It’s been a while, I know. It’s not just that I’m lazy, or entirely that I’m disorganised. It’s also been that I’ve been gradually extruding a gargantuan review… of a gargantuan novel. It’s so ridiculously long that I’ve even divided it into sections: Part One sets the scene; Part Two introduces the general concept of the novel; Part Three talks about what it’s like and what’s special about it; and Part Four sums up and scores.
But because the review is so cripplingly long, I’ll summarise it here and now for those who can’t be bothered to read to the end: if you like epic fantasy (and maybe even if you don’t), you need to read this book.
[housekeeping note: in America, it’s considered a series of four novels. This doesn’t really make sense to me, and if possible I’d recommend getting the complete edition]
Now, the long version…
Picture: the ground thunders. The sky shakes and ears bleed. Above, two colossal creatures: one slow, placid, its shadow seemingly extending without end, without beginning (though perhaps its tail, curiously enough held in its mouth at the moment, may be be a beginning…), squirming from side to side like a snake; the other, more compact, leaner, predatory (and dripping red from the scraps of wedding dresses in its teeth) yet still gargantuan by comparison with anything else in the world, tears and pulls at the great beast, which staggers, flails, yet will not go down. The red sky behind them is not only a sunset; it’s the first warning of an asteroid winter.
No, this isn’t the end of the Cretaceous era, though it seems like it in hindsight. This is the year 2000 in the fantasy genre. The sauropod in question is Robert Jordan; in 2000, he is, for now, the most commercially successful author – by an order of magnitude! – in the history of the genre*. He has just released the ninth volume of his bestselling saga, The Wheel of Time – but Winter’s Heart has, far from propelling him to further glory, been met with criticism, if not outright derision, even among his own fans. The sequel, Crossroads of Twilight, will only accentuate that fall from grace, a punchline for years of mockery. He’ll die before completing the cycle, though his spiritual successor, Brandon Sanderson, will do it on his behalf. The carnosaur in this picture, meanwhile, is George R.R. Martin. Three months before Jordan’s latest hit the shelf, he released the third part of his own rival saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the barnstorming A Storm of Swords has cemented his place as the new king of fantasy, in prestige if not in sales. But it’s also his highpoint as an author: after three novels in four years, it’ll take eleven more years to write the next two volumes (which are split halves of a single volume that wasn’t even originally intended) – seven years and counting for the one after that – and while a TV adaptation would eventually bring him unimaginable success in the mainstream market, his years of silence would help isolate him from the living genre. By 2018, he’ll feel less like the dominant figure his sales say he should be, and more like a looming shadow from an earlier era.
But this is the year 2000, and Martin and Jordan dominate the earth. Their gargantuan novel-cycles aren’t the exception in the genre in this age of dinosaurs, of sales-bestriding saga-spinners. Martin’s leaner, smarter little sister-carnosaur, Robin Hobb, is releasing Ship of Magic, the conclusion to the second trilogy in her Realm of Elderlings cycle. L.E. Modesitt, mainstay of the 90s, is coming out with Magi’i of Cyador, the tenth installment in his Saga of Recluse. There are newcomers to the genre: Elizabeth Haydon’s putting out the second of her Symphony of Ages novels. And there are the past masters, rebranding their tangentially-linked novel-worlds as ‘new’-style epic sagas, less popular perhaps than before but still relevant: Raymond E Feist is publishing the twelfth (fifteenth, including collaborations) book in his Riftwar cycle, and Terry Brooks is putting out the thirteenth Shannara novel. There’s a whole second pack of sagas aiming for 2001 publication dates for their latest: the second-generation Outlander (Diana Gabaldon), Otherland (Tad Williams), Sword of Truth (Terry Goodkind), Wars of Light and Shadow (Janny Wurts) and Sword of Shadows (J.V. Jones), as well as reconfigured forerunners like Pern (Ann McCaffrey) and The Legend of Drizzt (R.A. Salvatore). The Dark Tower (Stephen King) is halfway through a six-year hiatus; The Tales of Alvin Maker (Orson Scott Card) partway through a five-year gap; Thomas Covenant won’t return for his final spin until 2004. Oh, and 2000 is also the year of David Edding’s attempted return, with The Redemption of Althalas, although it’s not directly related to either his twelve-part eighties Belgariad/Mallorean romp or his six-part nineties proto-grimdark Elenium/Tamuli. If you want to read a taster of any of these writers, most of them can be found in the epochal two-part Legends anthology of 1998.
