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on 20 January 2013
These were my thoughts at around the half-way mark:
It's interesting with abrupt shifts and a fluent style and so despite length it reads well and is not difficult to swim in, mentally. I think the style of writing is good. The characterisation especially of Ash is believable. I read in reviews that it shifts towards a more sci-fi feel but will reserve judgement on that aspect if its a problem. There's stuff about genetics and breeding of Ash as a kind of conduit for a battle computer based on a Golem (stone creature).
It's worth a visit.
I moved onto finish it a few months down the line - what I would further say is that I found it had moments of great tension; the character Ash and others were well drawn. I felt that more could have been done with the author's skills in set piece situations - battle or for instance erotic even. The novel is a bit drawn out and one gets a bit like one is champing at the bit around the middle when Ash is imprisoned in Carthage. But, its well written and shows at times real panache. I did find the stuff about justifying the counter-factual premise by virtue of a link to quantum physics - well, I guess it linked into the stuff about wild machines and that was an interesting connection but it got a bit laboured in that quantum physics is a bit odd in the context of time slip novels (though I can see the ideas relevance). All said, I felt that somehow it was as others have said a work of flawed genius. But I think I will up it to 5 stars despite its weaknesses. The quality of writing at times is very high and the insight into emotions is sharp as well.
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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.
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In the year 2000, an academic named Pierce Ratcliff is putting together a fresh history of Ash, a 15th Century female mercenary captain whom mainstream history has largely ignored, but whose exploits have been of interest to a small number of historians. In preparing this new history, Radcliffe undertakes a fresh translation of the original historical texts. As he translates each chapter and sends it to his editor, they discuss the intriguing historical oddities within each chapter: references to the 'Green Christ', the 'Visigoth Empire' and 'Carthage', which of course had been destroyed many centuries before that time. But as the translations continue, very strange things start happening in the real world as well...

In 1476 the Lion Azure are one of the most famed and sought-after mercenary companies in Europe. Led by the female warrior Ash, they have become an elite force famed for getting out of tight spots and pulling off improbable victories. Contracted by the Holy Roman Empire to fight a war against Burgundy, Ash's leadership is threatened by a political attempt to marry her off to a high-ranking German nobleman, but this is put aside when a great threat arises: the armies of Carthage have swept into southern Europe in an invasion twenty years in the planning, crushing everything in their path.

Ash: A Secret History is an enormous book, both literally in its shelf-destroying size and in terms of its scope, which takes in two separate narratives unfolding in completely different styles and formats in two different time-periods. Ratcliff's story unfolds purely in reproduced emails between him, his editor and a couple of other correspondents, whilst Ash's story (allegedly the manuscript Ratcliff is translating) is in a more traditional prose style. As Ash's story unfolds, it starts off as an apparently purely historical account and then diverges from history as we know it. However, it cannot be dismissed merely as an alternate history, as Ratcliff and his editor share the reader's befuddlement as the differences between real history and the one described in the text become apparent, accompanied by some unusual archaeological discoveries in the present. This storytelling device is well-used throughout the book, and helps break up its gigantic length into much more manageable chunks.

Ash's story is very well-told. Rather than adopt an authentic-sounding 15th Century voice, Gentle instead tells the story if it had been translated into a modern style, complete with vast reams of modern swearing and the usage of modern military terminology. This seems to upset some readers, who find it jarring, but I found it enjoyable and it certainly adds to the readability of a complex and at times heavy-going novel. Whilst Gentle skimps on the language, the attitudes and mores of 15th Century Europe appear to be more authentic, with Ash having to prove her worthiness to every king, duke or general she meets. Gentle definitely doesn't hold back on the violence, though. Injuries are painfully described and Ash's childhood filled with abuse and pain is related matter-of-factly. Characterisation is strong throughout the novel, with Ash and her band of soldiers (Erikson could learn a bit from these books about how to distinguish soldiers from one another) and the various secondary characters very well-realised.

