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The Book of Ash #1-4

Ash: A Secret History

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For the beautiful young woman Ash, life has always been arquebuses and artillery, swords and armour and the true horrors of hand-to-hand combat. War is her job. She has fought her way to the command of a mercenary company, and on her unlikely shoulders lies the destiny of a Europe threatened by the depredations of an Infidel army more terrible than any nightmare.

1113 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 2000

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About the author

Mary Gentle

53 books171 followers
This author also writes under the pseudonym of Roxanne Morgan

Excerpted from Wikipedia:
Mary Gentle's first published novel was Hawk in Silver (1977), a young-adult fantasy. She came to prominence with the Orthe duology, which consists of Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987).

The novels Rats and Gargoyles (1990), The Architecture of Desire (1991), and Left to His Own Devices (1994), together with several short stories, form a loosely linked series (collected in White Crow in 2003). As with Michael Moorcock's series about his anti-heroic Jerry Cornelius, Gentle's sequence retains some basic facts about her two protagonists Valentine (also known as the White Crow) and Casaubon while changing much else about them, including what world they inhabit. Several take place in an alternate-history version of 17th century and later England, where a form of Renaissance Hermetic magic has taken over the role of science. Another, Left To His Own Devices, takes place in a cyberpunk-tinged version of our own near future. The sequence is informed by historically existing ideas about esotericism and alchemy and is rife with obscure allusions to real history and literature.

Grunts! (1992) is a grand guignol parody of mass-market high fantasy novels, with orcs as heroes, murderous halflings, and racist elves.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 116 reviews
Profile Image for Rod.
102 reviews58 followers
December 10, 2020
I skimmed a few pages of an online preview of this before I bought it, and every fiber of literary discernment in my being hissed at me like Gollum, "Gentleses is a stinksy writer, Precious, we will hates iiiiit!" The title should have been my first warning: “A Secret History” acronymed is ASH. Well, isn’t that just clever with a capital C? However, I was intrigued by the subject matter, and the reviews were good, so I bought it anyway. I should have listened to my literary instincts. The problems are apparent right from page one. Bask in the wretched awkwardness:

    It was her scars that made her beautiful. [Hrm. I guess I'll have to take your word for it.]
    No one bothered to give her a name until she was two years old. Up until then, as she toddled between the mercenaries' campfires scrounging food, suckling bitch-hounds' teats, and sitting in the dirt, she had been called Mucky-pup, Grubby-face, and Ashy-arse. When her hair fined up from a nondescript light brown to a white blonde it was 'Ashy' that stuck. As soon as she could talk, she called herself Ash. [Nice dirty-dirty medieval atmosphere there—not bad, but that's about as good as it gets.]
    When Ash was eight years old, two of the mercenaries raped her.
    She was not a virgin. All the stray children played snuggling games under the smelly sheepskin sleeping rugs, and she had her particular friends. These two mercenaries were not other eight-year-olds, they were grown men.
[Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Otherwise I would have assumed they were eight-year-old mercenaries.] One of them had the grace to be drunk. [How nice of him.]
    Because she cried afterwards, the one who was not drunk heated his dagger in the campfire and drew the knife-tip from below her eye, up her cheekbone in a slant, up to her ear almost.
    Because she still cried, he made another petulant slash that opened her cheek parallel under the first cut.
    Squalling, she pulled free. Blood ran down the side of her face in sheets.
[Wouldn't the dagger being heated up in the fire cause the wounds to be cauterized, and thus not bleed? I assume it was red-hot, because otherwise what's the point of heating up the dagger in the first place? The child-raping mercenary didn't want her wounds to get infected? God, this book is stupid.] She was not physically big enough to use a sword or an axe [In what way can one be big enough to wield a sword or an axe other than physically? "She was not big enough" would have sufficed.], although she had already begun training. She was big enough to pick up his cocked crossbow (carelessly left ready on the wagon for perimeter defence) and shoot a bolt through the first man at close quarters.
    The third scar neatly opened her other cheekbone, but it came honestly, no sadism involved.
[Sadism? Two full centuries before the Marquis de Sade? An anachronism, but it's supposed to be a modern translation of a medieval manuscript, so okay, whatever. But how the fuck does a scar open a cheekbone?!] The second man's dagger was genuinely trying to kill her. [Uh, daggers don't have murderous intent. People do.]
    She could not cock the crossbow again on her own. She would not run. She groped among the burst ruins of the first mercenary's body and buried his eating-knife in the upper thigh of the second man, piercing his femoral artery. He bled to death in minutes. Remember that she had already begun to train as a fighter. [Yes, I remember; you just told me two scant paragraphs ago.]

There's no way I'm wading through 1100 pages of this turgid crap. I got to page 25 and said "No más.” Besides the casual sexual brutality, which is repellent enough, I kept feeling compelled to mentally rewrite sentences as I was reading them in order to make them more aesthetically pleasing—or just make sense. When that happens it's time to pack it in and read something else. Gentleses we hates it foreverrrr!
Profile Image for Nancy.
557 reviews768 followers
October 2, 2013
Mary Gentle created a wide variety of interesting and complex characters. The military details were fascinating and very convincing and I've no doubt Gentle knows her stuff. This long and sprawling historical fantasy sprinkled with speculative fiction was a very pleasant surprise, considering I was never interested in a warrior's panoply or in military fantasy. The human aspect of war was covered very well. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Wastrel.
150 reviews210 followers
September 19, 2018
The first thing that should probably be said about Ash: A Secret History is that it's probably the apex of the epic fantasy genre - or at least, the best thing written in the genre since The Lord of the Rings.

