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A Secret History: The Book of Ash #1
Carthage Ascendant: The Book of Ash #2
Mary Gentle
Avon EOS Books, 424 and 424 pages

A Secret History
Carthage Ascendant
Mary Gentle
UK author Mary Gentle has written more than 8 books. They have won critical acclaim from science fiction and fantasy authors and critics alike. She's completed two Master degrees and is an expert sword-fighter.

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A review by Rich Horton

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These are the first two installments of an impressive new novel (or novel series) by Mary Gentle. Gentle is probably best known for her unusual alternate history/fantasy Rats and Gargoyles, and Ash is again describable as unusual alternate history/fantasy. In brief, it's the story of a female mercenary captain, Ash, in the 1470s, at the time of the fall of the Duchy of Burgundy. (By coincidence, these events occur at about the same time as yet another unusual alternate history/fantasy, John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting.)

The Book of Ash purports to be a straight-forward translation of a few contemporary manuscripts about Ash's life, and indeed there is a frame story consisting of letters and email between the translator and his editor. As such, they start out seeming to be "normal" historical fiction, with a very realistic and believable portrayal of Ash's childhood as a mercenary camp follower, then jumping to portrayal of her role as the Captain of some 800 mercenaries at the age of 19 or 20. All this is presented starkly: Ash's rape at the age of 8, and her subsequent killing of her attackers; the filthy conditions in her camp; the blood, pain, and discomfort of battle. Throughout, we get very nice details of such things as what sort of armour was worn. But slowly we realize that the world described doesn't seem to be part of our own history.

At first, we notice little details, such as the voices Ash hears, or the references to a different-seeming variety of Christianity, involving the "Green Christ", or the odd mention of Carthage and the Eternal Twilight. As the book goes on, we learn that somehow Carthage has survived into the 15th century, or has been re-established, and, more strangely, that the Sun never shines in the area of Carthage. Before long, we are encountering robots (Stone Golems) used as weapons of war, unusual speculation about parallel worlds, long-term breeding projects, and other decidedly fantastical (or perhaps even science-fictional) devices. But the centre of the story remains Ash, a charismatic character, wholly believable as a leader of her men, wholly sympathetic but thoroughly a professional killer, harrowed by bitter personal questions about her identity, her lust for a man she cannot abide, her affection for a man whose love she cannot return, her loyalties to all her company. I found these two books terrifically exciting, with well-described battle scenes, fascinating weird background concepts, and a compelling overarching story-line.

To briefly sketch the basic plot: after a section showing some of Ash's childhood, we meet her as the Captain of her own mercenary Company, some 800 men (with a few women). She is involved with the siege of the city of Neuss, on the side of the Holy Roman Emperor against the Duke of Burgundy. When an accommodation is reached, she is manoeuvred into marriage with a nobleman, who then technically owns her company. Suddenly, forces from Carthage invade, under the command of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Ash. The Carthaginians sweep all before them, with the aid of much new technology, particularly their "Stone Golems". After a scary encounter with her "double", which nearly leads to her imprisonment and deportation to Carthage, Ash escapes and is hired by the English Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, to aid the Burgundians' defense against the Carthaginians. A disastrous battle ends with Ash again captured, this time inexorably sent to Carthage. In Carthage, she learns some secrets about her own identity, and about the voice she has been hearing since puberty, as well as some of the secrets behind Carthage's power, and its curse, the Eternal Twilight. Here, amid political turmoil and infighting, she is tortured and threatened with execution and dissection.

Besides the exciting adventure plot, the characters in these books are very well done: their motivations are real, they face difficult decisions and don't always choose rightly, they seem reasonably true to their time. Even the villains are believable, and by no means thoroughly evil. The 15th-century milieu is realistically presented. And the revelations of the secrets behind the scenes are made with great cleverness and subtlety. Here the frame story, as well as footnotes, are used to very good effect. I am eagerly awaiting the final two installments.

That last suggests some discussion of the curious publication schedule for this novel/series. Although the two installments I have read come to reasonable conclusions, there is no doubt that they are still just parts of one long story. And, in fact, there were plans for the entire novel to be published in hardcover in one volume in the United Kingdom. It seems, however, that it will now be split into two volumes. In North America it is being published as four mass market paperback books. This is easy to understand: the whole story is some 500,000 words long, and will occupy well over a thousand pages. That would make for an unwieldy single volume. The division into four parts does make for quite normal length contemporary books. However, I am sure we are faced with lots of fun and confusion for book collectors and cataloguers.

Based on the first half, I can say that Ash is one of the most original and absorbing historical fantasies of recent years. I recommend it highly to all readers, and especially to those fond of historical fiction/fantasy/SF mixes.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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