Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ex Libris: Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History

(Given that I couldn't regularly access the Internet where I was over the holidays, the succeeding posts are post-dated.)

There are many ways to tell a story. Though there may be only one event, the ways to tell a story about depends on how many people witness it. Look at Rashomon.

In the same breath, there are stories we can know and then there are the hidden stories. These are the stories—or histories—that are inserted between the very public histories. Some of them are incidental and some are the cause of the histories known only to a few.

These are the ‘secret histories’ and the first one that comes to my mind when I hear that term is Tim Powers’ Declare, a secret history of the post-World War II era between Russia, England and the US.

And then there is Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. But unlike Powers’ work which intertwines both public and secret histories, Gentle’s secret history is an active thing that threatens to take over what is real—or what we think is real.

Ash is a mercenary who has done good, not only managing to become a captain of her own troop, but being a woman in a man’s world of Medieval Europe. But she thinks she is also secretly blessed, hearing a cold detached voice that she thinks is an angel that guides her combat strategies and keeps her alive.

Ash’ story is also our history, a framing story for our narrative-- an academic treatise complete with foot notes being readied for publication. But there is something strange about Ash’s history, aspects that are different from the history that we know like off-key notes in a familiar song.

As Ash’s story is translated and made known in the treatise, her history with its ‘unhistorical’ elements slowly starts to spread to affect the present. Because the past is not dead as we know it. And Ash’s history of a Burgundy in danger from age-old machine minds has and will unmake everything we’ve ever known.

Gentle has written an incredible story combining authentic history fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. Unfortunately, some aspects of both historical fiction and secondary world fantasy have a tendency to bog down the narrative, i.e. too many details. Likewise, there were some writing tics that bothered me on Gentle’s part, some details that she kept reiterating over and over again (Robert Jordan anyone?).

But otherwise, it’s an incredible well-researched and well-written work on Gentle’s part. You get to smell the stink of shit and urine of medieval times, feel the chafing of sweat-drenched armour, and feel the exhilarating fear-thrill of going into battle against an armoured man twice your size swinging a sword big enough to spit you.

Gentle doesn’t stint on reality here: there is sex, nudity, extreme bloody violence, more violence and a whole lot of deaths. But she also writes about the camaraderie of the brotherhood of war reminiscent of Glen Cook’s Black Company or Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.

Ironically, it took me almost two years to finish reading this book off and on (more than a 1,000 pages). But the finish line was worth every page. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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