Ash was published in the same year as George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, with which is shares a great deal - but it's pretty straightforwardly better in every respect. It was published the same year as Robin Hobb's Ship of Destiny - but, while I've gotten more out of Hobb's long Realm of Elderlings cycle as a whole (17 books and some short stories and counting), that's probably mostly because of weight of characterisation and emotional connexion that can be established over such an immense scale (not to mention that Hobb's plots unfold across at least three novels at a time), and I think it's only fair to say that, as a single work in its own right, Gentle's novel probably achieves more than any single one of Hobb's. Ash was published the same year as Robert Jordan's Winter's Heart, but the Wheel of Time looks like childsplay beside Ash. In its vitality, its colloquialism, its sporadic brutality, it presages the work of authors like Joe Abercrombie... but, at least from what I've read so far, in this case the prophet far outdid those who came after her. Indeed, "a bit like The First Law, but better in every single way" wouldn't be a bad first analogy - with all due respect to a very popular author, it makes those books like a child's crayon imitation of an Old Master painting they once glimpsed.

The first few decades after The Lord of the Rings were arguably dominated by the desire to imitate that work, or at least to find a way to reach a compromise between it and more conventional modern fiction. The last few decades have in a way been dominated by the desire to move decisively away from that text, to find something different that fantasy can be. At least in the realm of epic fantasy, that search seems to have been answered by Ash. Unfortunately, that answer seems to have been lost unheard in the wilderness.

The second thing that should probably be said about Ash is that I'm not sure it actually is an epic fantasy. It straddles the boundaries of historical fiction, alternate history, epic fantasy, and science fiction, with a little but important dash of postmodernism too (in the form of interleaved e-mails correspondance by the 'translator' of the original 'text', and the meta-fiction of that translation, which is cunningly woven into the narrative itself). This may be why it's - otherwise unaccountably - escaped notice in the genre.

I suppose maybe the third thing to say, if only in the interests of clarity, is that Ash is a novel about a young, female mercenary commander in what at first appears to be - and sort of is - 15th century Europe. Only... it's sort of not. But I don't want to say much more. This is a novel where even the genre is arguably a spoiler. Really, talking about anything more than a few pages into the novel is a spoiler. Clear? Right, then...

The fourth thing to say might be that very few people seem to have an ambivalent reaction to Ash. As a very rough metric: of the first 30 reviews that show up for me on GR, 20 of them are 5-stars, 2 are 4-stars, 3 are 2-stars (one 'confused', one 'swamped', and one who thought it was 'too long'), 2 are 1-stars (neither of whom read much of it), 2 don't give stars, and only 1 is a 3-star. Indeed, the most liked review gives it 5, and the second-most-liked review gives it 1 (probably because he only read 25 pages, and hence didn't make it as far as chapter 1...). If you read this book, you'll probably love it (indeed, a lot of GR reviews list it as one of the reviewer's favourite books ever - if I've not been clear, that's true of me, too). If you don't love it... you probably won't like it at all.

Why is that? Well, so far as I can see, there are two reasons to dislike this book:
- a total disinterest in its topic and themes, or even repulsion from them; or
- a complete failure to get the point.

You might, for example, not like this novel because, quite reasonably, you only read 60-page novellas. Ash, by contrast, is over 1,100 pages long. Ash can see your so-called 'doorstopper tomes', and can crush them into a pulp beneath its unparalleled mass. There are only a handful of novels in the history of fantasy (or, indeed, any genre) that are longer than it, and none of them are standalones (it's substantially longer than The Lord of the Rings, for example). Now, personally, when that wordcount is NOT an excuse for sightseeing and procrastination, but is packed to the gills with action and adventure and character work, I see that length as a bonus, not a disqualifying flaw; but you may disagree. I'll concede that, cliffhangers aside, it's not one for people who want immediate gratification...

You might not like it because you refuse to read fantasy, or anything with a hauberk in it. Or, you might not like it because you only read fantasy about hauberks and the occasional dragon, and you get distressed when you don't quite understand what's going on, or when there's quantum involved, or pyramids, and you just hate it if every things get weird.

You may also not like this novel because you want stories about fluffy pink bunny-rabbits who live inside rainbows. This would not, then, be the novel for you. This is a novel about life and warfare in some (unreal, heightened, subtly (and less subtly) fantastical) version of the middle ages, and a lot of people get killed or injured, occasionally in some detail. Gentle helpfully throws some traumatic childhood experiences, battlefield injuries and a little educational animal-killing into the prologue just to warn people of a swooning disposition away - no, the rest of the book will not in general be that brutal, but little bits of non-gratuitous, character-advancing, realistic adversity will be waiting for many of the characters over the course of the novel, and if that's not something you're ready for then... well, this isn't for you.
Come to think of it, just the first page of the prologue makes that pretty clear. Just the first couple of paragraphs. This is not the Belgariad. It's not Harry Potter.

And speaking of the first few paragraphs, people may in particular refuse to recognise the quality of the book because of its protagonist. Gentle picks up the over-used fantasy trope of the supernaturally badass tomboy with a traumatic past - and she looks at what that really means. At the sort of world that would produce such a woman, and at what such a woman would really look like. So if you're somebody who pretends to want "realistic" fantasy as an excuse for hating anything with a strong woman in it, this book isn't for you. But at the same time, if you're somebody who pretends to want "positive messages for women" while actually just reflexively dismissing anything "problematic" as a fashion statement, this book is also not for you. It's all about problematic. In fact, it's downright interested in problems.

If, on the other hand, you really DO want strong female characters as empowering role models, confronting, circumventing and/or exploiting misogyny and patriarchal assumptions, or if you really DO want non-utopian fantasy in which personal successes (and failures) are grounded in a historically realistic and meaningful, nuanced context of prejudices and injustices, then maybe this novel can offer some common ground for some of the disagreements in modern fandom...