These writers dominated the genre in 2000. Few other authors could find space on the cramped little SF&F shelves we got back then. No, literally: one copy each of each of the above plus all the Pratchett novels, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, there wasn’t much physical room left for anybody else.
But things were changing. The age of the dinosaurs was coming to an end – albeit slowly (a bunch of these authors are still writing today, though only a couple still make ripples in modern fandom). David Gemmell had been prospering in the shadows, at least in the UK; in 2000, Matt Stover is getting started on Acts of Caine, the series that few will read, but that will be considered a defining influence by much of the next generation of authors. In 2001, Jacqueline Carey will launch her Kushiel novels – which may not have had many direct successors, but will contribute to the broadening out of the genre away from the titanic sagas. The asteroid has come down, and in the days to come the mammals will thrive: leaner, faster, hotter-blooded, sweatier, smaller, and more like us. Grim, and dark, and ‘gritty’ in a way that doesn’t actually involve any greater realism, but a more filmic, or at least televisual, quality. In 2000, we’re almost on the threshold.
[oh, and two rather unusual behemoths are trampling around on the periphery of epic fantasy: China Mièville’s Perdido Street Station and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were two more archosaurs to hit the shelves that year… the shelves must literally have been groaning under the weight that year…]
And thresholds are interesting places to be. A little of the old; a little of the new; and some things that get lost along the way. And if there’s a perfect example of that, it’s the best fantasy novel of 2000: Mary Gentle’s astonishing Ash: A Secret History. It’s the nimbler, more terrifying sibling of Martin and Hobb. Reputedly the longest standalone fantasy novel ever published in the mainstream press (my paperback is over 1,100 pages, and it’s not big type), Ash is more epic than Martin, and more visceral than Abercrombie. It seems at once the culmination of one era, and the perfection of an era yet to come. It’s immense, it’s brutal, it’s exhausting, it’s weird… and it’s worth every page.
*it will, coincidentally, be another 18 years before Martin possibly overtakes Jordan in sales, and even that is both debatable (exact figures are unknown) and potentially temporary (given that Jordan’s cycle is now set for its own TV adaptation that will re-introduce it to a new generation). Tolkien and Lewis have sold far more books than Jordan – but they had forty years head-start on him, so while their total sales are higher, they were never as commercially succesful at any given period as Jordan was in the 1990s. Since then, a number of other authors have supplanted him within fantasy, but outside the core ‘high epic secondary-world fantasy’ subgenre – J.K Rowling, Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer in secret-history fantasies, and Terry Pratchett in… whatever you’d call him. Oh, and Stephen King is there too, but his sales are split between his epic fantasy, his supernatural horror, and his plain mundane horror. Jordan, incidentally, is the only one on that list to not have benefited from a major Hollywood film and/or big-budget TV series.
What can we say about Ash? It’s hard not to give away spoilers – it’s one of those books where the big twists start in the first couple of chapters. It’s hard even to pin it down to a specific genre. It isn’t exactly epic fantasy, because it’s also historical fiction – but it’s not historical fiction, because it’s also science fiction. Yet it’s not exactly science fiction because it’s also postmodernism. In fact, it’s perhaps a paradigm case of “slipstream” – in the original sense. It’s on the borderlines, and in the process it undermines the very concept of those dividing lines.
But don’t worry. This isn’t some ephemeral thought-game for literary folk. Ash is a solid, meaty, in some ways highly conventional (in other ways not!) fantasy adventure novel – wrapped in a skin of disconcerting thought-game. Saving the world – or at least ‘our’ comfortable little patch of it – against a vast and terrifying threat? Check. Big swords, mangonels and plate amour? Check. A charismatic, badass tomboy heroine with a tragic past? Check. A siege? Definitely check! And yet…
The first thing the reader notices about Ash is… well, no, let’s come back to that.
The puzzled reader setting that to-be-discussed oddity to one side will find herself quickly immersed in a mediaeval European milieu quite familiar to any fan of epic fantasy. The big difference is the reality of it all. In two senses.
In the obvious sense, Ash is more ‘real’ than, say, A Song of Ice and Fire because this is not Westeros; this is Europe. Specifically, it’s western Europe in approximately 1475. Now, I hope it will not be too great a spoiler to reveal that this is perhaps not exactly our western Europe of 1475. The keen-eyed reader will note an increasing number of deviations, gradually introduced into the text. But it is certainly closer to real history than the adventures of Arya, or Rand al-Thor, Garion, Tanis, or Samwise.
