Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle Review

ASH – A Secret History can in many respects be regarded as Mary Gentle’s magnum opus, both in terms of volume (a whopping 1100 pages) and in terms of its ambition and scope. It is also a work of literature that is very difficult, if not impossible, to categorize. It is simultaneously historical fiction, alternate history, fantasy and science fiction. The novel was awarded the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2000. It should also be noted that while ASH is published in one volume by Gollancz in the UK, it is published in four volumes (A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, Lost Burgundy) by Avon Eos in the US.

Mary Gentle

The novel contains two parallel narratives. The primary narrative is the story of Ash, a young woman, who is the captain of a company of mercenaries in the late 15th century. When we meet her, she and her company are employed by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in a conflict with Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy – both great powers in late medieval Europe. Ash has ambitions for herself and her company. Life as a mercenary is both dangerous and unpredictable, and it is difficult to provide for the hundreds of people that make up a mercenary company in lean times, so she fights in the hope of being rewarded with land, which would provide the company with a secure base.

Ash’s own position as soldier who is also a woman is also rather precarious, which she learns the hard way when Frederick to her dismay rewards her with a noble husband instead of land and title. Bound by marriage and her husband’s feudal ties, Ash finds that she has lost control over her company of mercenaries. This, however, turns out to be the least of her problems. At this point Gentle twists her narrative into alternate history as she introduces Visigoth Carthage as powerful and fearsome enemy. In this alternate history, Carthage is a stronghold of Arian Christianity and a place of stark brutality and strange technology – golems, tactical computers and non-human intelligences.

Shortly after Ash’s marriage, Carthage launches a crusade of massive proportions against Europe, and Ash learns that the voice she hears in her head is not a saint but something else entirely. Soon it becomes apparent that the fate of Europe rests on the slender and armoured shoulders of Ash; on her origins and, indeed, her very nature – as well as on the continued existence of Burgundy (The Duchy of Burgundy dissolved as an independent nation upon the death of Duke Charles the Bold in at the Battle of Nancy on January 5th 1477, which became a pivotal moment in European history).

Framing the story of Ash is a narrative which plays out through a fictitious email correspondence between a historian working on a biography of Ash and his editor. This part of the narrative is set around the turn of the millennium and focuses on Dr. Pierce Ratcliff, who is translating a collection of late medieval manuscripts that tells the story of Ash, i.e. the main narrative of the novel.

As his work progresses he discovers that the history of late medieval Europe as narrated by the Ash-documents diverges significantly from known history. That is, in Pierce’s time-frame, Carthage did not exist in the late 15th century. As he puzzles about this, trying to construct a theory to fit with what the documents narrate, strange things begin to happen. Suddenly most of his source material has either disappeared or has been re-classified as myth and literature, while at the same time material evidence of a Visigoth Carthage begin to appear in North Africa. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that the story of Ash and the history Pierce is working on are deeply intertwined.

ASH is a very complex novel, which includes some very sophisticated perspectives on the workings of history, myth and scholarship, founded on a thorough knowledge of late medieval Europe and the warfare of the period. In fact, Gentle completed a MA in War Studies as part of the research for this novel. As a piece of alternate historical fiction, ASH demands quite a lot from the reader. More specifically, it demands a certain amount of historical knowledge in order for the reader to discern exactly when the fictional narrative deviate from known history.

However, Gentle doesn’t just throw in random element to create an alternate history but creatively extrapolates an alternate history from a certain point of known history. Case in point: Visigoth Carthage! In the 5th century, the site of Carthage was conquered by the Vandals (an East Germanic tribe like the Visigoths), who were in fact followers of Arianism (refers to the teachings of the 4th century theologian Arius, who held that Jesus Christ was almost, but not fully divine). Carthage existed as a Vandal city in a short period before it was annexed by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century.

In order to facilitate this kind of historical knowledge, Gentle has provided her narrative with numerous footnotes, a feature that simultaneously support the framing narrative wherein Pierce Ratcliff explores Ash’s life in order to write a historical biography. As the two parallel stories progress, it becomes apparent that the framing narrative serves other purposes than means to present historical exposition too cumbersome for the main narrative. At first, the footnotes as well as Pierce’s correspondence with his editor serves to mark the moment of departure – what is fact and what is fiction? But as his evidence appears and disappears, the framing narrative develops into a more philosophical exploration of the very nature of alternate histories (couched in scientific terms):

