Read Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle Online


For the beautiful young woman Ash, life has always been arquebuses and artillery, swords and armour and the true horrors of hand-to-hand combat. War is her job. She has fought her way to the command of a mercenary company, and on her unlikely shoulders lies the destiny of a Europe threatened by the depredations of an Infidel army more terrible than any nightmare....

Title : Ash: A Secret History
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9781857987447
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 1113 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

Ash: A Secret History Reviews

  • Nancy
    2019-05-21 00:35

    Mary Gentle created a wide variety of interesting and complex characters. The military details were fascinating and very convincing and I've no doubt Gentle knows her stuff. This long and sprawling historical fantasy sprinkled with speculative fiction was a very pleasant surprise, considering I was never interested in a warrior's panoply or in military fantasy. The human aspect of war was covered very well. Highly recommended!

  • Rod
    2019-05-07 00:36

    I skimmed a few pages of an online preview of this before I bought it, and every readerly fiber of my being hissed at me like Gollum, "Gentleses is a stinksy writer, Precious, we will hates iiiiit!" However, I was intrigued by the subject matter, and the reviews were good, so I bought it anyway. I should have listened to my readerly instincts. The problems are apparent right from page one. Bask in the wretched awkwardness:    It was her scars that made her beautiful. [Hrm. I'll take your word for it.]    No 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. [Nice dirty-dirty medieval atmosphere there, not bad, but that's about as good as it gets.]    When Ash was eight years old, two of the mercenaries raped her.     She was not a virgin. All the stray children played snuggling games under the smelly sheepskin sleeping rugs, and she had her particular friends. These two mercenaries were not other eight-year-olds, they were grown men. [Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Otherwise I would assumed they were eight-year-old mercenaries.] One of them had the grace to be drunk. [How nice of him.]    Because she cried afterwards, the one who was not drunk heated his dagger in the campfire and drew the knife-tip from below her eye, up her cheekbone in a slant, up to her ear almost.     Because she still cried, he made another petulant slash that opened her cheek parallel under the first cut.     Squalling, she pulled free. Blood ran down the side of her face in sheets. [Wouldn't the dagger being heated up in the fire cause the wounds to be cauterized, and thus not bleed? I assume it was red-hot, because otherwise what's the point of heating up the dagger in the first place? The child-raping mercenary didn't want her wounds to get infected? God, this book is stupid.] She was not physically big enough to use a sword or an axe [In what way can one be big enough to wield a sword or an axe other than physically? "She was not big enough" would have sufficed.], although she had already begun training. She was big enough to pick up his cocked crossbow (carelessly left ready on the wagon for perimeter defence) and shoot a bolt through the first man at close quarters.    The third scar neatly opened her other cheekbone, but it came honestly, no sadism involved.[Sadism? Two full centuries before the Marquis de Sade? An anachronism, but it's supposed to be a modern translation of a medieval manuscript, so okay, whatever. But how the fuck does a scar open a cheekbone?!] The second man's dagger was genuinely trying to kill her. [Uh, daggers don't have murderous intent. People do.]    She could not cock the crossbow again on her own. She would not run. She groped among the burst ruins of the first mercenary's body and buried his eating-knife in the upper thigh of the second man, piercing his femoral artery. He bled to death in minutes. Remember that she had already begun to train as a fighter. [Yes, I remember; you just told me two scant paragraphs ago.]There's no way I'm wading through 1100 pages of this turgid crap. I got to page 25 and said "No más." Besides the casual sexual brutality, which is repellent enough, I kept feeling compelled to mentally rewrite sentences as I was reading them in order to make them more aesthetically pleasing—or just make sense. When that happens it's time to pack it in and read something else. Gentleses we hates it foreverrrr!

  • Scurra
    2019-04-24 23:24

    (edit: this review relates to the single volume edition of a book which was published in the US as a four-volume series, even though it's a single novel.)This is one of those books where what is going on in the footnotes is as important as the main text - the conceit here is that a historian is supposedly annotating a recently discovered medieval manuscript that recounts the history of Burgundy in the 13th century, but there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. And, as the story progresses, it seems that what went on in the past is affecting the future, but why and how? An extraordinary tour-de-force of "alternative history", utterly convincing in the small details and almost too plausible in the large ones. It also deals with a period of history that is infrequently used in fiction - that time between the Crusades and the Renaissance in Europe, when borders were still in flux, and war was the natural state of affairs. It helps that Mary Gentle is a historian of warfare too; the battles have a gritty realism that is often lacking from similar ventures, but she doesn't stint on the human interaction either: there are a couple of sequences that reduced me to tears, so invested was I in the characters' stories.