And on that note, let's move on from the introductory statements and say clearly: if you're interested in epic fantasy even slightly, and neither length nor a little unpleasantness (only a little of which is actually depicted graphically) is going to put you off, then you should read this book.

Specifically, why should you read it?
- it's a thrilling rollercoaster of an adventure story. Yes, it's really long, but almost every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. I probably haven't been glued to a novel in this way for a decade - since the last (and first) time I read this novel, in fact. And the couple of books that might have been similarly exciting in that time-period were much shorter, so the total excitement here... well, it combines the surface thrills of the adventure story (battles and escapes and so forth) with the stakes and scale of a true epic.

- it's emotionally engaging and psychologically real. So much is happening that characters rarely have time to rest and hang out, but through all the action and the arguments, Gentle skilfully establishes a cast of rounded, understandable, individual and sympathetic characters, and makes us care what happens to them.

- it's the best worldbuilding I've ever read. If you want a fascinating yet believable world where every detail makes you want to find out more, this is the book for you. As an added bonus, most of this incredibly setting is... our world. Gentle has a history degree, and a masters in war studies, and a hobby of historical re-enactment... and it shows. From the geopolitical balances to the battle tactics to the specific places that the armour rusts or rubs, down to the shoes they wear when its muddy, Gentle gives us a pre-modernity that's vividly lived-in, dirty, that matters to the people who inhabit it, rather than being, as some fantasy makes it feel, something seen third-hand, blurred, a short-hand we're not really meant to pay attention to. And that depth and understand in turn feeds into the characters, who as a result are not merely 20th century Americans dropped into king arthur's court, but men and women who have grown up in a world very alien to ours.

- it's unique. It's filled with twists you won't predict, and its ending - or endings - are mindblowing.

And why might you not like it? Well, as mentioned above, maybe you just want a wholly different sort of book. You might also be an afficionado of the great poets, and object to the fact that Gentle's prose is at best good, and at worst solid (rather than truly, poetically sublime). You might want a deeper insight into The Nature of Human Existence - because this novel does have some insights into that, but there's only so much philosophising can be fit between the pages of a thrilling adventure story. You might feel that the conclusion of the novel, while stunningly (no, really, I was physically stunned) ambitious, doesn't actually work, and that the novel is a bit anticlimactic in the last few dozen pages as a result - I strongly disagree, and indeed the final few pages may be my favourite of the entire novel, but I acknowledge that Gentle takes a big running leap here and whether she sticks the landing may be something some people may reasonably disagree with me on. You may also quite reasonably feel that the 20th-century interstitial material struggles to fit in through much of the novel, that it starts out by just making subtext text, that Gentle, for all her grasp of the middle ages, hasn't quite mastered the rhythms of the slightly awkward business/social e-mail, and that this element of the novel feels dragged out, not hitting top gear until surprisingly late in the novel - and indeed, I'd agree that this is a minor but recognisable flaw in the book.

You may also feel that the novel is just too much of everything, and run out of energy somewhere around the 700-page mark. Personally, after a fevered week of reading, I took a rest for a few days to recharge my mental energy for the final climax to avoid hitting the wall. If you don't do that, you might find that the steadily mounting tension and tantalisation overcomes you, and you end up pulling your hair out and screaming into the night. It's better not to do that.

If you feel like you can cope with these things, however, you should read Ash: A Secret History, because it's absolutely brilliant.

If that's not persuaded you, or if you've read it and want to compare thoughts in more depth, I've written a full review of this for my blog, but it's insanely long.
Profile Image for Scurra.
189 reviews28 followers
July 22, 2008
(edit: this review relates to the single volume edition of a book which was published in the US as a four-volume series, even though it's a single novel.)

This is one of those books where what is going on in the footnotes is as important as the main text - the conceit here is that a historian is supposedly annotating a recently discovered medieval manuscript that recounts the history of Burgundy in the 13th century, but there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. And, as the story progresses, it seems that what went on in the past is affecting the future, but why and how?

An extraordinary tour-de-force of "alternative history", utterly convincing in the small details and almost too plausible in the large ones. It also deals with a period of history that is infrequently used in fiction - that time between the Crusades and the Renaissance in Europe, when borders were still in flux, and war was the natural state of affairs. It helps that Mary Gentle is a historian of warfare too; the battles have a gritty realism that is often lacking from similar ventures, but she doesn't stint on the human interaction either: there are a couple of sequences that reduced me to tears, so invested was I in the characters' stories.
Profile Image for Alissa.
614 reviews85 followers
June 3, 2020
“Right may sleep, but it does not rot in the earth as men’s bodies do, or rust as the treasures of this world, but remains unchangeable. Your war is unjust. Rather than sue for peace, I will die here on the land that my father ruled, and his fathers before him. There is not a man of Burgundy, be he never so poor a peasant, nor a man who has asked sanctuary of Burgundy, who shall not be defended with all might, all main, and all the prayers that we may raise to God.”

She was used to thinking herself the hero of her own life: what lost sense for her now was the idea of it being a coherent story requiring a resolved ending (some day, in the future, the far future). She thought, But it doesn’t matter, quite calmly. Other people can win battles, with or without ‘voices’. Someone else can take my place. It is all accident, all chance.

Rota fortuna, Fortune’s Wheel. Fortuna imperatrix mundi.
Profile Image for Errant.
52 reviews2 followers
August 30, 2015
This is a hard story. Not in the sense that it is difficult to read, but in the sense that it is often harsh, brutal, even crude.

The squalor and brutality of middle ages just spring to life, the characters are all fully realized, nuanced and not even the protagonist is entirely good or entirely evil.