“I’ll be honest. Anna, I know the ‘Ash’ documents were authentic history when I first studied them. Whatever I may have said about errors of re-classifications, you will remember that I found myself completely unable to explain it in any satisfactory way. I think that I _had_ almost come to believe in Vaughan Davis’s theory out of sheer desperation – that there actually had been a ‘first history’ of the world, which was wiped out in some fashion, and that we now inhabit a ‘second history’, into which bits of the first have somehow survived. That Ash’s history first was genuine, and has now been – fading, if you like – to Romance, to a cycle of legends.
I had begun to think that perhaps they *were* from a previous version of our past, growing less real by the decade. A previous past history in which the text’s ‘miracle’ *did* take place. In which the Faris and the ‘Wild Machines’ (or whatever it is that those literary metaphors represent) triggered some kind of alteration in history. Or, to put it in scientific terms, a previous past history in which the possible subatomic states of the universe were (deliberately and consciously) collapsed into a different reality – the one we now inhabit.
Plainly, we have to face the possibility now that reality did fracture in or about the beginning of the year 1477. Equally plainly, it is possible that fragments of that prior history have existed in ours, becoming gradually less and less ‘real’ as the universe moves on from the moment of fracture.”

Gentle uses this notion of a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ history to explore the workings of history and the fluidity of historical “truth”. She has elsewhere stated that she views “history” as a construct, that is, that historical writing always contains a certain level of fictionality. Furthermore, historical sources and documents are continually re-examined and re-evaluated, and the farther they are from the present, the harder it becomes to separate fact from fiction and myth.

Considerations such as these are partly made explicit in the contemporary sections of the narrative, but Gentle also lets history and myth blend almost seamlessly together in the story of Ash herself. Thus the astute reader might pick apart Gentle’s often subtle play with myth and history. A good example of this particular aspect of the novel can be found in a rather discreet detail: the many references to the Green Christ (Christus Viridianus), a detail that isn’t really explained until the latter part of the novel when Ash and the company surgeon Floria(n) del Guiz inspect a series of religious mosaics:

“Ash leaned in close, peering at a mosaic of the birth of the Green Christ – his Imperial Jewish mother sprawled under the oak, half-dead from bringing forth her son; the Baby suckling the Sow; the Eagle, in the oak’s branches, lifting up his head, depicted about to take wing on the flight that will – in three days – bring Augustus and his legions to the right spot in the wild German forest. And in the next panel, Christus Viridianus heals his mother, with the leaves of the oak.
Florian walked the circuit of the walls, glancing at each panel briefly – Viridianus and his legion in Judea, gone native after the Persian wars; Viridianus speaking with the Jewish elders; Viridianus and his officers worshipping Mithras. Then Augustus’s funeral, the coronation of his true son, and, in the background, the adopted son Tiberius and the conspirators, the desire for the oak tree upon which they will hang Viridianus – bones broken, no blood shed – already plain on their faces.
One circuit of the room, back to where Ash stands by the birth; and the last panel is Constantine, three centuries later, converting the empire to the religion of Viridianus, whom the Jews still consider nothing more than a Jewish prophet, but whom the followers of Mithras have long and faithfully known as the Son of the Unconquered Sun.”

In the space of a few paragraphs, Gentle constructs an alternate history of Christ, a history that highlights the specific mythic elements from the ancient world that have since been incorporated into Christianity. The epithet “Viridianus” is not a Christian one; rather it (the colour green), together with the jealous brother and the death on the tree, is specifically associated with the Egyptian god Osiris.

The references to Mithras (a sun god of Persian origin, worshipped by Roman soldiers) and Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun, a late Roman state cult of solar deities) are, like Osiris, all examples of an ancient mythic archetype – the resurrected deity (a life-death-rebirth deity). The story Jesus Christ display key structural elements with these deities, and it has been argued that this mythic archetype has been absorbed into Christian theology and symbolism through the religious syncretism of the late Roman Empire.

The above-mentioned elements are deeply buried in Gentle’s narrative and require a rather knowledgeable reader to puzzle out. However, other examples of her play with history, myth and fiction are made manifest on the surface of the story. For example, Ash is continually compared and contrasted to the legend of Joan of Arc. Like Joan, Ash is female soldier; like Joan, Ash receives aid from a disembodied voice; and, like Joan, Ash finds herself in the role as the defender of a nation – she is the Maid of Burgundy to Joan’s Maid of Orleans (a bit ironic since Burgundy play a part in the capture of Joan of Arc!).

Mary Gentle not only invokes the legend of the Maid of Orleans, she also turns it inside-out thus highlighting the hidden issues of gender and sexuality. Where Joan of Arc was a holy virgin, a peasant girl made into soldier through divine intervention, Ash is a professional soldier who happens to be a woman. Ash’s military competence has been earned by hard work and an iron will. She is single-minded in her dedication to the business of war, which partly is a product of circumstance – she has lived almost her entire life in a mercenary company.