  • Errant
    2019-04-26 06:32

    This is a hard story. Not in the sense that it is difficult to read, but in the sense that it is often harsh, brutal, even crude.The squalor and brutality of middle ages just spring to life, the characters are all fully realized, nuanced and not even the protagonist is entirely good or entirely evil.There is magic, and although it is a very central point, it is also low-key, poetic and fully integrated with the historical and cultural background. There are some science fiction touches more than a few even, but most of the story is closer to an uchrony with fantastical elements.The storytelling structure allows the author to do away with infodumps elegantly while furtering the plot, it is really amazingly done.I recommend it to anyone who can stomach full-blown grittiness. Mary Gentle is a master and authors like JV Jones or KJ Parker -Tom Holt-(whose stories carry a similar vibe) are mere students: at least for her grittiness is just background, not the point of the story at all.

  • Francis
    2019-05-12 03:21

    Despite its problems, this is one of the best historical fantasies I've read.The text is very closely grounded in historical detail, with every item of armour, every weapon, every breed of dog described and enumerated. The footnotes add in extra historical detail on almost every page.Which is important because at the same time, the book is on a ratchet, with each turn adding another layer of amazing, thrilling WTF.Even to the very last page (1122, closely-printed) there are new twists, new interpretations, new levels of craziness. To keep that ratchet turning through such a long narrative, and to keep it feeling thoroughly historical and realistic as more and more weirdness is thrown in, is seriously impressive. There's no denying that it's over-long and the pacing gets bogged down from time to time, but then you get another twist that makes it worthwhile.I'm mainly sad that it has such a "meh" title and some frankly terrible cover art that makes it look like a bad 80s fantasy doorstop about elves and blue lion for some reason. I almost discarded it on that basis without reading a word. Glad that I didn't judge this book by its cover.