The more subtle and pervasive difference, however, is that this is – more, I think, than any other fantasy novel I’ve ever read – a world that feels real, lived-in, functional. That’s not just due to being able to rely on real history to bear most of the burden of worldbuilding. It’s also because the author so clearly knows what she’s talking about.
It’s a funny thing, to want realism from fantasy, yet we do. Or I do, at least. I like books where it feels as though the protagonist is living in a world that makes sense, with which she can interact like a normal, living human being, without worrying that the sets will fall down around her ears if she pushes on them. That’s not just something important in big-scale geopolitical worldbuilding; it matters just as much, if not more, at the small scale. If I don’t believe in the protagonist’s daily life, how can I care about her attempts to defend it, or improve it? In this respect, Gentle’s writing reminds me most of all of Robin Hobb’s Fitz novels: they feel written from a place of experience. Hobb, of course, has presumably never had telepathic powers, or fought against longboat raiders… but she has hunted wolves. She’s skinned things. She’s lived a self-sufficient life in the Alaskan wilds; some of her earliest work was written in a wooden hut in summer, that in winter she used for storing the frozen corpses of animals she and her husband had killed for food. And you can feel that in the way she writes Fitz – in his self-sufficiency, his ability to survive in the wild, his closeness to nature, even how he changes when he spends time apart from human company. We also, I think, unfortunately, see his author in Fitz’s lifelong battle against depression. In Gentle’s case, the reality – the experience – is in a different area. Ash is a very violent, a very military book. Gentle, I hope, has never actually murdered anybody. But she was a historical military re-enactor. She was a swordswoman. She has a degree in history. As part of her research for this novel, she acquired a Master’s in War Studies. Gentle doesn’t just know the names of seventeen different parts of a full-plate harness – she knows exactly which parts will chafe, and when, which will become dented and which may be pierced. There’s an order of magnitude more concern about rust here than there is in most fantasy novels – you get the feeling the author not only knows when your best armour will rust, but knows what it feels like to find out that it has. When somebody get wounded, it doesn’t feel as though she’s thrown an arrow at an anatomy diagram or rolled a few hit dice, it feels like she knows what sort of injuries people pick up in these fights, and what their consequences will be. When someone needs treatment, they don’t just ‘go to the healer’ in some vague way – she knows what can be done for them, what can’t, how it feels, what medication might be used. Her battles have strategies drawn not from films or other fantasy novels, but from history and military theory (in some cases from specific real-life battles), yet also from the perspective of someone lugging their armour around on the front lines. That solid, reassuring, comforting sense of reality, and of confidence in the author, provides the firm, orientating background against which the disorienting deviations of fantasy can operate.
[A thought: many fantasy novels touch on a cultural divide between the noble (or ignoble) warriors, and the bookish intellectual types who live behind their ivory walls and are thoroughly detached from the reality of the world around them. Most fantasy novels are fundamentally about the warriors on the ground (or bookish types becoming warriors) – and yet they pervasively feel as though they’re written by the scribes in their bubbles. Again and again, I’m expected to invest in descriptions of ‘gritty’ life by authors who lack even a superficial understanding of what grit actually looks like.* Here at least is a novel not only about warriors in muddy fields, but that feels almost convincingly as though it understands what it’s like to be a warrior in a muddy field. Or, at least, as though it’s at least interested in that understanding.]
The core of Ash, then, is a vivid depiction of mediaeval life – and specifically, of mediaeval warfare, with a fantastical twist. And yet that may not be what the reader notices first. Because before she begins the novel, the reader first encounters, on the otherwise blank frontispiece, a curious advert for a book – specifically, for Dr. Pierce Ratcliff’s Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy. An, in particular, for an edition of that book almost all copies of which were later pulped, and the copy of which in the British Library is not available for public consultation. Odd, one might think. Odder still: this little advert is itself accompanied by a note explaining that this advert “is” glued onto the blank frontispiece of “this copy”. Huh. And note the dates: as discussed at length above, Ash: A Secret History was published in 2000, but the advert describes the 2001 edition of Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy. And the note – of unspecified date – describes the advert as being taken from a magazine published in 2005. And the curious reader who continues on will perhaps notice that the title page that follows is not the title page of Ash: A Secret History. The title page, the contents page, the introduction, the afterward, are all from Dr. Ratcliff’s Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy. But that’s not all that’s in the book – because, placed between each Part of Dr. Ratcliff’s book are a series of communications betwen Dr. Ratcliff and his publisher that have themselves been notated with handwritten comments, and that have then further been introduced with notes that refer to the existence of the handwritten comments.