There is magic, and although it is a very central point, it is also low-key, poetic and fully integrated with the historical and cultural background.

There are some science fiction touches more than a few even, but most of the story is closer to an uchrony with fantastical elements.

The storytelling structure allows the author to do away with infodumps elegantly while furtering the plot, it is really amazingly done.

I recommend it to anyone who can stomach full-blown grittiness. Mary Gentle is a master and authors like JV Jones or KJ Parker -Tom Holt-(whose stories carry a similar vibe) are mere students: at least for her grittiness is just background, not the point of the story at all.
Profile Image for Francis.
Author 2 books1 follower
October 14, 2014
Despite its problems, this is one of the best historical fantasies I've read.

The text is very closely grounded in historical detail, with every item of armour, every weapon, every breed of dog described and enumerated. The footnotes add in extra historical detail on almost every page.

Which is important because at the same time, the book is on a ratchet, with each turn adding another layer of amazing, thrilling WTF.

Even to the very last page (1122, closely-printed) there are new twists, new interpretations, new levels of craziness.

To keep that ratchet turning through such a long narrative, and to keep it feeling thoroughly historical and realistic as more and more weirdness is thrown in, is seriously impressive.

There's no denying that it's over-long and the pacing gets bogged down from time to time, but then you get another twist that makes it worthwhile.

I'm mainly sad that it has such a "meh" title and some frankly terrible cover art that makes it look like a bad 80s fantasy doorstop about elves and blue lion for some reason. I almost discarded it on that basis without reading a word. Glad that I didn't judge this book by its cover.
Profile Image for Roger.
12 reviews
December 11, 2012
Got halfway through this monster before accepting that I just did not care anymore. The historical detail and invention was interesting but just got swamped by the ponderous plot, the annoying incerpts of author's correspondence and the anachronistic style of the "translation". I see now that it was originally four volumes, so I'm happy to count this as two books that I finished, rather than one which I gave up on.
Profile Image for Rosamund Taylor.
Author 1 book122 followers
July 26, 2017
I've read a number of fantasy novels that would be a lot better were they much shorter, and Ash is definitely in that category. Though there were elements I enjoyed, reading this was a slog and cutting it by 600 pages would have made no difference to the plot. The strength of this is its main character: Ash, the teenage mercenary captain, follows in the tradition of Joan of Arc by being a Medieval female soldier, but is different from her in almost every other way. Ash grew up in the baggage train of an army, learnt to fight almost before she could walk, and has known every kind of vice and terror. She hears voices, but is not devout: and it quickly turns out that the voices she hears are not those of the saints, but of something else entirely. Ash is tough as nails, but capable of great love and kindness; she exists in a world of violence, but gains solace from the camaraderie of her fellow soldiers. She's hot-headed and fiercely intelligent, and very very compelling: she drives the narrative and is the most successful thing about this book.

Otherwise, the book is a mixture of two elements: one, it's a depiction of Medieval warfare. Mary Gentle brings a strong historical voice to her accounts of warfare and battle, but unless you're very interested in warfare, the battles quickly blend together, and I found myself skimming them. Gentle is determined to show us warfare without glamour or chivalry, as a dirty, brutal and pointless occupation, and I applaud her for that. However, she doesn't have to write about it in such detail to get that across. Secondly, the book is a story about a scholar translating documents about Ash's life, and going to an archaeological dig to verify elements of Ash's life. Here we find the sci-fi element of the plot, which I won't go into in depth: suffice it to say that it's convoluted, full of info-dumping, and not entirely satisfactory. The majority of the book is about Ash, and the conceit is that these sections are supposed to be translations of a Medieval manuscript, which I don't buy at all. Compare them, for example, to sources on the life of Joan of Arc: in their detailed dialogue, frank discussions of shitting oneself, and use of modern American vernacular, they bear no relation to these sources. I was happy to read an account of Ash that dealt with the realities of her life, but as a supposed Medieval manuscript it just didn't work for me.

Overall, this is an impressive book in its exhaustive detail on Medieval history, but it's not worth the 1000+ page slog.
Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,627 reviews177 followers
December 30, 2020

At first sight this appears to be set in the fifteenth century of our own era. Ash, a teenage mercenary commander, has taken strategic advice for years from voices in her head and as a result is one of the most successful mercenaries in Western Europe. But the near-future (ie early 2000's) researchers who are trying to compose a new biography gradually realise that her history is not their history, and the two realities begin to leach into each other. This book gave me very strange dreams when I first read it; my dreams have generally been strange this year so I didn't notice any difference this time. Admittedly the history and presentation are dodgy - I doubt that any of the female mercenary commanders of the fifteen century were still teenagers, and the whole thing is presented as a translation, complete with scholarly footnotes for difficult bits, from a manuscript which is not written in the style of any medieval text. I'm also a bit better informed about medieval Burgundy than I was twenty years ago, thanks to Van Loo and Dunnett. But in the end I love the intensity of description and the leakage between realities. It's awfully long, but I found myself thinking at one point, oh no, there's only 250 pages left to go.
Profile Image for Viki Holmes.
Author 7 books18 followers
August 10, 2019
This stunningly intense historical (or is it?) fantasy (or is it?) science fiction (or is it?) epic won't be to everyone's tastes: there are brutal and graphic scenes of sex, war, and the aftermath of both that are particularly hard hitting and start early on in the narrative; but I have not been so immersed in a book for some time (and it has been a summer of extremely high quality, immersive, quality reads). Set in 14th century Europe, Ash is a woman commander of a mercenary troop; and the narrative unfolds as a 21st century translator and historian unearth a document that appears to be Ash's memoirs. To explain more would venture into spoiler territory, and this is a book that should be experienced rather than explained. I can absolutely understand why some readers would not enjoy this, but this is a story that will leave me thinking for a long time.
Profile Image for Ruth.
3,973 reviews
July 23, 2011
Published 1999. 1113 pages in the edition that I read. I finished it so the story must have been engrossing even though it could have been far shorter. Not sure whether I got the grand plan or not. At times, it felt as if I was wading through water. Would not read again though. Quote from a book blogging site "The ground of reality itself shifts under our protagonists' feet, confusing both the reader and the present-in-the-text-via-footnotes-and-excerpts editors, with events building to a satisfying conclusion." The confusion is definitely a description I would agree with!
Profile Image for Alfred Haplo.
286 reviews45 followers
March 12, 2022
Sheer audacity to be just, more. No spoiler: my mind hasn’t fully wrapped around the ambiguity of Ash: A Secret History, though a re-read reaffirms that the big picture remains thoroughly accessible and thrilling. By page 852, it should make sense… At which point, there is every incentive to finish up another 250 pages or so to the end... Now, about that.