War is, in fact, the only thing she knows. As a female soldier, Ash is an anomaly. Her gender presents an obstacle in the context of her chosen profession, but at the same time she uses her femininity, youth and beauty strategically in the dealings with the men of her profession. She knows that her status as a female war leader evokes the legend of Joan of Arc and she’s not averse to exploiting it.

Ash might be a brilliant and cold-blooded soldier, but she is also an incredibly damaged young woman with what at best can be described as a dysfunctional childhood. She’s raped at the tender age of 8 and survived childhood as a camp whore – it is certainly no coincidence that Gentle lets Ash’s rapists cut up the girl’s face. She is scarred, both literally and psychologically, and those traumas are integral elements of her personality. It is, as it is stated in the opening sentence of the prologue: It was her scars that made her beautiful.

The rape/scarring also constitutes another form of marking – Ash is not a virgin in armour like the archetype to which she is compared. The fact that she is a sexually active female soldier makes her a potentially subversive and therefore dangerous figure according to the late medieval mind, something that her young husband finds very troubling. He finds her threatening and repulsive, whereas Ash is very strongly attracted to him on a pure physical level but has trouble seeing him as other than weak-willed and cowardly. In many respects, Ash’s marriage seems to be a pivotal moment in her character-development.

It is established early on that she isn’t an introspective personality – Ash is all action, and her military competence often make her appear older than her 19 years. Emotionally, she is, however, very young and she has no clue how to deal with the confliction emotions that her reluctant husband elicit in her. It is, however, not this rather ill-luck marriage that forms the most significant relationship in this novel. Rather, the main focus is firmly locked on the interactions between Ash and her company, especially her officers. Here she finds a real sense of belonging, of comradeship. It is an emotional attachment that is never spoken (unless couched in an irreverent banter) but always present in an easy (and often bawdy) camaraderie. Ash and her company are loyal to each other unto death and beyond – and it is Gentle’s skilful and often subtle representation of this heartfelt bond between Ash and her company that constitutes this novel’s heart and soul.

Another wonderful aspect is the level of mimesis that Gentle brings to her story. She delves unflinchingly into the minutiae of the daily life of these 15th century mercenaries, and she never shies away from depicting the less salubrious aspects of late medieval life and war. Ash and her soldiers are, more often than not, both dirty and battered, their armour rusting, their clothes fouled by gore and human waste, their appearance ravaged by the dangers of war and the harshness of the elements.

All of this gives the reader heightened experience of the world the protagonists inhabit, all the details makes Ash’s world present in one’s mind. Stylistically, this aspect is reinforced by the way in which the narrative alternates between the past and the present tense. Gentle primarily employs the present tense in action- and battle scenes since it effectively conveys a sense of immediacy – and it works! I have yet to encounter a writer who can imbue a fight scene with such an overpowering sense of immediate experience as Gentle does.

This kind of attention to detail – often anchored in sensory impressions – heightens the realism of the text, and Gentle is most certainly part of the recent trend for the dark and gritty in fantasy fiction. Gentle makes her alternate 15th century Europe real and tangible to such a degree that ASH is a very intense and somewhat exhausting reading experience. I sometimes felt as tired and battered as the protagonists and thus welcomed the sections of the present-day narrative as much needed and well-timed breathing spaces.

Yet no matter how demanding and exhausting it can be, ASH ultimately offers a deeply rewarding reading experience. It is, in fact, hard to find anything to criticize. It offers a gripping action adventure, a historical puzzle and a slightly foreign world. It has a well-structured and well-paced narrative, built on a solid and extremely impressive foundation of historical research. The main character is complex and compelling, strong yet vulnerable and utterly likeable.

The text itself is multi-layered and has a depth beyond the ordinary when it comes to fantasy fiction. The only thing that annoyed me was an odd tendency to arbitrarily vacillate between a third person and a first person narrative in the sections of Ash’s story – this is, however, a very minor complaint in regard to a novel that is very nearly perfect.

I will not hesitate to label ASH a modern masterpiece of speculative fiction. It is a work of literature that transcends genre and offers up an intriguing and highly entertaining exploration of history as a state of potentialities. As a secret or alternate history ASH is not only closely related to the genres of both fantasy and science fiction, but also to the practice of counter-factual history (also called “virtual history”) in academic circles. Mary Gentle’s novel is a highly intelligent and extremely accomplished work of literature that will appeal to fans of historical and speculative fiction alike.