The observant reader may then later in hindsight note that the dedication of the novel is – whether by coincidence or design – to a person or persons sharing a name with at least three characters in Dr. Ratcliff’s book.
Now, all of this would ordinarily be a waste of time and space – a writing-school mannerism, a postmodern sleight-of-hand that means nothing and relates only tangentially to the actual story. In this case, however, the meaty, vivid adventure novel and the disconcerting postmodernist games are intimately and indispensibly interconnected. In fact, they’re sort of the same story.
Oh, and while we’re talking about the forematter: the contents page** very carefully labels the date of the events of each Part. The final Part, Part Sixteen, takes place between the 26th of December 1476 and the 5th of January 1477. The 5th of January 1477, the well-read may hazily recall, is the date of the Battle of Nancy, one of the pivotal moments in European history. It was at Nancy that Charles Le Téméraire, the last of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, was killed (his byname is translated to English as either “the bold” or “the rash”). With his death, the great ‘middle kingdom’ of Europe, a Burgundy that had grown as powerful as, and wealthier than, France and Germany, was destroyed. His death spurred into motion the following three centuries of European war, as kings and potentates squabbled, through war and marriage, for the sundered pieces of his empire, of lost Burgundy, that had been the apex, for a brief halcyon era, of mediaeval European civilisation: a great nation, struck almost incomprehensibly from history in a single moment.
But for this novel, that date also has a more specific significance. Because the very first paragraph of Dr. Ratcliff’s introduction sets up our expectations with the ruthlessness of an academic citation, as it describes its eponymous heroine as simply “Ash (b. 1457 [?] – d. 1477).”
It’s a brave novel that only introduces us to our protagonist – still only a child – after first making clear that she is not going to live past the age of twenty.
*I’m reminded of Axel Munthe’s ever-relevant rule of professional writers: “But why do not these professionals collect their material themselves? They seldom do. Novel writers, who insist on taking their readers to the slums, seldom go there themselves. Specialists on disease and Death can seldom be persuaded to come with you to the hospital where they have just finished off their heroine […] The bloodiest war novels were written, I believe, by peaceful citizens well out of the range of the long-distance German guns. Authors who delight in making their readers assist at scenes of sexual orgies are generally very indifferent actors in such scenes. Personally I only know of one exception to this rule, Guy de Maupassant, and I saw him die of it.”
**Three cheers for contents pages in novels! Now we just need a map!
Yes yes, but what’s Ash: A Secret History actually about? It’s all very well saying it’s very vivid and well-researched and has a mind-bending postmodern element, but what’s it a vivid and mindbending story about? And what’s it like to read?
It is, as the title suggests, a novel about a young woman named Ash. Ash grows up in a mercenary company in mid-to-late 15th century Italy – very briefly, that’s just the Prologue. When we rejoin her later for the bulk of the novel, Ash is a mature, experienced, grown woman – eighteen or nineteen years old – who from a combination of suicidal confidence, charisma, and… well, a certain other advantage*… has transformed herself from homeless orphan into a minor but respected young condottiere. “Contractor”, that means literally – or mercenary commander, in practice**. But in the 15th century a powerful mercenary can wield an army as large as some monarchs. Ash can swing a sword and ride a destrier with the best of them, but her success comes more from her sharp wits, and above all her skill as a manager. She controls her company with a striking appearance, a good memory, a ready grin, honed instincts, and the ability to put a good spin on a bad situation.
Our story begins – really begins, that is – with Ash outside the walls of Neuss, in the employ of Frederick III, the first of the Hapsburg emperors, who is besieging the Burgundian force within. Ash is a woman in a hurry – she knows, as we do, that she will die young. Her ambition – the ambition of most condottieri – is to find a way to translate power and money into the safety of land (the ultimate role model here being people like Fernando Sforza, who became ruler of Milan).
