A magnum opus of occult history

Ash: A Secret History — Mary Gentle

0575069015.02.LZZZZZZZ

I will admit I’ve been kind of dreading Ash, first because I didn’t think I’d be able to find a copy, second because I knew if I did find a copy the novel was much longer than the books I had thus far reviewed and would require a lot of time to read and thirdly because reputation has this as very dark and I didn’t want to spend 1100+ pages being kicked in the face by the author. As it turned out, one of the local used bookstores had a reasonably priced trade paperback, although it is not exactly bedtime reading, Ash is nowhere near as grim as I had expected, and it was an astonishingly quick read because I had a hard time putting it down.

Presented as a restored historical document, this narrative focuses on Ash, a female mercenary of the 15th century. Female soldiers were, of course, not unknown throughout history; see Joan of Arc, Liang Hongyu and Hind al-Hunnud, to name just three. Ash is a particularly adept soldier and this is because she is guided by voices in her head that provide her with infallible military advice.

What Ash is not but would very much like to be is someone with a title and the land to go with it. This is not an absurd dream because she does have her own mercenary army, one of respectable size and ability, and as much as the various aristocrats of the era might like to talk about glorious bloodlines, stabbing one’s way into a position near the top by being enough of a threat rulers feel they have to buy one off without being so much of one rulers will be moved to eliminate the menace is an accepted and indeed a traditional career path.

The wheels fall off this dream fairly early on when Charles the Bold gives Ash what she wants but with a catch; title and lands are contingent on marriage to the good-looking jerk-ass Fernando de Guiz, who is in no way happy to be married off to the scarred mercenary. Worse, as her husband he will legally control Ash’s assets. There is an obvious solution – Fernando could have an unexpected shaving accident – but events intervene to distract Ash from settling on an appropriate fate for Fernando.

The twilit empire of Carthage offers Burgundy and other regions an alliance in a grand crusade but this proves but a ruse to cover the Visigoths’ preparations to launch a vast, destructive invasion of Europe from North Africa, and not only are the Visigoths extremely practiced at the conquering business but they are armed with devices like mechanical golems that the Europeans cannot match. The sun itself is no match for the invaders; darkness falls as Carthage’s armies advance towards their ultimate goal, Burgundy.

War is a natural part of Ash’s life – she probably could not function outside of it – but this particular war is something new and not just because the other side has seemingly magical technology. The Visigoth are led by a woman named the Faris and not only can the Faris hear the same voice as Ash, aside from a lack of scars she could be Ash’s twin.

For Ash to prevail, she needs to understand what the connection is between her and her duplicate, what the true nature of the voice is and why it is Burgundy is so important to the true masters of Carthage.

Just as Ash’s world falls apart early on, the same is true for the historians whose commentary on newly discovered Ash documents at first interprets the documents’ deviations from known history as medieval confabulations and then later, as support for some of the more bizarre claims appears, perhaps evidence of an entirely forgotten episode in European history. When that too fails them they become increasingly distraught.The only way to make sense out of the contradictory facts is to embrace a very bold explanation, something they are reluctant to do.

Disclaimer: my ignorance of 15th century Europe is very nearly all-encompassing. I did spot that Carthage’s empire of midnight, armed with super-science beyond the knowledge of humanity under command of instrumentalities beyond our comprehension was likely not entirely true to the period.

While I expect Ash would be called Grimdark if it was written by a man, it does not fit for other reasons beyond the author being female. True grimdark glorifies violence, is unreflectively, unrepentantly sexist and should at every opportunity revel in the idea that all possible decisions inevitably must produce misery, degradation and corruption1. Ash fails on most of those, even regarding violence. Ash is a mercenary because that’s what she knows how to do and she’s good at it but she understands that her odds of seeing 30 are pretty slim. Neither Ash nor the novel Ash glorify the occupation, the adaptations it demands or the circumstances that make being a soldier for pay Ash’s best choice. 

For just one example of how this deviates from the standard grimdark, Ash begins with the rape of an eight-year-old, followed by mutilation and bloody murder, which I will admit does sound pretty grimdark. Where it differs from the standard model is that the purpose did not seem to be exploitation or titillation and it certainly was not the choice of a lazy, ignorant writer unaware of what else one can do with female characters. I think it’s not coincidental that we later see that men are also targeted for rape.

It’s also probably significant that even leaving aside the whole ‘women as soldiers’ aspect, the range of roles we see women fill in this is wider than one would expect if the only thing one read was fantasy. Even in the face of vigourous social pressure, someone like the eventual Duchess of Burgundy manages to have a fairly unconventional life prior to becoming Duchess; were we to hunt around, we would find precedent. 

Not to spoil the book too much but even though it is set during a a fairly unpleasant period, there are moments of hope in Ash and these are not just a cruel joke the author is playing on her audience, or a cheap cop-out.

I wasn’t keen on the specifics of the explanation as to what was going on; I generally find use of the q-word to drive plots about as satisfactory as “a wizard did it” and the genesis of the Wild Machines was something I had a lot of trouble suspending my disbelief in. That said, having recently reread Golden Witchbreed, I think Gentle’s grasp of prose and plotting improved greatly between the two books; I have fond memories of my fond memories of Golden Witchbreed but I am far more likely to reread Ash.

Ash is definitely available in a British edition. I am not sure about a US one but if it turns out there is one, I will scurry back here and edit this part to remove evidence of my oversight; if caught, I will claim it is an allusion to the plot of this very book! 

Readers wishing to avoid risking serious injury trying to lift this massive work may want to  consider buying the ebook or alternatively, acquiring four stout porters to carry it. 


  1. Yeah, I know what you are going to say but what makes you think the Wild Machines had the right perspective? 

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.