  • Nicki
    2019-04-24 04:14

    Ash is the story of the last year of the life of a female mercenary captain who leads her company into the conflict between France and Burgundy in the mid-15th century, only... this Burgundy is a little bit different than ours. It lies at the heart of an alternate history in which Carthage still stands, the centre of an expansionist Visigothic empire cursed to live under eternal twilight; the Throne of Saint Peter has stood empty for centuries; and the last of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy may be all that stand between a worse fate than merely a Visigothic Europe and the blotting out of the sun.This history is framed by letters between an author translating a new edition of Ash’s story and his prospective publisher, both of whom are initially under the impression that this is a history that corresponds with our own. The letters begin to form a narrative of their own as it becomes apparent that this is a past too fantastical to be ours, and strange things happen in the modern day to the evidence that supports it.Ash herself is like an inverted Joan of Arc figure. After an early life religious experience, she hears a voice inside her head that she believes belongs to a saint, and which guides her in all of her battlefield tactical decisions. She’s also thoroughly earthy, roughened and toughened -- where not broken -- by an orphan upbringing short on love and full of abuse, violence, and loss, even by the standards of the time. She is far from the virginal figure of Joan, an impression cemented by the translator’s decision to use modern language, and a coarse take on it at that, in his version of her story.Though her smart mouth and quick wit are a little too handy to ring true, even taking into account the deliberate modernisation of her speech, Ash is, for the most part, compelling and brimming with life enough to warrant the vast amount of pages we spend in her head. During her lengthy (admittedly sometimes a little too lengthy) solitary escapades the narrative delves deeply into her flaws and insecurities, but the best moments are when she rallies her company around her and slaps on competence and bravado like armour, contrasting her humanity with her legend, and painting a vivid picture of the high personal cost to any woman of the era who achieves the latter. She’s an amalgamation of many of the women who have risen to the apex of history, at the cost of being torn apart by it -- or, as the narrative would suggest, many of them are fragments of her.There is one serious flaw in her characterisation, though, and it’s Fernando del Guiz. Every time he appears on the page, she promptly becomes too stupid to live. While their history explains some of her initial reaction, I would have expected the adult commander of hundreds of men that she is by then to have snapped out of it as soon as it became apparent that she would never have his respect. It’s difficult to believe that someone who turned into a teenage girl blinded by her hormones every time she saw a pretty face would have continued to hold her prestigious and, given her gender and the prejudices of the time, precarious position in charge of so many hardened mercenaries.Despite this very much being Ash’s story, the vast supporting cast features a wealth of vivid personalities. Ash is at her best, both personally and in terms of how well she’s written, when she’s with her company, and they in turn are highlighted as distinct and complex personalities in their varied relationships with her. I felt there was a little touch of similarity to Erikson’s Malazan series here in regards both to the excellent feel both authors have for the morbid and deadpan military humour of soldiers alleviating the tedium of waiting to see if they’re going to die, and to Angelotti’s demented gunners reminding me more than a little of the Bridgeburners’ sappers.By far my favourite secondary character is Florian, the company doctor who illustrates a completely different way from Ash of being a capable woman in a largely forbidden profession in this man’s world. That she is at times maddening and unlikeable didn’t detract from my enjoyment of her; I rather like the fact that she’s allowed to be, and that at the same time she’s so driven to do good, probably more so than Ash who is more inclined to arrive at the greater good by accident on the way to protecting herself and her own.Burgundy itself is something of a character in this novel, and it made me a little sad for this history that never was, to imagine a present in which Dijon is still a centre of European culture… I’ve read a number of alternative histories but struggle to think of any with a setting as creative as Ash. Mary Gentle obviously has an elegant grasp of both the actual history of the region and its personalities, and the nuances of the changes she wrought upon that canvas, and the result is a fantastical Europe that feels far more alive than the flat, underdeveloped what-ifs of most alt history. I spent a while in the first half of the book trying to decide if it felt more like historical fiction with elements of fantasy or fantasy with a veneer of historical fiction, before reaching the point where I was so immersed that I realised it didn’t feel like either -- it simply felt like nothing else out there.There are two areas in which it didn’t quite hold up for me. One is in the framing device, the letters and e-mails between the author Pierce Ratcliff and his editor. I actually loved the idea, it was the execution that didn’t work for me. Pierce comes off shady as hell, and the editor extremely erratic -- weirdly hostile at times when it seemed she should have been more open to communication, and yet very gullible when she frankly should have been filing his letters in the recycling and considering a restraining order. I would have enjoyed the way the secret history unfolded in the modern day (which was such an appealing concept!) a whole lot more if this way of delivering exposition about it hadn’t been so awkward.The other is the ending. This was a book that took its time. Sometimes almost too much so, but never enough to push over into tedium. I probably wouldn’t have complained if the whole book were faster paced; but I also liked the pacing just fine as it was up until the end, so the thing that really bothered me was the lack of consistency when all that gradual buildup leads to a climax that’s over so fast I had whiplash. I can appreciate the need not to make an already immense book even longer, but this was not the area in which to stint on page count. It felt a little unsatisfactory.Still, one could argue it’s fitting in its own way. This is not so much a story as it is a piece of a biography, a slice of a life, and life doesn’t always conclude in a satisfactory or timely manner. The journey is still worth it -- I’m talking about the book now, although that works as a bit of trite philosophy to conclude the analogy as well -- and what a hell of a journey Ash was.Review from

  • Ruth
    2019-04-27 23:15

    Published 1999. 1113 pages in the edition that I read. I finished it so the story must have been engrossing even though it could have been far shorter. Not sure whether I got the grand plan or not. At times, it felt as if I was wading through water. Would not read again though. Quote from a book blogging site "The ground of reality itself shifts under our protagonists' feet, confusing both the reader and the present-in-the-text-via-footnotes-and-excerpts editors, with events building to a satisfying conclusion." The confusion is definitely a description I would agree with!

  • Roger
    2019-04-30 23:26

    Got halfway through this monster before accepting that I just did not care anymore. The historical detail and invention was interesting but just got swamped by the ponderous plot, the annoying incerpts of author's correspondence and the anachronistic style of the "translation". I see now that it was originally four volumes, so I'm happy to count this as two books that I finished, rather than one which I gave up on.

  • Andre
    2019-04-24 23:12

    Staggering detail of plot, depth of character study and all around imagination, all carefully housed in a fragile shell of pseudohistory. Fantasy, SF and military history beautifully fused and wrought.

  • David colledge
    2019-05-18 01:25

    Simply one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read .