But the novel isn’t really about that. I’d give you a better idea of what it was about, except… well, everything is a spoiler. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of fighting, and some rat-breeding, and some daring escapes, and some twins and a duchess and some unexpected armies, and some pyramids and a hart, some cross-dressing, some incest, an earthquake, a surprising astronomical event, some slaves, the memory of Roger Bacon, some miracles, a big stone head, a Rabbi, some Janissaries, a wedding, a lot of explosives, the Wars of the Roses, some quantum mechanics, and the aurora borealis surprisingly far south at the wrong time of year. And a little bit of… well, it’s a fantasy novel, OK? Or possibly science fiction. Or something else. But whatever it is, it’s… well, it’s something, OK?
…hmm. Well, if I’m not actually going to tell you what the novel’s about, I suppose I ought to tell you what it’s like, in style. The answer is: brutal.
The intentional anachronism of the language, liberally festooned with obscenities, and the bloody, sexy, dirty lives of our characters call to mind later grimdark novels. But this isn’t flippant flirtation with darkness – Ash is flippant sometimes, but Gentle never is. Instead, the unflinching ‘realism’ – psychological as well as historical – is more reminiscent of Martin or of Hobb; but Gentle goes further than either of them in depicting a truly ugly world – and yet still a world, filled with beauty and hope, worth saving. Violence and suffering are not gratuitous here, or even ubiquitous, but they are merciless. When things need to get ugly, they do. If you want trigger warnings for things, you probably shouldn’t read this book. For a start, TRIGGER WARNING: the heroine, at the age of eight, is violently raped by two men and sadistically facially mutilated, before she kills both men in a way that involves a lot of warm intestines not being where they’re meant to be. That’s not a spoiler, telling you that – that’s the first page. That’s literally the first couple of paragraphs. I should say at once: the novel as a whole does not maintain this level of brutality – if it had done, I wouldn’t have made it through it. Most of the novel is in a much more conventional tone of thrilling adventure and gallows humour. But Gentle puts the brutality of the world front and centre, and makes sure we never forget that that brutality is never far below the surface – the characters are, in effect, walking on a tightrope through the world, and we know from the beginning what awaits them if they fall off.
It might be protested that the trope of the woman who becomes a violent badass because of a traumatic childhood is over-used in fantasy. It is. But when Gentle uses it, it feels fresh – because it doesn’t feel like a trope. It feels historically and psychologically realistic. Gentle’s not willing to simply wave a wand, claim “it’s fantasy, nothing matters!” and have a woman like Ash pop out of nowhere, perfectly well-adjusted, ready to inspire her audience; women in the middle-ages didn’t just go and become Ash. For one thing, as mentioned already, their odds of survival were extremely low. Women like Ash arose out of darkness; you can’t have one without the other.
And women like Ash did exist. Gentle bends her timeline a little to have Our Heroine meet Onorata Rodiani, the legendary condottiere whose story Ash’s biography is probably inspired by. Rodiani herself, admittedly, is not quite of undoubted historicity; but John of Arc (another prototype for Ash) certainly is. More generally, Gentle makes clear that although Ash herself is bizarre in her time – not only a female soldier, but a female commander, and at a young age – she’s a realistic sort of bizarre that will emerge occasionally from a lower, more widespread level of the merely somewhat odd. There’s only one Ash, but women do approach the periphery of the wars around her – several historical wives and mothers are mentioned who were famous in their day for taking command of armies and fortifications; and while a woman in plate armour is a strange thing, it’s made clear that for a woman to be found in an archer’s company is no great surprise. If nothing else, in Ash’s company, as in all military companies of the age, the men in plate armour are only the visible tip of the iceberg of accountants, cooks, healers, laundry workers, and of course prostitutes – and real war is no respecter of niceties of demarcation. When the baggage train is attacked, or the walls are overrun, the whores and the washerwomen have to fight just like everybody else.
