A Novel Ian Likes: Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Ash is an orphan girl who has become the leader of a respected mercenary company in late 15th Century Europe. Her company enjoys its success because of the “voices” in her head. These voices advise her on battle tactics and strategy. While other women might be taken as being insane, Ash is seen as touched by God, who lets her hear the words of his saints. Ash is not, however, prepared for the truth when she discovers it…

Mary Gentle is a ridiculously talented author who has not enjoyed the immense success that the range of her novels suggests she should. Her books encompass all of history and much of the universe. She writes science fiction that embraces the latest theories of how the universe works, and fantasy that takes serious ideas and stretches them as far as her made-up worlds will allow them. Prior to Ash: A Secret History (1999), her most famous novel was probably Grunts (1992), a satire set in an incredibly violent parody of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth featuring Orcs as the protagonists. 

But let’s talk about Ash (1999). Gentle famously got an MA in War Studies to prepare for the writing of this book. It shows, not only through the brutal realism of her world but in the way the characters behave and act. For someone like me who had read a fair bit of historical fiction as well as fantasy, it was a relief to come across historical figures who behaved roughly like they should have been doing. The bulk of the novel is set in Europe during the 1470s. Ash’s company travel across that landscape, interacting with other mercenary captains and with people from all walks of life, but mostly with the nobility. Her status as a female mercenary captain sets her apart from a lot of people so we often see things from her viewpoint as an outsider, which is pretty much the default position for a lot of fiction because it gives the author a chance to weave some exposition into the story without too much effort. 

However, Ash enthusiastically wants in. She knows that she’s competent and intimidating and she frequently uses those aspects of her personality with extreme prejudice to get what she wants. But it often backfires on her. For example, early in the novel (thus avoiding any major spoilers), Ash excitedly announces to her company that she has secured some land for them. As most companies rely on money from fighting, the prospect of receiving a steady income outside of military engagements adds an element of security to their lifestyle. The way she’s done it, though, is a major mistake: she’s arranged to get married to a nobleman. To Ash, it means financial safety for her men; to the lord she’s marrying, it means he’s gained a large military force for himself. Ash is a competent general but she has spent so long leading men that she’s forgotten what life is like for women outside of her company. So she becomes – briefly – a chattel to a man who comes to hate her because of her lack of “feminine” graces.

This really startled me the first time I read it because until the wedding, Ash had been given respect for what she had accomplished as a general, but the reality of her situation – she is a nineteen-year-old who has become a leader of men – has led to her being treated like some kind of freak rather than a human being (that Joan of Arc is still a figure in living memory no doubt helps with her acceptance). Slowly, though, she realises that she must relearn the rules of society to understand where she fits in.

There is no chance for this to happen, though, because Europe has had war declared on it by the Empire of Carthage. And their first act of hostility is to put the sun out…

But this is where things start to get complicated for Ash. Or, more accurately, for her readers. Because interspersed throughout the book is an email correspondence between a late-twentieth-century academic, Pierce Ratcliff, and various book editors and historians and, later in the book, scientists, about the state of play with the Ash translation that he is working on. The novel we are reading is presented as an ongoing project by Pierce to present a complete translation in English of the adventures of Ash, as there has never been one. His challenge is to find and order the original manuscripts in a way that can be presented almost as a biography of this amazing woman. His translation will be the first that shows Ash’s life with all the previously expurgated bits put back in. And he’s presenting it as a modern, colloquial English translation which means, as he coyly puts it in one email:

‘I’m afraid she does say “Fuck” rather a lot.’

It’s also littered with explanatory footnotes. This combination of footnotes and “colloquial” translation makes the story flow a lot more easily for the reader. Which is great because the story goes a little bonkers after this.

Pierce has mentioned in some of his emails that there are many anachronistic references in the original manuscripts. These are mostly obscure religious phrases and some slightly-off historical events. Part of it he puts down to linguistic drift or creativity on the part of the writers, but he keeps coming up against references to Carthage and its empire. Pierce knows that there hasn’t been a Carthage since Ancient Rome, so he assumes that it’s just the original authors hiding their lack of knowledge of contemporary geography by referring to some other North African nation by an ancient name. But then there’s the reference to the golems. And the Eternal Twilight that the Carthaginians live under. Pierce feels that he can only put some of it down to creative interpretation of historical events. But when Ash witnesses the Sun going out in Cologne…

                ‘In the arch of the sky above her was nothing, nothing at all, except darkness.