  • Michael Eisenberg
    2019-05-04 04:36

    Hi guys...happy new year!!!Ash: A Secret History by Mary GentleI feel I have to recommend this book with table pounding intensity to all of you. It's long, epic fact the American version was spread out over 4 books, I read the British version which was one long, almost 1200 page brick...worth every page!!! (BTW, according to the author, this is the way it's meant to be read, the segregated U.S. version was just a marketing ploy.)This book worked on so many levels that it made my head spin and, quite frankly, I've never read anything like it. With it's combination of Medieval history (takes place in the latter half of the 15th century) portrayed in a stark real tableau real, you might think after reading it (gritty, filthy, dirty, cold, destitute and uncompromisingly violent are all adjectives that are apropos) mixed with...quantum physics!!??!?...this book was completely unique.In a nutshell, a modern day historian finds a manuscript that tells of the last 6 months in the life of a female leader of a mercenary company. As events unfold, and they do so slowly as would happen with a 1200 page book, you begin to realize that the history that is being translated from these manuscripts is slightly askew. Not completely unbelievable at first but...something a little odd. The more you read, the more it becomes clear to you, the reader as well as to the historian that what he has found is a little slice of history that was never written about in any known history book in the last 500 years.Things progress, events become more alien and...what is and was totally amazing to me was...I was buying it! Mary Gentle forced the Kool Aid down my throat and I was totally onboard that I was actually reading real history. The way she wrote it...crystal clear realism (I heard she got a couple degrees from University in Medieval studies, weaponry and warfare) put me there, right in the middle of it. There were a number of characters in this book, all of them fleshed out and developed quite richly.And then there was the quantum physics aspect. I think Gentle successfully justified what was happening in the 15th century with modern day theories of many worlds, string theory, time paradox and who knows what else...certainly not me...but I still bought it. Don't get me wrong, this was not the "meat" of the book, that took place mainly in the city of Dijon and a Carthage. But,it was there and it was the aspect that put me over the top and completely blew my mind. The cosmic implications were staggering and, my head is still hurting from it.This book is not George R. R. Martin, not even remotely close...I wouldn't even call is fantasy. I'm not sure what I would call it other than speculative fiction of the highest order. The best book I've read in the last 2-3 years maybe...HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

  • Dark-Draco
    2019-04-25 00:09

    Wow, what can I say? This is the second time I have read this book and I loved it just as much as the first time. It's a hard story to quantify - it starts off as a history book, a new translation of a medieval diary telling the exploits of Ash, a female mercenary leader who is embroiled in the wars between Burgundy and France. But the war takes a mystical turn as Europe is invaded by Visigoths from Carthage, who bring permanent night time with them. They seem determined to destroy Burgundy, but it is Ash who begins to discover why as her own past is dragged painfully to light.But interspersed with her story are copies of letters and e-mails from the historian doing the translation. At first he doesn't believe the stories, thinking them medieval exaggerations of true events. Yet soon evidence is discovered that there is more than a truth in Ash's tale - ancient evidence that wasn't there before. Slowly the two stories, past and present, interweave as the true fate of medieval Burgundy is revealed.It's just so hard to describe - above is it in a nutshell and yet isn't. It's clever, amazing and the ending will knock you for six - even I had a huge grin of my face the second time around and I knew what was coming! I loved the idea of a 'miracle gene' that could explain Jesus, Mohammed and our other prophets, plus the reason why we don't have any more miracles now. The hints and echoes of our history and that which is 'lost' are beautifully done too.I would recommend this book to anyone with a twist in their brain, who loves being entertained, puzzled and just pure blown away - go out and read it now!

  • Natasha
    2019-05-11 00:20

    ETA: Many, many months later, I'm finished. Less a book, more an endurance test; I never want to hear about another detail of 15th-century armour again.So a few days ago I asked what I should read next, and apparently it turned out to be this. I bounced off this book hard about 6 or 7 years ago (even though I hardly ever leave a novel unfinished, and was even less likely to do so back then), and there it's sat on my bookshelf ever since, taunting me with the bookmark at page 125 of a massive 1113. I really loved the central Cool Idea of it, but the documentary conceit (among other things) stretched my suspension of disbelief to and past its breaking point, and I was far more interested in the frame story with its Cool Idea than in the actual nasty-brutish-and-not-remotely-short historical plot that makes up most of the page count. I think my main problem was that I was expecting it to be sub-Dorothy Dunnett (whose Niccolo series is set in the same place and period), whereas really it's more supra-George R. R. Martin (subgenre: 'knights who say "fuck", at great length'). So with that in mind it's going better this time around - I've even read past page 125, and while I'm still impatient to get back to the frame story, this gives me hope that I might see it through.(I do wish I'd had a Kindle when I first bought it, though. It's so un-portable it might as well *be* a medieval manuscript...)

