Review: Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle

AshAsh is the story of the last year of the life of a female mercenary captain who leads her company into the conflict between France and Burgundy in the mid-15th century, only… this Burgundy is a little bit different than ours. It lies at the heart of an alternate history in which Carthage still stands, the centre of an expansionist Visigothic empire cursed to live under eternal twilight; the Throne of Saint Peter has stood empty for centuries; and the last of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy may be all that stand between a worse fate than merely a Visigothic Europe and the blotting out of the sun.

This history is framed by letters between an author translating a new edition of Ash’s story and his prospective publisher, both of whom are initially under the impression that this is a history that corresponds with our own. The letters begin to form a narrative of their own as it becomes apparent that this is a past too fantastical to be ours, and strange things happen in the modern day to the evidence that supports it.

Ash herself is like an inverted Joan of Arc figure. After an early life religious experience, she hears a voice inside her head that she believes belongs to a saint, and which guides her in all of her battlefield tactical decisions. She’s also thoroughly earthy, roughened and toughened — where not broken — by an orphan upbringing short on love and full of abuse, violence, and loss, even by the standards of the time. She is far from the virginal figure of Joan, an impression cemented by the translator’s decision to use modern language, and a coarse take on it at that, in his version of her story.

Though her smart mouth and quick wit are a little too handy to ring true, even taking into account the deliberate modernisation of her speech, Ash is, for the most part, compelling and brimming with life enough to warrant the vast amount of pages we spend in her head. During her lengthy (admittedly sometimes a little too lengthy) solitary escapades the narrative delves deeply into her flaws and insecurities, but the best moments are when she rallies her company around her and slaps on competence and bravado like armour, contrasting her humanity with her legend, and painting a vivid picture of the high personal cost to any woman of the era who achieves the latter. She’s an amalgamation of many of the women who have risen to the apex of history, at the cost of being torn apart by it — or, as the narrative would suggest, many of them are fragments of her.

There is one serious flaw in her characterisation, though, and it’s Fernando del Guiz. Every time he appears on the page, she promptly becomes too stupid to live. While their history explains some of her initial reaction, I would have expected the adult commander of hundreds of men that she is by then to have snapped out of it as soon as it became apparent that she would never have his respect. It’s difficult to believe that someone who turned into a teenage girl blinded by her hormones every time she saw a pretty face would have continued to hold her prestigious and, given her gender and the prejudices of the time, precarious position in charge of so many hardened mercenaries.

Despite this very much being Ash’s story, the vast supporting cast features a wealth of vivid personalities. Ash is at her best, both personally and in terms of how well she’s written, when she’s with her company, and they in turn are highlighted as distinct and complex personalities in their varied relationships with her. I felt there was a little touch of similarity to Erikson’s Malazan series here in regards both to the excellent feel both authors have for the morbid and deadpan military humour of soldiers alleviating the tedium of waiting to see if they’re going to die, and to Angelotti’s demented gunners reminding me more than a little of the Bridgeburners’ sappers.

By far my favourite secondary character is Florian, the company doctor who illustrates a completely different way from Ash of being a capable woman in a largely forbidden profession in this man’s world. That she is at times maddening and unlikeable didn’t detract from my enjoyment of her; I rather like the fact that she’s allowed to be, and that at the same time she’s so driven to do good, probably more so than Ash who is more inclined to arrive at the greater good by accident on the way to protecting herself and her own.

Burgundy itself is something of a character in this novel, and it made me a little sad for this history that never was, to imagine a present in which Dijon is still a centre of European culture… I’ve read a number of alternative histories but struggle to think of any with a setting as creative as Ash. Mary Gentle obviously has an elegant grasp of both the actual history of the region and its personalities, and the nuances of the changes she wrought upon that canvas, and the result is a fantastical Europe that feels far more alive than the flat, underdeveloped what-ifs of most alt history. I spent a while in the first half of the book trying to decide if it felt more like historical fiction with elements of fantasy or fantasy with a veneer of historical fiction, before reaching the point where I was so immersed that I realised it didn’t feel like either — it simply felt like nothing else out there.

There are two areas in which it didn’t quite hold up for me. One is in the framing device, the letters and e-mails between the author Pierce Ratcliff and his editor. I actually loved the idea, it was the execution that didn’t work for me. Pierce comes off shady as hell, and the editor extremely erratic — weirdly hostile at times when it seemed she should have been more open to communication, and yet very gullible when she frankly should have been filing his letters in the recycling and considering a restraining order. I would have enjoyed the way the secret history unfolded in the modern day (which was such an appealing concept!) a whole lot more if this way of delivering exposition about it hadn’t been so awkward.

The other is the ending. This was a book that took its time. Sometimes almost too much so, but never enough to push over into tedium. I probably wouldn’t have complained if the whole book were faster paced; but I also liked the pacing just fine as it was up until the end, so the thing that really bothered me was the lack of consistency when all that gradual buildup leads to a climax that’s over so fast I had whiplash. I can appreciate the need not to make an already immense book even longer, but this was not the area in which to stint on page count. It felt a little unsatisfactory.

Still, one could argue it’s fitting in its own way. This is not so much a story as it is a piece of a biography, a slice of a life, and life doesn’t always conclude in a satisfactory or timely manner. The journey is still worth it — I’m talking about the book now, although that works as a bit of trite philosophy to conclude the analogy as well — and what a hell of a journey Ash was.

4.5 stars

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