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Ash: A Secret History
Mary Gentle
Victor Gollancz, 1120 pages

Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle was born in Sussex in 1956. She left Hastings Grammar school at 16 and worked a variety of jobs such as a cinema projectionist, a warehouse clerk at a wholesale booksellers, a cook in an old folk's home, a valuation officer for the Inland Revenue, and a voluntary Meals-on-Wheels driver before finally becoming a self-employed writer in 1979.

In 1981, she began as a mature student at the University of Bournemouth where she took a BA in Combined Studies (Politics/English/Geography). Finding inspiration for her writing, Mary enrolled at Goldsmith's College to take an MA in Seventeenth Century Studies. For Ash, she took another Masters degree at Kings in 1995 in War Studies.

Mary Gentle finished her first novel at the tender age of 15. It wasn't published; the editor to whom she had sent it asked whether she had completed anything else. She sent them the first part of what would become A Hawk in Silver, published when she was 18. Her next novel, Golden Witchbreed came from an editorial slush pile for publication.

Mary Gentle now lives in Stevenage with her partner, Dean Wayland, a keen amateur historian and a teacher of medieval sword-fighting.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Mary Gentle
SF Site Review: A Secret History and Carthage Ascendant
Review: A Secret History
Machiavelli, Marx And The Material Substratum: Creating Worlds for Fun and Profit by Mary Gentle
Hunchbacks, Sadists, And Shop-Soiled Heroes or "SF Author's Hunchback Fetish -- The True Story" by Mary Gentle
Gargoyles, Architecture and Devices or "Why write science fiction as if it wasn't?" by Mary Gentle

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Katharine Mills

For some reason, a lot of the promotion for Ash: A Secret History focuses on its size. "The biggest fantasy novel ever published in a single volume," the back cover says proudly. (That's in England; in Canada and the U.S. it's coming out as a series of four from Eos.) In any case, the distinction between quantity and quality becomes obvious in these thousand-plus pages, and Mary Gentle is definitely on the side of the latter.

Ash: A Secret History is a scholarly mystery story, and it's also a brutal, horrifying and compelling journey through the medieval landscape of Europe and the Middle East. Mary Gentle (her name has rarely seemed more ironic) has described herself as "an avid collector of university degrees," and she uses her knowledge with an immediacy that must make the average window-dressing fantasy writer sick with envy. In fact, as part of the writing process of Ash, she got an MA in War Studies.

Ash: A Secret History is anything but dry, however. It's framed as a translation (from the Latin) by one Dr. Pierce Ratcliff, of a series of possibly-fraudulent 15th century manuscripts.  Dr. Ratcliff quickly reveals himself as something of an unconventional scholar, starting with the idiosyncrasies of his translation, which is in modern colloquial language. As Ratcliff says, this means "she says 'Fuck' rather a lot." It's a measure of Gentle's skill as a writer that her medieval world is fully convincing despite her avoidance of the artificially mannered language of high fantasy.

The Prologue opens the story of Ash as it will go on. In less than a page, we are unsentimentally told of her rape at the age of eight, and how she then immediately killed both her attackers. "Remember that she had already begun to train as a fighter." Some pages later, she has a vision of a Lion, when she eavesdrops on a midwinter ritual that is superficially Christian, and realizes, though muddily, that somehow she is marked. How, she doesn't understand until some years later, when the mercenary company she follows is involved with an attack, and a voice in her head speaks to her with military strategy.

Some years later, when we leave the Prologue, Ash has used the skill of the voice and her own wit to become captain of a mercenary company herself. (The footnotes provided point out the first few divergences from "accepted" history, a matter of a few dates and places.) After winning a battle, Ash is rewarded by the Emperor Frederick -- not with gold, but with marriage to a prince, Fernando del Guiz. It is only the beginning of the intertwined threads of mystery modern and ancient, as Ash and her company are drawn through Europe into the Middle East, where an inexplicable assault is being launched against Burgundy, and Pierce Ratcliff gradually discovers that everything he thought he knew about history may be wrong.

Each section of the "translation" is divided from the next by transcripts of Ratcliff's correspondence (mostly via email) with other scholars. As he pursues the real evidence of the Ash manuscript with more and more zeal, he discovers archaeological evidence for a whole alternate history: one in which medieval Carthage was a Visigoth settlement, with advanced, almost magical science, and in which Burgundy assumes a legendary status quite at odds with its apparent history as a minor, if rich, European province soon to be swallowed up by other countries.

Ash, too, finds that both her past and her future have surprising connections to Carthage, and the answer to her repeated question of "Why Burgundy?" has repercussions that change Ratcliff's present even as she finds them.

Quite apart from Gentle's sly games with the stodginess of accepted scholarship, Ash: A Secret History is also a wicked good adventure story. Gentle understands both the movement of politics across nations, and the motivations of seemingly insignificant people, and she makes her reader feel both. Her battles are as simultaneously glorious and horribly sordid as real battles must have been; Gentle spares no gruesomeness in her description, yet the breathless exhilaration of the fighter is there as well.

A lot of the fascination lies in Ash herself. Here at last is a real Amazon, with guts, strength and intelligence. She's not, however, the stereotypical six-foot butch; Ash commands her troops with the authority of toughness and sheer force of character -- and once again, Gentle doesn't spare us the realities. Ash is a woman living in the 15th century, and although she's by no means typical, by the time she's done with us, we know full well what that means. And though we see her weaknesses as well as her strengths -- her rather heartless survival instinct, her uneducated ignorance -- Ash remains, at the end, a hero, perhaps more so for being imperfect.

It's almost literally a stunning book -- it left me overwhelmed for a while afterwards, piled with the suddenly-unstable weight of history. Gentle demonstrates how insubstantial scholarship really is, and how easily what is "accepted" can be changed, influenced, or concealed to meet all sorts of hidden agendas -- while telling the kind of gripping story that kept me hooked for all 16 chapters with interpolations. One thing is certain: Ash: A Secret History can't really be compared to anything else, and I doubt whether anything else comparable will appear on bookshelves for quite a while.

Copyright © 2000 Katharine Mills

Katharine Mills was sitting in her library the other day when she heard the books quietly whispering, "We want a bigger house." If she can't persuade the cats to build an addition with shelves, she will need to find some boxes soon.

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