Ash: A Secret History isn’t for everyone. If I hesitate to recommend more effusively, it would be in consideration of sensitivity towards certain scenes. Those are not graphical or gratuitous but depictions are realistic of wartime atrocities and medieval mercenary lifestyle, where nothing much is sacrosanct. Suggest sampling first the prologue (four chapters) of 8-year old Ash, our protagonist and an orphan among many living in a mercenary camp in 15th century Europe. It’s a brutal, dirty, rough life. The earliest chapters are a turning point - for Ash, it marks her permanently but not in the way we might think, and for some readers, a hard stop if overly triggering. Descriptions of childhood trauma lessen in the story proper.

"she does say 'fuck' rather a lot"...

Meet Ash, potty-mouthed and so named for her silver, ash-colored hair. Most of the story chronicles six months of her life as a charismatic military commander of her own 800-strong mercenary company. Unlike her more idealized counterparts in popular fantasies, Ash is neither saint nor feminist, or conventionally attractive in how she is described, with scars, sweaty armpits, hair lice, a disproportionate musculature from handling heavy weapons, and dirtied from mud and gore going gig to gig. Beneath her fancy, shiny Milanese armor is an illiterate peasant, a soldier-for-hire, a woman-child still vulnerable to hurt and longing. Ash is as authentic as possible, without being spared the misogyny, loss of legal rights to a husband, bodily harm, the ever conscious effort to appear tough or be run roughshod. All that, fleshed out as a vivid, fascinating character.

Plot-wise, it’s fairly straightforward - battles happen, secrets are revealed and then, what the hell?! Slightly more description is, Ash’s company is hired by the German emperor for one of those perpetual skirmishes between European states, then further hired by British and Burgundian nobles to fight invading forces from North Africa. References to the bygone French Burgundy and Tunisian Carthage, the mystique of their golden era and allusions to the Byzantine Empire, Iberian Reconquista and other touches of ancient European history lent imagination to geopolitical movements and power structures. There is action galore - sieges, battles, deaths, posturings, rescues, fortresses blown up, fires, earthquakes - with enough historical touchpoints for worldbuilding credibility.

On that note, a framing device allows for history’s version of Ash vis-à-vis her actual life to co-exist in parallel. As two modern characters discuss ancient manuscripts, they simultaneously inform the reader of fragments that make up Ash’s existence. Modern day correspondences interspersed with “real-time” action on the ground 500+ years ago puts into light how much history is an academic construct with gaps and developing data. Author Mary Gentle plays with that thought, and then some.

Ash: A Secret History is ambitious, with flaws. The weakest points are these awkward transitions between past and present, which results in an unwieldy structure. Sometimes it feels quite lightweight, sometimes the dialogue begs momentum, and other times, the use of modern vernacular feels a bit disconnecting. While the preternatural Ash could be forgiven for her exuberant personality, the overall literary heft lacks gravitas. Distinct characters, immersion into medieval weaponry and warfare, suspenseful moments, and an exhilarating unpredictability make up for it, regardless.

Ash: A Secret History is best read as one book *, the way it was paced. US publication is split into a 4-book series, though too many dots crop up in between and during chapters to neatly divide the story into suitable break points (try connecting a spray of dots, not linear!). Everytime a pause seems plausible, another chapter, another event, another reveal beckons another minute or hour of my interest. Length truly becomes inconsequential when staying in the groove makes for such a satisfying read. I highly recommend giving Ash: A Secret History a chance to tell its own stories, if you would like to learn more.

[* US$3.99 Kindle omnibus as one book, as of review date. Winner, 2000 British Science Fiction Association Award and two-times nomination for the 2000 Arthur C. Clarke Award].
Profile Image for Lori.
665 reviews68 followers
September 5, 2011
Oh dearie me, another attempt to find the perfect hot Labor Day weekend escape that didn't work out. Granted, I'm in an impatient mood presently, and didn't give this book much chance but enough for me to realize it wasn't for me. I didn't even skip ahead just to see was happening, just put it aside in my GoodWill box. So much to read, so little time, not gonna spend it on this.
Profile Image for Andre.
3 reviews
January 21, 2008
Staggering detail of plot, depth of character study and all around imagination, all carefully housed in a fragile shell of pseudohistory. Fantasy, SF and military history beautifully fused and wrought.
Profile Image for Udayan.
287 reviews10 followers
March 3, 2021
One amazing literary conceit. Speculative fiction taken to the absolute borders of speculation. The indifferent writing bits take away half a star.
Profile Image for Simona Moschini.
Author 5 books34 followers
February 11, 2020
Nel panorama del fantasy internazionale è considerato un unicum e una saga cult. È una serie molto particolare, con pregi e difetti che la rendono inconfondibile.
Provate a trovarla in vendita, in italiano: difficilissimo. Fanucci non lo ristampa da anni; alla fine, l’ho prelevato da una biblioteca tramite prestito interbibliotecario, ma mi piace tanto che in futuro cercherò con calma gli altri tre volumi, tra i remainders magari.