Mary Gentle handles all of these factors well, and manages to get across her story in convincing detail. This isn't strictly a historical novel, or an alternate history, or a fantasy, but it combines elements of all of these with hard science fiction to create something quite unusual. In fact, it's borderline genius, genre-bending and mixing elements in a manner that hasn't been pulled off so successfully before (John Grant tried to do something similar with his early 1990s duology of Albion and The World, but that was small-fry compared to Gentle's ambition here).

There are some issues which prevent me from giving this 'classic' status. It is too long. There are way too many staffing/strategy meetings with the characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than moving things on and this becomes especially notable in the last third of the novel. The first two sections moved quickly and with a good sense of pace, taking in dozens of different locations and characters. The latter third is mostly set in a single city under siege and the story becomes interminably dull at times, so much so that when the climax comes it's something of a surprise. I suspect some readers may feel sold a little short on the end of the 15th Century storyline, which is a bit perfunctory and obvious-in-hindsight. However, the 20th Century story, told in much less detail and with the reader only getting to know the characters through their emails and correspondence, is more interestingly done and its conclusion is very effective, a good example of how less can sometimes be more.

Ash: A Secret History ( ****-and-a-half ) is an immense, epic story of science, history, love, war and family spanning centuries and realities, but without losing its essentially human heart in the well-drawn characters. A superior work of speculative fiction, I'm surprised it's not mentioned more often in modern discussions of the genre. The book is available from Gollancz in the UK in its one-volume format, but in the USA is published in four volumes: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines and Lost Burgundy. Gentle's later Ilario duology (The Lion's Eye and The Stone Golem) is set in the same universe.
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VINE VOICEon 20 September 2008
My first suggestion for anyone considering purchasing Ash ( A Secret History) -especially the hardback edition - is give the arm you use to hold a book while reading a good solid workout to increase it's stamina and grip strength for this is one serious doorstop of a book. Reading in bed at night ( often in the wee small hours during bouts of insomnia) as i am wont to do ( as indeed I'm sure are many others) my reading arm began to cramp up through the physical stress of holding the book up. Reading it on the bus i was in constant danger of toppling off my seat when the bus took a right hand corner( or vice versa if I was sat on the right). It's a minor point i know but i thought someone should mention it.
As for the book as a traditional reading experience well it's different but is it any good? Ash is a 15th century leader of a band of mercenaries operating throughout Europe for who ever the highest bidder is. ( Like a premiership footballer but with more commitment to the cause ) What is most remarkable about this medieval maestro is she is a woman. Ash is great fighter and a superb leader who hears a voice in her head that gives her battle field instructions which seem to ensure she always prevails.
The most notable thing about this book though is how Mary Gentle has re-interpreted history for the narrative and most notably how she goes about it. Though the book entire is a work of fiction there are throughout the book exchanges between modern academics postulating and debating on finds at archaeological digs and poring over ancient texts . These can be a bit dry and sometimes get in the way of the story but some of the debates-the existence of a Medieval Carthage and the use of stone Golems especially - are fascinating .
Mostly though Ash is a rollicking adventure story with many impressive set pieces, intriguing sub-plots and liberal doses of violence and copious amounts of extremely gratuitous profanity.It,s very well written , almost in the Robin Hobb class and encompasses elements of historical fiction ( obviously) fantasy myth and even an element of sci-fi creeping in .You've got to admit that's a most intriguing combination and it all makes sense ( sort of ) by the conclusion .
I am in awe of Mary Gentle for the amount of work she must have put in to bring this book to fruition. Not just the writing but the research required to bring this 15th century medieval world to vivid life. Those moaning about the length probably have a point -though I didn't find it a massive problem -or rather I did but that was purely a case of physics rather than problems with the story- and for those complaining about how complex the novel . Well I'd say it's a fair guess that any book over 1000 pages long would be fairly complex ..what did you expect- 500 go mad in Burgundy ?
As it is this is a thoroughly engrossing novel , vibrating with imagination and flamboyant characterisation I repeat though you need an arm strong enough to wield a battle field sword to plough through it. Well worth the effort though.
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on 6 March 2004
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.
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on 4 July 2000
Ash is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. There may, it is true, be some argument about its status as fantasy, rather than alternate history or SF - but, whatever its genre, it is one of the greatest novels of that genre.
