I think this meticulous description of the mundane made it a bit more difficult to swallow the more outlandish fictional elements (such as certain combinations of quantum physics concepts and religion), but the story was definitely worth choosing to suspend my disbelief.
The framing story, while interesting in its own right, also serves several very important purposes with respect to the alternate historical account. Since Ash’s story is presented as a translation, ‘Dr. Ratcliff’ was free to write it in modern English, so that it would be more accessible to his readers. I think this was probably the best possible decision for language, since attempting to write in the languages of the time period would be either stilted and pseudo-medieval or just nearly impossible to read. The framing also gave a perfect in for Ratcliff to write in footnotes to explain archaic words, historical references, and at which points the story diverges from actual history. The character of Ash is naturally fictional, but a lot of the events and some characters are actually historical, and I would have little chance of telling them apart without the help of Dr. Ratcliff. Even my fiancé, who has lived in France for most of his life, was a pretty hazy on the details of 15th century Burgundian dukes, so I think the explanations would be useful for most readers. As a result, I feel like I’ve actually learned a bit about late medieval period history through reading this novel.
The characters take shape slowly throughout the story. Pierce and his editor we get to know only through their email correspondence, but their personalities came through quite clearly in the informal writing. Many of the people in Ash’s company were little more than names (there are hundreds in her company, after all), but the people closest to her are gradually fleshed out. Some of the most important characters are women: Ash, the Carthaginian general, and a close female friend of Ash who is living as a man. I appreciated that Ash and other prominent female characters did not feel like 21st century women dropped into history, but more like products of their time. For instance, Ash doesn’t have an enlightened understanding of gender, she just thinks of herself more as a soldier than as a woman. She’s mostly interested in her gender in terms of the complications it throws into maintaining her authority over her company. As usual for my reviews, I especially enjoyed Ash and her companions because they were flawed and fallible, and capable of failing in truly devastating ways. At the same time, Ash was an exceptionally intelligent and driven young woman, which made her story a particularly compelling one.
My Rating: 5/5
Ash: A Secret History was a surprise to me, and a very good one! As an alternate history story set in 15th century continental Europe, It exists on the crossroads between science fiction and fantasy (though further on the science fiction side from my perspective). Gentle seems very knowledgeable about 15th century war, history and life, through the details she includes of the life of Ash’s mercenary company. The framing story, which involves the historian translating the “Ash” manuscripts, allows an easy way to include explanatory notes when necessary, without bogging down the story. Many characters, including the three primary female characters, had their own character arcs, and I loved how they were slowly built up through the course of the story. Finally, this was a tale with many unexpected twists and turns, and I loved that I could rarely tell exactly where it was going next. I thoroughly enjoyed Ash: A Secret History, and I’m happy that I was prompted to read it by the WoGF reading challenge!