Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

imageNo-one bothered to give her a name until she was two years old. Up until then, as she toddled between the mercenaries’ campfires scrounging food, suckling bitch-hounds’ teats, and sitting in the dirt, she had been called Mucky-pup, Grubby-face, and Ashy-arse. When her hair fined up from a nondescript light brown to a white blonde it was ‘Ashy’ that stuck. As soon as she could talk, she called herself Ash.

I’m starting my season of alternate history books with a heavyweight of the genre, and I mean that both figuratively and literally, since this book is 1100 pages long! Nonetheless, Ash isn’t just a fun adventure story in an alternate history setting (although it is one of those!), it’s also about how history is written, recorded and passed down, and the incredible luck that means certain events are somehow known to us, instead of being lost in the intervening centuries.

The majority of the book is Ash’s story, and it is long. Ash is a female mercenary captain in Burgundy in 1476, but in an alternate history where a tribe of Visigoths have colonised North Africa and called their city ‘Carthage’. Since Ash has grown up in a military camp, war is all she knows, but she also hears a mysterious voice (that she believes to be a saint) who helps her in battles. During a straightforward job escorting a foreign diplomat to Italy, she discovers an enormous invasion of Visigothic forces, who are invading Western Europe, putting out the sun in every country they conquer. Even more mysterious, the Visigothic commander appears to be Ash’s twin, and she also hears a mysterious voice who helps with battle tactics. So one of the main plot threads involves Ash discovering why this is, where she came from, and how and why the invasion is happening.

There’s also a framing device — an Academic in the modern day is translating various texts that tell Ash’s story, but as he uncovers new truths about her life, it seems that reality is altering to provide evidence to back them up… Eventually, both strands of plot coalesce into a sort of Lovecraftian sci-if story! It might sound very odd, and it is, but if you can hang on for the ride it’s so worthwhile — I really appreciated the way the story turned into something different when I wasn’t expecting it.

There’s so much in this book to talk about (did I mention that it’s 1100 pages long?) but I particularly liked the way that war was depicted. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction but I’ve never read battle scenes that get across the dirt, blood, grime, pain, chaos and utter waste of life in the same way that these scenes do, and the overall effect is staggering. Also interesting is the way that Ash herself is depicted — she may be a woman doing a man’s job, and yes, she has to fight against that constantly, but she’s also a product of an environment of constant combat, which means that other female characters struggle to relate to her. And sometimes we see her manage to use her gender to get what she wants, which presents a really interesting contrast. Overall, it is Ash’s character that manages to sustain such a long story, she’s so compelling, clever and funny that you want to follow her anywhere, just as her troops do.

If if the length doesn’t put you off, I’d recommend Ash to any speculative fiction lover — it’s a great example of how genres can blend into one another, as well as being a really fun adventure.

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