Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Lana Reviews: Ash: A Secret History - Mary Gentle
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!
Title: Ash: A Secret History
Author: Mary Gentle
First published: 2000