Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Ash: A Secret History

Mary Gentle

Victor Gollancz / Orion

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-575-06900-7

1,113 Pages; £20.00

Date Reviewed: 05-02-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Fantasy, Science Fiction, Non-fiction, General Fiction

05-02-02, 06-28-02, 12-13-02, 03-26-03

Fantasy is supposed to be a pretty cut-and-dried genre. Take one from J. R. R. Tolkien, take one from Robert E. Howard, start 'em out fighting and finish 'em up triumphant, holding the golden goblet in hand and toasting to long, happy lives. But it is OK for fantasy to be forebodingly long, which is probably why 'Ash: A Secret History' is pigeonholed with fantasy. In reality this book offers little of interest to the average fantasy reader other than a few spectacularly rendered battle scenes. The readers who really want this book are those who like historical mysteries, alternate histories, complex fabrics and well-woven tapestries with enough meta-fiction thrown in to really frustrate the readers who simply want a straight-ahead giddyup-and-go experience. If you love to wander in a library, then here is an entire world for you to wander about in.

'Ash: A Secret History' starts with the discovery of a previously unknown manuscript by a historian, one that purports to tell the story of a woman who fought in and eventually led battles in Europe from 1465 through 1476. That discovery aspect is important --the man who finds most of what you are about to read plays a major (though small in terms of text) part of the story. Gentle's framing device is wonderfully rendered and printed here, and I think it would be totally lost and defeated in the separated-into-four-volumes US edition. This is a huge book brick that the reader needs to swallow as a single piece.

What follows as Ash's story unfolds, is without doubt one of the best re-creations of medieval Europe ever put to paper. You will smell, you will feel, and yes, for long stretches you may sit in a filthy, flea-ridden, snowbound camp and freeze your ass off doing just about nothing other than trying to stay with the narrative. Do so. It's not only utterly realistic, it's utterly unreal, and the unreality is slowly evolved in a complex bit of amazing research. The rate of changes is almost imperceptible. That's pretty easy to do when you're writing a 1,113 page novel.

Gentle creates a wide swath of characters, and the reader will surprisingly have little trouble keeping track of who is who and why they are that way, in both the framing story and the main narrative. Given the huge canvas that she's elected to work on, that's quite an accomplishment. And if Gentle had only elected to re-create the reality of medieval Europe in a density I've never before encountered, I probably would have been satisfied. But she does much more and does it so well that I couldn't possibly turn the pages fast enough. Now, unless you want to spend a couple of months reading a book, you'll need to turn the pages pretty fast, and Gentle does help that happen. It's possible that there could have been some "judicious trimming", but frankly, I've always preferred the long version of anything, from 'We Won't Get Fooled Again' to 'The Storm Riders'. In case you're wondering, this novel is 1,113 pages long. To my mind, it's worth reading each and every single page.