Top critical review
Readable but not brilliant
on 18 May 2008
"Ash - a secret history" has clearly been an ambitious project. The research - historical and otherwise - has obviously been time-consuming, and it shows. The book is good reading: the details are believable, the characters stand on their own, and the story is interesting enough, just like the fantastical elements. Despite all this, there are a couple of things that sadly devalue this otherwise great book.
I don't know if the author has let 20th century idiom slip into the text to irritate the literary types, or if they are just slips. Whichever the case, they weaken the credibility significantly. I could live with "Yo, boss!" since I really cannot think of a better way to say it in any medieval language. Such a case is clearly just a shortcut. However, when I ran into "...when the brown and sticky hits the fan..." I almost threw the book into the trash can. As Mary Gentle has seen so much trouble cooking up the story, the characters, and the backdrop, why has she spoiled the mood with something like that? The next really irritating bit comes up when Ash and her husband start arguing about war, killing, chivalry and so forth. This is clearly just stuffing in an adventure novel. If I want to read deep psychological text, I'll pick up Dostoyevsky. He does it far better, even if he's no less boring.
Some people like long and rambling books. I read them only when I really don't have anything else to do. I bought "Ash" to kill time, so I cannot complain if there's a bit of rambling. I would like to, though. When the heroine tells the latest news to all of her sidekicks one at a time, I have to jump chapters. This is a problem with too many fantasy books today: every single character has to play some part in everything that happens. Authors have clearly forgotten where the force of the text lies. They shouldn't be paid by the number of words but by the quality of the text.