Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lana Reviews: Ash: A Secret History - Mary Gentle

I had not read anything by Mary Gentle before, so when I picked up Ash: A Secret History for my reading challenge, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew that the story I was about to read was set in mediaeval Europe, albeit not quite the historical Europe we know today, and I knew that the main character was a woman mercenary leader named Ash. I could also see that this was a very long story I had taken on and that it would take me some time to get through it. With this starting point, I had some trouble getting through what I think was the first one or two chapters. It was not that it was not well written; I just have a natural inborn aversion for anything having to do with history - I blame my history teacher back in school for this; he made that ghost professor teaching History of Magic in the Harry Potter books seem like the teacher of the century. How can they make something that should be interesting so... exceptionally dull? In spite of this though, I had read historical fantasy before and quite enjoyed it, so once I got to where the more obviously fantastical elements were introduced, I was hooked.

As stated before, the main character in this book is a young woman named Ash. She grew up as an orphan camp follower with a group of mercenaries, already knowing as a child that to survive in her world one has to know how to fight, and even more importantly; how to kill. Instead of falling into the more traditional and accepted roles for women at the time, she has the drive needed to become the leader of her own mercenary company. She also hears a voice in her mind that gives her tactical advice on the field of battle, so that - while she might not always downright win - she never loses. Believing this to be the voice of the Lord and His Saints - not entirely unreasonable considering the time-period the story is set in - she does not have much reason to question whether the voice could be something else altogether.

Europe is apparently not a very peaceful place in the 15th century; smaller and bigger battles are being fought out all the time by cities and countries, and the mercenaries hired to fight them. Yet, the armies of Europe are not ready when the Visigoths of Northern Africa suddenly start their invasion in the south, headed by a mysterious general that also hears voices. They come from Carthage, a place that once was struck by a magical curse rendering it forever in twilight, and as their forces conquer Europe, their twilight also spreads. It is in this state of chaos and war that Ash must find out who she really is, as well as the true source of her own voice.

Although I kept complaining throughout my reading about how it ruined my immersion, I can see now that Gentle did something very clever when she wrote Ash: A Secret History. She implemented a framing device that claimed her story as something real; as the work of a scholar translating Latin historical texts. As such, there are footnotes throughout the story explaining things, just as one would find in scholarly publications. This was perhaps one of the things that made it a bit more difficult for me to get into it at the start; I really felt as if I was reading an academic book and not fiction.

That having been said, all the historical details she works into the story did not particularly bother me once I decided to just take everything she said with a grain of salt. Having such poor knowledge about history as I do, it would be impossible for me to differentiate between what is common knowledge and what she has made up (not counting the made up things that were obvious even to me), so for me it was simply just easier to think of everything as fiction instead of wondering what was real and what was not. I did sometimes think, however, that someone with more knowledge than I would be able to enjoy the story even better than I did, perhaps on a different level, even.

As for the story versus character development, I often felt that the former might have been more important to Gentle while writing this book. Because, the story is so well written; the details and the plot are really well worked out. But the characters... there are two characters that are more complex than the rest of the bunch; Ash the female warrior, and her best friend, the company physician. The rest seem to just fall into groups of different roles, were you can't tell one from the other except by name. The women for example; you have noble women and what I would assume would be housewives; regular women taking care of the house and children. But you hardly ever hear of these two groups since they are not the groups Ash tends to be around (with one special exception, but I can't go into that too much without spoiling the story, and she is not the typical noblewoman anyway). The two groups you do hear of are the other female warriors of the company and the company whores.

For the men, I found I could also part them into four groups; the ones that detest Ash, not because she is a warrior, but because she is a woman; the ones that respect her enough as a warrior that they are fine working for her, as long as they are fine with doing what she tells them to do; the ones that both respect her as a woman and a warrior, and in addition feel loyal to her; and the ones that do everything the last group did, but in addition to that, also loves her. And while it works out just fine since the story itself is so good, I never felt very sad when something happened to these characters, because there were so many of the same sort to take over if one was lost.

In the end though, it does not matter if I felt that the characters were not as well developed as the story itself, nor does it matter that I at first found the frame device distracting; the first does not make the story any less amazing, and the second... well, I got over it quickly, and one could even say that the ending would not have been quite the same without it. The size of the book can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but it is not a difficult read as such; Gentle's language, apart from historical names for various pieces of a soldier's armor, for example, is fluid and relatively simple to follow. If you have issues with profanity though, you might want to steer clear. Personally, I have no such issues and heartily recommend this book!

