Ash - A Secret History seems to have ended up with a fantasy label, but I don't think that's where it belongs. There are fantasy themes in it, but overall it's rather difficult to categorise. I would say that it starts out as historical fiction, but gradually turns into a pure Science Fiction novel. That probably sounds like an unusual combination, and this is indeed a very original book. Some would most likely even say weird.
I was confused right away. Having passed the title and publication info pages I found myself reading an introduction by a historian named Dr Pierce Ratcliff about how he was proud to present a new translation of the famous "Ash material", with references to obscure medieval documents, previously unpublished material, 19th century translations, yadda yadda... "What in the name of the Light is this?", I thought.
Luckily the confusion wore off after a while. It is Mary Gentle who wrote everything in this book, but she presents it as if it is an authentic medieval document that has been translated by Dr. Ratcliff. Not only that, every chapter is followed by printouts of the e-mail correspondence between Ratcliff and his editor, turning this into a story with a past and a present plot line. At first this seems odd and rather boring, but when you get into the book it actually makes sense.
However, the main part of the book is set in late 15th century Europe and is an autobiography of a female mercenary captain named Ash. A woman leading mercenaries during that era is something of an anomaly, but that is only the beginning. The reason she became the leader of the band is that she never loses, and the reason she never loses is that she has a voice in her head that gives her tactical advice during battles. Suspended disbelief yet? If not, I have more for you. At first the story seems to follow the acknowledged history of that time, but one after another oddities start cropping . And I don't mean minor things like dates not matching the history books or battles not known to us. There is a whole new version of history coming your way! I'm not going to reveal more since it would spoil part of the fun. Ratcliff finds it increasingly difficult to explain the divergence from established history to his editor, and I was no less sceptical. But in the end Gentle does reward us with an interesting explanation for the anomalies.
Except for the intentionally strange stuff, there was one thing that bothered me throughout the book, and that is the atmosphere. Gentle has obviously researched the time period extensively, but even so it has the angle of a book written by a 20th century person, not a document that is over 500 years old. By "angle" I mean the personal issues Gentle focuses on, and the moral values of her main character. Otherwise this is a very well-written and impressive story, though a bit too long-winded. It took me a couple of days to digest before I could decide what I thought about it, since it was so strange. I do like strange stories though, so I'll give Ash - A Secret History 4 stars. It's not a masterpiece like Golden Witchbreed, but well worth reading if you have the time to spare.