Ash: A Secret History

~by Mary Gentle
2001 Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee
2001 British Science Fiction Association Award Winner
2001 James Tiptree, Jr. Award Nominee
2001 John W. Campbell Award Nominee
2001 Locus Award Nominee
2001 Sidewise Award Winner

First things first, Ash is long: 1113 pages with small print and hardly any margin space. According to the publisher's website it is, "the largest single fantasy work ever--longer even than The Lord of the Rings." In fact, in the United States it was published as four separate volumes: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. While these are perhaps a little easier to handle, Ash really works best as single volume, which means a significant amount of time will need to be set aside to read it; this is not light reading!

Pierce Ratcliff is a medieval historian who is working on a new translation of the documents that recount the life of Ash, a nineteen year old mercenary captain. Outside of these documents, little is known about her. But, he has recently discovered a new text, perhaps written or dictated by Ash herself, that fills some gaps in her history. Ash consists of his translation of the texts (in which he chose to use modern colloquialisms, so "she does say 'Fuck' rather a lot."), and the correspondence between him and his publishing editor. Both story-lines are quite interesting. Not only are there mysteries surrounding Ash's life, there are mysteries surrounding the publication of Pierce's book as well.

As part of her research for the novel, Mary Gentle studied at Kings College and received a masters degree in War Studies. So, the detail and historical accuracy is incredible despite it being a fantasy or alternate history of sorts; her understanding of the time-period is apparent. This is not a sanitized fantasy world, this is brutally realistic dirty, gruesome day-to-day living of a mercenary company in the 1470s.

Ash is quite an achievement; there is a ton of quality to go along with the quantity of writing. The story and characters are complex; I did find it somewhat confusing at times, and I'm still not sure I understood the ending completely, but I really enjoyed the book regardless. The total immersion into such a realistically written world and cast of characters was fantastic making this novel one that I'll keep thinking about for awhile.