  • Ian Banks
    2019-04-26 01:12

    A big fat book of 1120 close-printed pages of pure awesome! A perfect blend of historical-fantasy with near-cutting-edge SF and heaps of battles, violence and (because it is a "free translation" of an "historical" body of work) an absolute ton of rude words - I almost made up a "Swearing" shelf just for this book, but settled for the more descriptive "Housebricks."Ash is a mercenary captain who has heard voices for half of her young life. They advise her on tactics leading her to a reputation as one of Europe's best soldiers of fortune. But an invasion of Europe from the empire of Carthage leads her to discover that her powers aren't as miraculous as she might think...... in the present day, Pierce Ratcliff, an academic, is working on what he calls the definitive edition of Ash's life. He discovers that there are some differences between the world Ash lived in and the world he studied the history of for so many years. This leads him to question the nature of history, the universe and everything.I freaking love this book to bits. If you have a spare month and enjoy a book that covers just about every theme and topic known to man and still keeps you rattling through because almost every character, action and word is compelling, you probably will too.

  • Victoria M
    2019-05-14 05:13

    I had not read anything by Mary Gentle before, so when I picked up Ash: A Secret History for my reading challenge, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew that the story I was about to read was set in mediaeval Europe, albeit not quite the historical Europe we know today, and I knew that the main character was a woman mercenary leader named Ash. I could also see that this was a very long story I had taken on and that it would take me some time to get through it. With this starting point, I had some trouble getting through what I think was the first one or two chapters. It was not that it was not well written; I just have a natural inborn aversion for anything having to do with history - I blame my history teacher back in school for this; he made that ghost professor teaching History of Magic in the Harry Potter books seem like the teacher of the century. How can they make something that should be interesting so... exceptionally dull? In spite of this though, I had read historical fantasy before and quite enjoyed it, so once I got to where the more obviously fantastical elements were introduced, I was hooked.For a full review, click this.

  • Jim Smith
    2019-05-13 22:30

    I have a personal interest in the history of late fifteenth century Europe, so it wasn't exactly difficult for me to get into the story. Gentle is meticulous in her historical research, something which is essential for a credible alternate history novel. The book revolves around the discovery of a manuscript purporting to describe the true history of Burgundy - a late fifteenth century European duchy. In reality, Burgundy disappears from European history rather suddenly at the end of the 1470's and the manuscript attempts to explain why. On my first reading of the book I got a little frustrated that Gentle didn't appear to know whether she wanted to write historical fiction, fantasy or science-fiction. A second reading showed me that she has managed to combine all three genres into something really quite special. OK, at over a thousand pages, it's no casual read but it more than repays the effort.Gentle earned herself an MA in War Studies at Kings College London whilst writing the book and it shows. The workings of medieval power politics are brilliantly shown and the battle scenes are vivid and gritty without being too over the top. I'd thoroughly recommend this....

  • Chris
    2019-04-28 05:36

    I would probably like the last decade in fantasy more if it had been influenced by Ash (which I would categorise as science fantasy, leaning slightly towards the fantasy side) rather than Perdido Street Station (which beat Ash out for the Clarke Award). The conceit of an academic presentation of a 'found' text is one of my favourite things, and the way it's handled in this book, through an ongoing email conversation between the author and his publisher, makes me love the modern characters as much as any of the ones we get to know in the main plot. On the other hand, an Ash-influenced fantasy genre might just have produced a bunch of boring Singularities.I also love the classical influences on Gentle's writing - at one point I realised I was reading a worldbuilding infodump done via ecphrasis, and the switching of tenses between simple past and historic present works very well. I also want to associate the repeated descriptions of Ash's physicality with the epithets of Latin epic, though that may be a longer bow to draw.

  • Katherine Roberts
    2019-05-08 23:36

    I read this book a few years ago and remember thinking WOW!!! Part historical fiction, part science fiction, it tells the tale of Ash, an orphaned girl with silver hair who grows up in the army. She eventually becomes a great commander and discovers the strange secret of her bloodline.Mary Gentle pulls no punches in this book. Aged eight, Ash gets raped by drunken soliders (on about page 8, as I remember) and manages to kill one of them. She is punished for this, and from there on her life only gets more brutal. But she is brave and strong and I was cheering her all the way as a Joan of Arc character.In this massive book full of complex ideas for adult readers, the author has created a fully-realised fantasy world that just might have been our own world. Fans of historical fantasy should love it.

