by Mary Gentle



424pp/$6.99/October 1999

A Secret History
Cover by Donato

  Reviewed by Steven H Silver

A Secret History is the first quarter of Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash, published in one volume in the United Kingdom.  This series is a parallel tale of a fifteenth-century female mercenary captain, Ash, and a twentieth-century scholar, Pierce Ratcliff, who has discovered a new manuscript about her life and hopes to prove that European history did not occur in the manner generally accepted.

The vast majority of the novel describes Ash’s early life and her role in the war against the Duchy of Burgundy.  These sections of the book are heavily detail-oriented and focus on Ash’s relationships with her officers and other mercenary groups.  Aside from her gender, the thing which sets Ash apart from her contemporaries is the fact that she hears voices, which she claims are those of a saint.

The chapters dealing with Ash’s life are framed by a series of e-mails between Pierce Ratcliff and Anna Longman, his editor, discussing his new translation of a variety of fifteenth-century manuscripts about Ash.  Plans for the book go awry as Longman realizes that the history Ratcliff is relating (and which the reader reads in the Ash segments of the novel) differ greatly from established history.  Even as questions arise about the authenticity of Ratcliff’s manuscripts, archaeological evidence emerges to support his translation of Ash’s tale.

A Secret History is an alternate history about a period which is not particularly well-known to the average reader and Gentle does a wonderful job of explaining what the differences are using the Longman-Ratcliff correspondence.  At the same time, these e-mails begin to offer insight into the historical process and the nature of history as a study.

The portions of the novel set in the fifteenth-century are laying the foundation for the remaining three novels.  Ash’s early involvement with what may be a remnant of the cult of Mithras is clearly laying groundwork which has yet to be explored, as is her ability to hear voices.  Gentle has also begun to explore relationships between Ash and her husband, the gormless Fernando del Guiz, her surgeon, Florian and her other officers as well as the Faris, the general of the Visigothic invasion force from Carthage who bears a startling similarity to Ash.

A Secret History is well researched, and usually Gentle manages to keep the plot moving without having to resort to too many explanatory passages.  In part this is done by the judicious use of footnotes, made possible by the conceit that the book is Ratcliff’s scholarly translation of medieval documents, although the text reads in neither a scholarly nor a medieval manner.

Given Ash’s position in society, it is understandable that Gentle focuses almost entirely on the military aspects of her alternate history, with no indication that the situation will change in the future books (or later chapters, for the British edition), which is a pity, because seeing some of the social changes would add yet another element to an already complex story.  Even more interesting will be to see how Ratcliff and Longman manage to balance the history of Ash with what is known about European history.

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