|Ash: A Secret History|
|publisher||Gollancz (UK) Avon Eos (U.S.)|
|summary||A powerful, expansive, genre-blurring work, impressive in detail and astounding in scope.|
Mary Gentle wrote her first published novel, A Hawk in Silver, at the age of 18, though it took her some time to find a publisher. Her first adult science fiction work, Golden Witchbreed, suffered a similar hiatus. Her subsequent writing career has been informed by her late decision to embrace academia, exploring areas such as militarism, feminism, Plato and the Renaissance world view. She wraps these potentially dry subjects, though, with a delight in imparting (possibly twisted) information and an energy for entertaining. Her eclectic approach has carried her across genre boundaries; her latest work displays this characteristic and the richness such cross-fertilisation can bring.
Ash: A Secret History has been released in the UK as a single volume of over 1100 tightly packed pages, while the book's American publishers are putting it out in four parts, with the last part due before year's end (The Book of Ash: #1 A Secret History, #2 Carthage Ascendant, #3 The Wild Machines, #4 Lost Burgundy). At heart, this is the story of a female mercenary commander in Europe and North Africa in the late 1470s. Ash, who grew up in the baggage train of assorted mercenary companies, is a survivor of harsh conditions. As the book proper opens, she leads a company of 800 fighting men (and women), aided by an apparently miraculous inner voice which offers her explicit tactical combat instructions. Ash is an incredibly well-realised character. She is a soldier by training and inclination, but she is also a well-rounded human being. Her skills as a leader of people match her battle prowess and her ability to take quick advantage of a changing situation. This Demoiselle-Captain is a strong character, utterly convincing in her tone, her inner life and its visible expression in the text. She is the cornerstone of the novel, present in almost every page.
Ash's story is presented as an academic work, originally published by a University Press in 2001. This fictional outer story is described as a translation of medieval Latin manuscripts (the work of Dr. Pierce Ratcliff, professor of War Studies), a major revision and modernisation of the "Lost History of Burgundy." The book also includes correspondence between Ratcliff and his editor annotated by another hand and inserted in differing typeface within the main body of the text. These affectations are easy to overlook early on in the book as Ash leads her company on the battlefields of Europe and is rewarded with court intrigue. However, the unsettling differences between the history in the main text and our own history are increasingly the subject of Ratcliff's correspondence. This fancy of commentary allows modern academia to creep into the interstices of the book without unbalancing the unscientific world of miracles, acting as a regulator when the plot seems to wander off into the realms of fantasy or alternate history. The concreteness of Gentle's writing carries the story in incredible directions without ever challenging the suspension of disbelief. Looking back on the early chapters from the perspective of the book's end there is a sense of astonishment at how far the story has travelled. As sunny summer fades to horrific winter the tone becomes heavier, reflecting a growing seriousness, but the writing never loses its sense of balance between light and shade.
The solidity of the book comes from a combination of detail and character. Throughout, the reality of medieval life is clear. The characters live in a world where armour rusts and rain runs down inside every knight's plating; ice and bad luck are as dangerous as lances and arrows. The mercenaries' life is displayed through reference to the polyglot of languages they speak and the language they use. (Ratcliff confesses early on that Ash swears "rather a lot" and explains that he has used modern equivalents rather than medieval blasphemies). There is a wonderful precision in the terminology also; a generic word for the tools of war is never used where a specific one is available -- artillery includes cannon, arquebus (or hackbutt), trebuchet, bombard, mangonel, ballista and catapult -- and where necessary, Dr. Pierce Ratcliff provides a footnote to explain the term. Ratcliff and his correspondents gradually become just as real as the mercenary company, though they do not leap out of the first page; it is a wrench to recall that this may not be a translation and that Ratcliff is not really toiling away on it at a North African archaeological site.
Any attempt to provide a full precis of a plot as long and gloriously complex as that Ash: A Secret History has to offer must fail in the attempt, while revealing details which ought to be allowed to delight the reader firsthand. That plot includes perhaps a touch of sentiment, but this is no more than a balance for the harshness, holding the book in a dynamic tension rather than allowing it to slide into the unremitting horror of war. While the book may appear in the disguise of the BCF (Big Commercial Fantasy), it is not really so easy to pigeonhole. Neither is it the simple historical romance it first appears to be, or the alternate history it shows signs of becoming. Though the scientific roots of this work are well hidden in the first few hundred pages, Ratcliff develops theories which owe a great deal to high physics and hard science fiction. High drama and rich plotting in both time frames draw the book to an intense climax. The ending is shattered, splintered, hugely open to re-interpretation -- and the last revelations don't become clear until some time after the final pages are turned. Though I feel that Ash: A Secret History is science fiction, this book is so good at blurring genre boundaries, and is such an excellent work, that every genre will try to claim it as its own.
Readers intrigued by this book may be interested in this recent interview with Gentle.