Book Details
Title: Ash: A Secret History
Author: Mary Gentle
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 1113
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-744-6
First published: 2000


  1. This book impacted me in many, many ways. The strongest was my perception of the female warrior in epic fantasy. I've long thought that the most common presentation of the female warrior is simply a man with breasts. I could cite a long list of titles, but won't. Ash, for me, was a fully realistic female warrior. Her breasts were not just words on the page, but part of her identity. Now, whenever I read a work of epic fantasy and encounter a female warrior, I'm left comparing them to Ash, and most often unfavorably. The female warrior in Abercrombie's First Law series, for example, comes across flat and pulpish compared to Ash....

    But I will stop. I know you read some epic fantasy. Do you have a similar experience with female warriors, or do you just consider it part of the genre?

    1. Just to be clear, Lana wrote this one, not me. I'm still looking for a way to make it more visible on the blog. I have read Ash myself though, about ten years ago, and I was seriously impressed with it.

      Genre fiction in general has issues with the way it portrays, women. Fantasy tends to keep them stuck in roles that considered traditionally female, despite that not always being historical reality. Or necessary for that matter, since fantasy gives you the option of changing things around. L.E. Modesitt, jr has written a couple of Recluse novels where he tackles this head on, Fall of Angels and... I can't remember the name of the sequel to that one right now. I also like the way Erikson portrays his soldiers in the Malazan army. Gender does not seem to be an issue at all there. For the most part, you do come across the stereotype you describe a lot though. It's one of the reasons that I've drifted a bit from epic fantasy in recent years. I don't read nearly as much of it as I used to.

  2. You know, I haven't given this much thought at all, so I guess I consider it part of the genre, as you said. One of my first meetings with epic fantasy was reading Lord of the Rings at age 13; a story that is very much dominated by male characters. So when I moved on to other books in the same genre, I was pretty much just happy if there WAS a female character (especially the strong fighter type) regardless of how she was written.

    That having been said, I have a feeling that this question was directed at Val, not me. I'm sure he can give a more insightful reply than I did, -he does tend to have more opinions on these types of things than I do.

    1. My apologies, Lana! I didn't see your name at the bottom! Also, the opinions in the review weren't so radically different from what I might see from Val that I just assumed it was Val....

      So, are there books the two if you disagree on? (Ha! You don't have to answer that question if you don't want. :)

    2. Oh, no worries, I don't mind at all. :)

      And yeah, there are many books we don't agree on! Even when we agree that a book is good, we'll have different reasons for thinking so. Like this one, for example. As I said in the review, my history knowledge is incredibly poor, but Val's isn't so he'll be one of those people who are able to enjoy Ash: A Secret History on levels I can't, and I'm pretty sure that that would be reflected in any review he'd do on it too.

      As for books we disagree on... I generally enjoy the fantasy genre, but I never cared much for A Song of Ice and Fire, which Val seems to enjoy quite much. And I really liked the Deed of Paksenarrion (a trilogy about a warrior woman set in a Tolkien-inspired world) which he didn't like much at all. Then you have the Twits by Roald Dahl which I think is horrid and he thinks is hilarious, and the Sword of Truth series which he hates, and I, in spite of everything that is wrong with it, still am very fond of.

      Beyond that, I feel that he generally tends to be more critical than I am... probably because he has read so many more books than me and is better at recognizing quality. :p

    3. I would definitely have gone on at some length about how Gentle starts the novel with almost exactly history as we know it and then lets the differences creep in. Historically it is very well researched as far as I can tell. I guess it also helps that the Burgundian dukes were important in unifying the low countries under one ruler, which ultimately lead to the formation of the Dutch republic. We get taught a little bit about them in school over here.

      Lana is selling herself short here, I've read a bit more SF but she is much better read in the classics of English and American literature than I am.

      And yea, Goodkind is dreadful. It's the chicken-that-is-not-a-chicken that doomed him as a writer in my opinion :P

    4. I'm sure the conversations floating around your kitchen are awesome. ;)

      By the way, I just noticed that 'secret' is misspelled in the title. I know you don't care, and to be honest it doesn't bother me either, but in the title might prevent you from getting a couple extra readers looking for a review of Gentle's novel...