  • Lynda Rucker
    2019-04-20 06:14

    Looks like a big fat fantasy novel, but this alternate history is actually terrific science fiction, or, if you prefer, science fantasy. Mary Gentle has an MA in military studies, and this is a well-researched story of late-medieval warfare, modern-day scholarship, and crazy speculative physics. The woman warrior Ash and her compatriots are some of the most compelling characters I've come across in a long time. Also please note: (1)I have no interest in big fat fantasy novels (2)I dislike really long novels in general, and the page count of this book is at least twice the "too-long" threshold for me. And I loved every page of it! I feel a bit lost now that I've finished it--I read it over a period of about a month and a half, drawing it out because I didn't want it to end too quickly.

  • Frankenburger
    2019-05-19 23:12

    This book is just too long for its own good. The writing is good, and for a while the book kept me interested, but eventually I became bogged down by the length and redundancy of it. There are conversations that go on for page after page, when a two-sentence conclusion would do. Ash tends to find herself in the same situations fairly frequently (though her surroundings may be different), and her reaction is always the same. She's kind of a stunted character. And while the whole present-day email correspondence thing is an interesting touch, it too becomes bogged down in its redundancy, ultimately feeling gimmicky and worthless.

  • Jaine Fenn
    2019-05-07 04:35

    I'd forgotten what a fabulous writer Mary Gentle is. This is a tour de force, and gave me the same sense of total and glorious immersion as Neal Stephenson's Anathem did - also, at the risk of a mild spoiler, these two books have more than their considerable great length in common. There are issues (yes, perhaps it is a bit too long, and I'm not entirely convinced by the ending) but it's still a great read. For me, there was the added dimension that Mary and I have been members of the same medieval society, and have, in fact, fought in some of the same (re-enacted) battles - though she's way harder than me!

  • Lemongrass
    2019-04-29 22:16

    It's a tour-de-force, unparalleled in my experience in its daring approach to the re-interpretation of history. As an eye-opener to the genre of alternative history, I found the book took my breath away and sent shivers down my spine. The central character is so charismatic and so convincing that her quite unpleasant nature is overridden and we dote on her. As the story progresses the element of unstable realities enters and throws out even such familiarity as we have gained. It is a very exciting and emotionally charged rollercoaster ride. Thoroughly recommended.

  • Adam Whitehead
    2019-05-11 22:35

    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 (****½) 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.

  • Meg Caddy
    2019-04-25 04:17

    'Ash' is probably not the book for anyone who has a weak stomach. There is a lot of gore, many people and animals die, there is some sex, and the language is far from PG-13. That aside, I love this book unreservedly. Over a thousand pages of complex character interaction, humour, battle, grief, magic, and history. Gentle balanced everything with precision and skill, without baulking from difficult issues. 'Ash' is written with absolute courage, research, and human insight. I have read it more times than I can count, and I look forward to reading it many more times.

  • Nicholas Whyte
    2019-05-15 22:32

    At first sight appears to be set in the fifteenth century of our own era. Ash, a teenage mercenary commander, has taken strategic advice for years from voices in her head and as a result is one of the most successful mercenaries in Western Europe. But the near-future researchers who are trying to compose a new biography gradually realise that her history is not their history, and the two realities begin to leach into each other. This book gave me very strange dreams.

  • B. Ross Ashley
    2019-04-28 23:07

    I really do not remember when I read this book. But it is a masterpiece of fantasy-alt history!Really ought to be read together with its prequel, the short story "The Logistics of Carthage", for Ash's origins, but if you can't find it you won't really miss it.Especially poignant for a person of Burgundian/North Provençal/Lyonnais descent, whose surname is an English translation of the French Quebecois cognomen Lafreniére, "the ash grove" ...

  • Genevieve
    2019-05-16 04:06

    I would love to be the type of reader who loves Mary Gentle, but I frequently find her a difficult and frustrating read. However, I tumbled into this book (or these books, rather - I read them in the separate novel format) and remained completely enthralled, even if moments were downright painful. A big, bloody, epic, grubby saga.

  • Lori
    2019-05-12 05:21

    Oh dearie me, another attempt to find the perfect hot Labor Day weekend escape that didn't work out. Granted, I'm in an impatient mood presently, and didn't give this book much chance but enough for me to realize it wasn't for me. I didn't even skip ahead just to see was happening, just put it aside in my GoodWill box. So much to read, so little time, not gonna spend it on this.

  • Alan Clark
    2019-04-23 23:20

    This is fantasy rather than SF - the story does not make scientific sense, and the author's erroneous astronomical asides display an irritating ignorance of Astronomy, which is why I did not particularly like it, but if you like fantasy then you might enjoy the ending.

  • Fantasy Literature
    2019-05-10 06:20

    One of the most important books in the genre.