Ash, the heroine, is a late 15th century mercenary captain, and the novel takes place in the final months of the Duchy of Burgundy. At first, with a couple of very minor details (not unparalleled in actual chronicles of the era), the novel seems to be purely historical - but then, gradually, things change.
The novel keeps moving through over 1100 pages without faltering: there is scarcely a line, let alone a page, that does not advance the story - in ways that always arise from the story but can still often surprise the reader. The characterisation is superb, with a realistic account of the difficulties that a mercenary captain of the time (especially a young female one) would have had. Historical facts, when not intentionally (and clearly) changed, seem to be uniformly accurate: Mary Gentle's research has obviously been thorough.
The one partial exception to the above, in my view, lies in the fact that the novel is presented as a near-future edition of a series of accounts of Ash's life, with both editorial footnotes and a series of letters and emails relating to the edition's publication appearing between the chapters of the novel. Here, the characterisation is rather weaker, and the reader may be tempted to skip them. However, this would be a mistake: they are essential to the final resolution of the novel.
To conclude: if you buy just one fantasy novel this year, buy this one.
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on 30 June 2000
I haven't read a novel this big -- 1120 pages! -- since Lord of the Rings, but I am really glad I gave it a try. Those already familiar with Mary Gentle's other work will not be disappointed. It has taken the author at least five years to bring this stunning, unpredictable novel into life and the final result is an excellent story, crammed with a cast of believeable characters, a gripping plot that kept me guessing as to the outcome, all told against a well-researched (but not quite the way we remember it) medieval history. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to read a fantasy novel where the female lead is a proven warrior rather than some Californian-based TV producer's wish fulfillment. What are you waiting for?
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on 3 January 2002
This massive tome weighs in at a little over 1100 pages, but don't let that put you off. Ash herself is a brilliantly sculpted character brimming with charm, charisma, intelligence and a fierce violence that is sated by war. The intricate details of the battles and the politics she gets embroiled in are portrayed excellently, and the contrast between the old story and the modern historian's view of it all is carried off successfully when it could have gone so wrong.
Other reviewers complain about the small exchanges between the fictional writer and his publisher, but I found they add a whole third dimension to the story, which by itself could have been quite a flat, boring tale (though in my opinion it isn't!). It transforms an account of a woman's life into a perspective on history, an insight into academia, a treatise that makes us readdress the way we look at the past.
For me, this book was unputdownable. It's kind of frustrating when you're really involved with a book but know there's 800 pages left - on the other hand you can sit back and know that each one of those pages is going to draw you in and captivate you.
The only niggle for me is the technical footnotes. In character with the supposed source of the book but too many!
Ash is beautiful, both in person and in character, and perhaps a female reader like me empathises more with her than men? Who knows. It certainly makes a change from the stodgy dry prose of other works, and the vitality of the characters is what makes this book better than even Dune (where I find the characters flat - *especially* the women!) but the politics intriguing).
Worth every penny!
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on 7 May 2001
This was my first encounter with Mary Gentle. What an gifted writer she is! The book is one of the best adventure novels I ever read. Filled with great passages that make you want to cheer. Ash is a fascinating, unforgettable character.
However, there are some flaws. I didn't mind the obscenities, gory details and not even the spectacular anachronisms. But in the second half Gentle seems to be stalling for time and space. I don't know whether she _had_ to deliver enough pages for the US-4-book-edition. Anyway, there is too much repetitive dialogue at the end. Another flaw would be that Gentle is not able or willing to flesh out the supporting characters within 1100 pages. Florian, the Faris, the Earl - I would have liked to know more about them. That said, I still recommend this book very strongly.
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on 27 February 2001
This book charts the life story of a mediaeval mercenary captain with a difference - she's female!
Gelling together one believable alternative history is difficult enough but to do so whilst also charting the uphevals of writing and publishing the history is a feat that deserves the 5 stars I give this book.
It's a struggle to say which has gripped me the most - the story of Ash, our mercenary captain, and her company of misfits, or the story of Pierre Radcliffe, the historian who is trying to bring Ash's story to the modern world.
Prepare to be amazed and challenged by a demanding, interesting and above all thoroughly well written book.
I love it and so will you!
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