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Ash: A Secret History
Gollancz paperback £9.99
review by Ceri Jordan
Ash is a child of war: growing up parentless among camp followers, she takes naturally to the life of a soldier, and builds a renowned mercenary band under her leadership. This brings fame, riches, a thoroughly unwanted noble husband - and involvement in a conflict that could change the nature of the world forever. Because the voice that speaks in her head is not that of God or devil, but something altogether more dangerous. Something that can manipulate time and space - and something that wants, for the very best of reasons, to destroy her and all she loves...
Mary Gentle's gigantic fantasy is an audacious blend of medieval romance, brutal history, and science elevated to the realms of myth. Playing fast and loose with Europe's past, she creates a world both utterly real and startlingly alien, where a barbarian empire supported by golems and selective breeding can co-exist with - and battle - a dour Christendom weighed down by sexual oppression and fear. The battles and the struggles of daily life are startlingly real, and Ash is a thoroughly convincing creation; a professional preoccupied by details of pay and discipline and where the next meal's coming from, who finds herself a key player in a titanic spiritual struggle. Above all, this is a work about history: how it's written, who writes it, and how our assumptions about what's fact and what's fantasy could, for all we know, be blinding us to stranger truths even than this.
There are quibbles: the contemporary correspondence charting the deciphering of the historical manuscripts feels faintly self-conscious, and the 'translation' doesn't excuse a few glaringly anachronistic phrases. But anyone prepared to immerse himself in this hyper-real chronicle will find it both a fascinating story, and an intelligent comment on the nature of history itself.
tZ - Mary Gentle is interviewed by Paul McDonald, in The ZONE #5
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