Ash: A Secret History
By Mary Gentle
1113 pagesI began reading Ash, some time around 10 years ago, and I have at last finished it, after numerous on-again off-again attempts and slogging restarts. It’s not an easy book to keep momentum on, mainly due to the sheer size of the damned thing. Those 1113 pages are packed with tiny, tiny font. I’m not just making excuses here either; the American release saw the story split across four books, making it far more manageable.
So was it worth the time and effort?
I think so.
Ash follows the story of the book’s titular lead, a female mercenary captain, plying her bloody trade across Europe in the last quarter of the 15th Century. She holds her mercenary company together through experience, ability, force of personality, and something a little special.
Ash hears voices in her head, that may be the Green Man, the Lord and his saints, or something more sinister. These voices advise her in battle, and lend her some of the mystique of Joan Of Arc.
Ash’s Europe is a time and a place both familiar from history yet altered from how we know it. The Visgoth Empire rules over Africa, a land trapped under a literal eternal darkness, where mechanical golems serve the lord-amir’s bidding. The King-Caliph in Carthage in bent on the conquest of Europe.
The book is split down into sixteen fairly hefty parts, each separated by documentation alleged to relate to the original manuscripts from which the main narrative was translated, and which also chronicles the wild goose chase of archaeological dig searching for evidence of the events descried. This framing device both adds its own twist to the story, and flags up the differences between Ash’s present and our past.
With its alternate history setting and a framing device of found documents and archaeological digs in the present the book balances itself flags up some of its historical quirks.
The story is written thick with detail, and it serves to really ground the reader in Ash’s surroundings, from rust speckled weapons, fleas, and the bloody, thumping violence of combat, to the tangled skein of political allegiances across the battlefields and bedrooms of Europe, the physical impracticality of armour, and the tenuous command of a mercenary force.
I found the detail one of the engaging factors, although some may find in cloying to be presented with so much information beyond the bounds of the story.
The characters feel absolutely real, from Ash herself, down to the camp followers; hell, even Ash’s horse, Godluc, seems well realised. While there is an overarching fantasy/alt history/sf bent to the storyline, it doesn’t overwhelm the more historically accurate elements, and in facts sits very comfortably amongst them.
Ash is up there as one of my favourite characters (or I’d have given up reading this years ago), and (if you’ve got the time) her story is well worth a read.