Io, che detesto elfi, spade, maghi e chincaglieria assortita del fantasy, ne ho sentito parlare per la prima volta un annetto fa su uno dei migliori blog letterari indipendenti del nostro Paese, Gamberi Fantasy (http://fantasy.gamberi.org/2007/09/07... ).
Vi si paragonava la tecnica letteraria dell’autrice, l’inglese Mary Gentle, con quelle delle italiane Licia Troisi, vendutissima con la sua ridicola saga del Mondo Emerso, e Francesca Angelinelli, meno nota ma autrice di fantasy in salsa nipponica, a tutto vantaggio della Gentle.
Il confronto – che si prefiggeva di mostrare la desolante pochezza del fantasy italiano al femminile, a fronte di quello straniero - risultava impietoso e un po' ingiusto: la Troisi è nata nel 1980, la Angelinelli nel 1982 e la Gentle... nel 1956. Lei ha un mestiere che la Troisi se lo sogna.
Però sa anche ricostruire un’ambientazione storica (con particolare riferimento alla storia militare del Medio Evo) senza annoiare, sa scrivere, ha un immaginario originale e nel contempo coerente e non sfrutta i soliti cliché del genere.

E’ utile sapere che con questi 4 volumi la scrittrice britannica di fantasy e fantascienza ha vinto il Sidewise Award for Alternate History nel 2000, e che non è l’unico premio della sua carriera.
Ma veniamo al testo. Che sta tra l’ucronia e il romanzo storico, inserendo nel contesto delle guerre europee del XV secolo un immaginario regno Visigoto di Cartagine, dotato di soldati-golem animati e di una "machina rei militaris", ossia un computer, che suggerisce al suo comandante le strategie di combattimento. Regno che decide di invadere l'Europa, di conquistare il ricco regno di Borgogna e che ha il potere di provocare eclissi di sole lunghe mesi, che sprofondano il continente nel gelo, nel buio e nel terrore della fine del mondo.
La stessa Ash è diventata - ancora adolescente - capo di una compagnia mercenaria non solo per il suo incredibile coraggio e sangue freddo, ma anche perché da bambina è stata “eletta” da un leone che le ha leccato il viso e perché sente le voci come Giovanna d’Arco (ma, temendo di fare la stessa fine, sta attenta a non vantarsene troppo).
A questo si aggiunga che Ash è un libro su un libro immaginario, perché l'autrice immagina che uno studioso dei giorni nostri ricostruisca la storia di un capitano di ventura donna realmente esistito, morto a vent'anni, sul quale esisterebbero alcuni manoscritti e saggi; e che la sua storia sia talmente pericolosa che ad un certo punto dalle biblioteche quei manoscritti cominciano a sparire, proprio mentre il Nostro, in Tunisia, trova reperti archeologici che provano che la Cartagine visigota e i suoi golem sono realmente esistiti...

Nel contempo il primo volume di Ash, senza compiacersi della violenza (niente pulp, nessuna scena di tortura, ma descrizioni molto verosimili di cosa succedeva in una battaglia campale quattrocentesca) è un romanzo talmente realistico da essere disturbante: ferite, stupri, turpiloquio, divinità invocate a sproposito, odori, letame, cinismo..., nulla ci viene risparmiato del lifestyle dell’accampamento mercenario tipico. Un esempio:

"Tre uomini le caddero addosso. Uno di essi era tenuto per i capelli da un visigoto, aveva il volto insanguinato ed aveva perso l’elmo. Un uomo con la divisa sporca di sangue affondò il coltello in mezzo alle gambe di un visigoto. I loro corpi premettero contro Ash che piantò la piastra metallica del guanto sinistro nell’occhio del nemico. Il gesto fu accompagnato dallo schiocco dell’osso dell’orbita che si rompeva seguito un attimo dopo da un urlo che giunse alle orecchie di Ash ovattato a causa dell’imbottitura. La pressione diminuì e lei riuscì a riguadagnare una posizione stabile.
«Cristo santo! Quanto mi manca un fottuto cavallo, non riesco a vedere niente! Dove cazzo è il fottutissimo gruppo di comando!» Stava perdendo la voce. «Rickard! Trova lo stendardo del Leone. Dobbiamo muoverci sempre, siamo fatti se ci bloccano!» "

Avete visto il coltello? Avete sentito lo schiocco dell’osso? Avete sentito la voce roca di Ash?
Io sì. E penso che, nel suo genere, questa donna sappia scrivere. Non è eccezionale - talvolta la costruzione della frase è eccessivamente pedestre e paratattica -, ma la Gentle dimostra una fantasia inesauribile unita a una capacità di rendere vivaci e credibili le descrizioni, i dialoghi e i personaggi con una concretezza sanguigna che appassiona, che non annoia mai.
D’altra parte, qui troverete quel realismo di sopravvivenza che non di rado confina col cinismo. Sconsiglio energicamente, quindi, la lettura a chi ama un pizzico di romanticismo, di epos, anche nelle battaglie. O nel sesso, altro argomento quantitativamente irrilevante, ma in presenza del quale non troveremo mai, in questo ciclo, punti di contatto con l’amore.
I protagonisti di Ash sopravvivono, uccidono, muoiono giovani, si accoppiano con le prostitute-vivandiere degli accampamenti; se mai si sposano è per motivi dinastici, ci sono molti guerrieri gay, c’è una lesbica che si spaccia per uomo per poter fare il chirurgo; ah, la protagonista ha subìto più di uno stupro, e non da adulta: i primi due uomini li ha uccisi a 8 anni per vendetta.