                ‘Ash whispered, “He put the sun out.”’

… and when Pierce can find no contemporary record of an eclipse or an invasion anywhere that corroborates this version of history, he knows that he is up against something really weird.

Which is roughly when an archaeological dig in Tunisia discovers the ruins of a medieval city about where the Ash manuscript says Carthage is. Except during a survey done several decades before, nothing resembling it had been recorded…

Like I said, it goes a bit bonkers. History and fiction intermingle, and the more that Pierce translates his manuscripts, the more he realises that something has happened to the world…

This is just a brilliant book. It mixes so many genres that it’s hard to pigeonhole it to just one. Which is fine by me. It’s a fat, sprawling, deliberately anachronistic, joyous, and violent novel about quantum physics and artificial intelligence which also features one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction. It’s vivid and awe-inspiring as well: Gentle uses language and words in ways that chill and inspire. Her descriptions of Ash and her company traversing across a Europe that has succumbed to what Pierce can only compare to nuclear winter after the sun has been “put out” are simply haunting.

I first read this book in 2001 after it had swarmed a few awards the previous year. It had been causing a bit of a storm on a lot of websites and blogs that I frequented in those days because of its subject matter: it is a violent novel and a lot of the violence is sexual in nature or intent. This has turned a lot of people off it and I’ve read of several people who can’t get past the first few pages, containing as they do mention of Ash’s early years growing up in a mercenary camp and the violence that was committed against her in that time. In their defence, they do shape a lot of Ash’s personality in the years after that, so much so that her company is sought out because of the protection from violence that it offers to women working within it. As a parent of young children, there are some scenes that do give me cause for concern but I also know that Gentle is coming from a position of accuracy when she writes these scenes and they represent things that did happen to women and children in the past – and, in fact, still do under conditions of conflict all over the world. Really, for all that it is an incredibly violent novel, it isn’t cartoonish or played for laughs: you feel the pain the characters go through and you become so attached to them that it does hurt when some of them don’t make it to the last page. Although, when I say attached, I don’t think I’d be meeting many of them for a beer as they are more the “shoot first, don’t worry about questions at all” types, but they are memorable, nonetheless.

I was also intrigued at its framing device. The “literary agent hypothesis” is most-famously known in the Sherlock Holmes stories (ie, that the author is an intermediary for the narrator who is really telling the story) but the idea that we were reading this novel almost as fast as Pierce was able to translate it was a conceit that I was totally on board for. Even the knowledge that he has found another couple of chapters when there are still – obviously – several hundred pages to go is sold convincingly. The footnotes, too, add a level of verisimilitude that is rare in historical fantasy. There are moments when Pierce questions the veracity of what he is reading – like when Ash meets up with another famous female mercenary leader despite it being impossible for them to have done so – but he puts it down to the author not wanting to miss an opportunity for such an event to appear in their manuscript, rather than admit to the possibility of there being an alternate history unfolding in the past. And the moments when Pierce’s world shifts beneath his feet despite being seemingly minor things are just as affecting as the violent revelations and incidents that pepper Ash’s own life.

It’s a novel that opens your eyes to the fact that the violence we read about in books or see in movies can affect a person’s outlook. By the virtue of her “voices” Ash has managed to improve her lot in life and gain some perspective about how she lives and what she can do, but it also makes her keenly aware of the knife-edge she lives on when dealing with other people. And when Ash willingly cuts herself off from that information, lest she give it clues about her location while she is on the run from it, you totally get her frustration at having to muddle through life like the rest of us, severed from what made her unique.

That’s what I think of most frequently when I recall what this novel means to me: Ash giving up access to a life made easier and simpler, just because she realised what the cost of it was. For all that she is little more than a kid forced to grow up way too fast in a life of violence, her strength of will is what has really made her successful, rather than her “voices” or looks or anything else. And that when it comes to the crunch, that is all that any of us have to rely on.

You can find out more about Mary Gentle (and maybe buy some of her books) at: https://www.sfgateway.com/tag/mary-gentle/

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