Dico quantitativamente irrilevante perché non siamo in un romanzo da spiaggia, alla Ken Follett o alla Wilbur Smith, dove spie, avventurieri e pirati trovano il tempo, a intervalli regolari di 25 pagine, di trombarsi l’affascinante spia nemica / nazista perverso / fanciulla apparentemente indifesa. No. Quando Ash, costretta dall’imperatore, sposa il bel Fernando del Guiz, risulta molto seccata dai problemi che la faccenda le porterà e dal carattere arrogante e inaffidabile del giovanotto. Per carità, ci va a letto più che volentieri, dispiaciuta solo dalla spocchia nobiliare e dalla meschinità di lui, e ogni tanto ci farà un pensierino anche in seguito.
Però, ed è qui che la Gentle si differenzia dal bestsellerista incallito, alla (breve) scena di sesso non ne succedono altre, né i due si innamorano perdutamente l’uno dell’altro, anzi. La storia deve andare avanti, e non prevede un lieto fine in rosa. E la protagonista è una soldatessa analfabeta, che si sente a suo agio solo con una spada alla sua destra e un'armatura addosso.

Tutto l’insieme mi porta a pensare che nessun regista, se non forse uno matto da legare - un Lars von Trier ? - potrà mai farne un film. Peccato; io, a vederlo, ci andrei.
Profile Image for Leticia.
Author 3 books104 followers
February 25, 2023
I will set this aside for now, not because I didn't like it, but because I don't have the time to read the whole (really long) omnibus of four books right now.

I want to pick it up again and finish it however. The writing style here is on point.

Triggers: Children sexual abuse and violence.
5 reviews1 follower
February 8, 2017
Boring. Terminally boring. DNF, and I didn't get far.

It reminded me powerfully of a shitty version of the manga Berserk by Kentaro Miura. Same sort of beginning, meticulously researched medieval setting with lots of blood and gore and rape. Kid raised by mercenary camp, lives shitty life, grows to kick ass.

The thing is, Berserk packed in all the gore, all the meticulously researched armor, into big splash pages of hyper detailed artwork. In this book, you have to read every fucking detail and it's boring as shit. It totally kills any pacing.

I read Berserk when I was 19 and I was totally shocked by how HARDCORE it was, man, it's just so REAL, teenaged me thought. As an adult, reading Ash, it all just strikes me as a juvenile attempt to shock. It just bores me now. Blah blah blah rape rape rape killing everything is filthy and gross. Whatever.

If you think this story has an interesting setting and premise but just find it drags sloooow, read Berserk instead. You won't be disappointed.
248 reviews3 followers
August 1, 2013
There aren't many books that I have to take a break from reading, but this was one. I bought it based on reviews, which made a great deal of the fact that not all was as it seemed with the story but the dense, incredibly detailed (and, in some cases, dull) story made me want to find out what the "twist" was when I was only about halfway through the novel.

The details may well be accurate and the book very well researched but, for me, there is too much talking and not enough action and the whole thing dragged.

Having said that, the "twist" when it came was interesting, even if I don't pretend to understand the background to it.

This book was recently on a list of SF books that you could give to a non-SF fan. Me, I'm not so sure.
Profile Image for James Latimer.
Author 1 book21 followers
December 16, 2019
Where do you even begin with a book like this? It's immense, both physically and in scope, and it doesn't bear easy comparisons. It's several books in one (and not just because it was published as 4 in the US); it's both SF and F and a bit of historical fiction; it's an academic treatise on lost history and a blood-and-guts epic of war against all odds (or probability, I should say); it's visceral and distant; it's tight-focused and long-lens; it's...well, it's something else.
Profile Image for Frith.
148 reviews19 followers
January 24, 2019
This is a stunning book. It's incredibly original and unexpected. Amazing medieval fantasy and... other things. None of which I can even hint about without spoilers, and this is definitely a book to read with as few preconceptions as possible. I can already tell I'm going to be thinking about it for a very long time.
Profile Image for Chandra.
440 reviews2 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
June 27, 2022
I tried soooo hard, but I am past the year mark with reading and still am not even half through. I think it was a combo of the extreme violence/grossness and almost no likable characters that kept me from reading this tome. I have selected a different book to try and make my longes book ever read! Finger crossed my next book has better results!
Profile Image for c5.
35 reviews
November 17, 2018
I started this book without knowing its genre, and that resulted in some fun surprises. Although I found myself becoming a little impatient in places, I enjoyed the story. It's an impressive and memorable work.
Profile Image for Michael Eisenberg.
16 reviews3 followers
January 27, 2013
Hi guys...happy new year!!!

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

I feel I have to recommend this book with table pounding intensity to all of you. It's long, epic length...in fact the American version was spread out over 4 books, I read the British version which was one long, almost 1200 page brick...worth every page!!! (BTW, according to the author, this is the way it's meant to be read, the segregated U.S. version was just a marketing ploy.)

This book worked on so many levels that it made my head spin and, quite frankly, I've never read anything like it. With it's combination of Medieval history (takes place in the latter half of the 15th century) portrayed in a stark real tableau ...to real, you might think after reading it (gritty, filthy, dirty, cold, destitute and uncompromisingly violent are all adjectives that are apropos) mixed with...quantum physics!!??!?...this book was completely unique.

In a nutshell, a modern day historian finds a manuscript that tells of the last 6 months in the life of a female leader of a mercenary company. As events unfold, and they do so slowly as would happen with a 1200 page book, you begin to realize that the history that is being translated from these manuscripts is slightly askew. Not completely unbelievable at first but...something a little odd. The more you read, the more it becomes clear to you, the reader as well as to the historian that what he has found is a little slice of history that was never written about in any known history book in the last 500 years.

Things progress, events become more alien and...what is and was totally amazing to me was...I was buying it! Mary Gentle forced the Kool Aid down my throat and I was totally onboard that I was actually reading real history. The way she wrote it...crystal clear realism (I heard she got a couple degrees from University in Medieval studies, weaponry and warfare) put me there, right in the middle of it. There were a number of characters in this book, all of them fleshed out and developed quite richly.

And then there was the quantum physics aspect. I think Gentle successfully justified what was happening in the 15th century with modern day theories of many worlds, string theory, time paradox and who knows what else...certainly not me...but I still bought it. Don't get me wrong, this was not the "meat" of the book, that took place mainly in the city of Dijon and a Carthage. But,it was there and it was the aspect that put me over the top and completely blew my mind. The cosmic implications were staggering and, my head is still hurting from it.

This book is not George R. R. Martin, not even remotely close...I wouldn't even call is fantasy. I'm not sure what I would call it other than speculative fiction of the highest order. The best book I've read in the last 2-3 years maybe...HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Profile Image for Dark-Draco.
2,122 reviews40 followers
December 24, 2013
Wow, what can I say? This is the second time I have read this book and I loved it just as much as the first time. It's a hard story to quantify - it starts off as a history book, a new translation of a medieval diary telling the exploits of Ash, a female mercenary leader who is embroiled in the wars between Burgundy and France. But the war takes a mystical turn as Europe is invaded by Visigoths from Carthage, who bring permanent night time with them. They seem determined to destroy Burgundy, but it is Ash who begins to discover why as her own past is dragged painfully to light.

But interspersed with her story are copies of letters and e-mails from the historian doing the translation. At first he doesn't believe the stories, thinking them medieval exaggerations of true events. Yet soon evidence is discovered that there is more than a truth in Ash's tale - ancient evidence that wasn't there before. Slowly the two stories, past and present, interweave as the true fate of medieval Burgundy is revealed.

It's just so hard to describe - above is it in a nutshell and yet isn't. It's clever, amazing and the ending will knock you for six - even I had a huge grin of my face the second time around and I knew what was coming! I loved the idea of a 'miracle gene' that could explain Jesus, Mohammed and our other prophets, plus the reason why we don't have any more miracles now. The hints and echoes of our history and that which is 'lost' are beautifully done too.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a twist in their brain, who loves being entertained, puzzled and just pure blown away - go out and read it now!
Profile Image for Natasha.
27 reviews17 followers
July 4, 2014
ETA: Many, many months later, I'm finished. Less a book, more an endurance test; I never want to hear about another detail of 15th-century armour again.

So a few days ago I asked what I should read next, and apparently it turned out to be this. I bounced off this book hard about 6 or 7 years ago (even though I hardly ever leave a novel unfinished, and was even less likely to do so back then), and there it's sat on my bookshelf ever since, taunting me with the bookmark at page 125 of a massive 1113. I really loved the central Cool Idea of it, but the documentary conceit (among other things) stretched my suspension of disbelief to and past its breaking point, and I was far more interested in the frame story with its Cool Idea than in the actual nasty-brutish-and-not-remotely-short historical plot that makes up most of the page count. I think my main problem was that I was expecting it to be sub-Dorothy Dunnett (whose Niccolo series is set in the same place and period), whereas really it's more supra-George R. R. Martin (subgenre: 'knights who say "fuck", at great length'). So with that in mind it's going better this time around - I've even read past page 125, and while I'm still impatient to get back to the frame story, this gives me hope that I might see it through.

(I do wish I'd had a Kindle when I first bought it, though. It's so un-portable it might as well *be* a medieval manuscript...)
Profile Image for Ian Banks.
779 reviews3 followers
August 5, 2021
A big fat book of 1120 close-printed pages of pure awesome! A perfect blend of historical-fantasy with near-cutting-edge SF and heaps of battles, violence and (because it is a "free translation" of an "historical" body of work) an absolute ton of rude words - I almost made up a "Swearing" shelf just for this book, but settled for the more descriptive "Housebricks."

Ash is a mercenary captain who has heard voices for half of her young life. They advise her on tactics leading her to a reputation as one of Europe's best soldiers of fortune. But an invasion of Europe from the empire of Carthage leads her to discover that her powers aren't as miraculous as she might think...

... in the present day, Pierce Ratcliff, an academic, is working on what he calls the definitive edition of Ash's life. He discovers that there are some differences between the world Ash lived in and the world he studied the history of for so many years. This leads him to question the nature of history, the universe and everything.

I freaking love this book to bits. If you have a spare month and enjoy a book that covers just about every theme and topic known to man and still keeps you rattling through because almost every character, action and word is compelling, you probably will too.

2021 Reread: Still magnificent.
8 reviews4 followers
May 7, 2014
I had not read anything by Mary Gentle before, so when I picked up Ash: A Secret History for my reading challenge, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew that the story I was about to read was set in mediaeval Europe, albeit not quite the historical Europe we know today, and I knew that the main character was a woman mercenary leader named Ash. I could also see that this was a very long story I had taken on and that it would take me some time to get through it. With this starting point, I had some trouble getting through what I think was the first one or two chapters. It was not that it was not well written; I just have a natural inborn aversion for anything having to do with history - I blame my history teacher back in school for this; he made that ghost professor teaching History of Magic in the Harry Potter books seem like the teacher of the century. How can they make something that should be interesting so... exceptionally dull? In spite of this though, I had read historical fantasy before and quite enjoyed it, so once I got to where the more obviously fantastical elements were introduced, I was hooked.

For a full review, click this.
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