I’m making this point because it’s illustrative of the broader approach Gentle is taking. Often, particularly on modern hot-button issues like race or gender, fans sort themselves along starkly opposed, binary positions. We should have heroic women to look up to, some fans say. Heroic feminist wish-fulfilment is unrealistic and undermines the emotional stakes by destroying credibility, doing a disservice to the grim realities that women in barbaric, pre-modern societies actually faced, other fans say. But Gentle says: strong women are realistic in a setting like this, so you can have emotional stakes and respect for the denizens of history; but realistic strong women in a setting like this will not be heroic feminist wish-fulfilment. [of course, Ash is heroic in her way, and could indeed be wish-fulfilment in a way; but only in a very messy and conflicted way]. And while Gentle makes clear that Ash’s life is possible, she makes just as clear that, even in adulthood, she doesn’t have it easy; nor does she pretend that Ash can simply click her fingers and have everyone (including herself) set her gender aside entirely. Ash is very much not a lady – she dresses as a man, by and large, has a man’s job, and has no patience for the lives or manners of a mediaeval lady (after all, she’s not only a woman who kills people, she’s more precisely a peasant who kills people, and even the ‘femininity’ Ash is familiar with is the femininity of prostitutes and washerwomen, not of wives); but at the same time, Gentle doesn’t – as some authors do – simply treat her as, for all intents and purposes, a man. In Ash’s world, a woman is a woman – people may forget at times, or people may make allowances, but they will never completely see her as anything else; and nor, ultimately, can she. Ash is a physical woman in a physical time; she’s sexually (and on some unspoken level romantically) frustrated, with an almost predatory gaze, who, even as a career woman, is also unable on some level to escape decisions about her reproductive system. Not, I hasten to add, that these things dominate her character – they don’t, in the slightest. But there is not the feeling here, as there is with many heroines in fantasy, that the author could simply switch the pronouns and have the reader not realise that she’s a woman.
[another quick point about the realism of the approach: Ash is very much not a geek. Ash isn’t polite, shy, or intellectual (though she is smart). She’s not just illiterate – as most people in her world are – she’s outright contemptuous of literacy. She’s a jock. Perhaps even a bully. If she weren’t allowed to be a jock, she might be a punk. She’s not a fundamentally nice girl (or boy) who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. No – she’s fought her way to get where she is from where she started; and if an author wants to have a heroine realistically have the position Ash has, and the skills Ash has, she’s not going to be the girl next door. She’s going to be callous, manipulative and violent, because that’s the world she lives in.]
It’s similar with related debates on, say, the morality of power in the middle ages, where fans divide over how much a novel should have to abide by the strictures of contemporary morality. Gentle’s approach is a third way: puncturing the notion that the two sides constitute a binary choice by constructing realistic narratives that are true to the setting, but that as the price of truth are also condemned to be messy and conflicted. There’s no sense here that kings could or should simply – as some fans now demand – hand over power to the people and everything will be alright: this is a brutal anarchy in which only the oppressive power of the strong maintains any sort of protection for the weak; and yet at the same time, Gentle also does not give in to the opposite impulse, and there’s equally no sense that her monarchs are, by and large, purely free agents, politically, legally, or morally. Even in a dictatorship, the power of the state derives from the consent of the people. And, in broader tonal terms, Gentle consistently takes a middle path of complexity and truth, between the twin attractions of revisionist idealism and simplistic, jaded cynicism. She creates a world in which hope and barbarity can co-exist – are, indeed, inseparable. Ash is not a hero – she kills people for money. But she’s also not some heartless noir fatale, wisecracking her way carelessly through mayhem, caring only for herself. That’s not because her gruff and cynical exterior masks a heart of gold; and it’s not because she’s going to have some sort of revelatory conversion where she sees Tiny Tim and realises what a horrible person she’s been; it’s not even because a (wo)man must have a code. It’s because that’s how humans are: they make compromises with the world. And the concept of the compromise requires both surrender and, just as importantly, a core of something that is not surrendered.
As a result, she’s able to infuse what’s in many way’s a boy’s own (or in this case girl’s own) adventure story, with its battles and raids, captures and escapes, not just with an immersive sense of verisimilitude, but also with a surprising philosophical depth. Gentle’s characters often hurl themselves against the limits of their world; they debate law and honour, they debate realism and idealism, the morality of pacificism in an unpacific world. They don’t do it at length, as though the author had a Point To Make; they do it naturally, a thought here and there, because these thoughts emerge naturally from where they find themselves in their world. In a way, this is a novel about the childhood of a civilisation, and its struggle to emerge from the darkness – but it’s also a novel about growing up, and the re-orientating within the world that maturity demands – even if that’s not something that’s immediately obvious on the surface. This is a novel with ideas and themes – but it is not a novel of ideas, or of themes.
What it is a novel of… is excitement.
I know, I know – words like “Eleven hundred pages of gritty realism” don’t scream “excitement”. Nor, let’s be honest, do the words “epic fantasy”. It’s a genre with many virtues, but a pulsing heartbeat isn’t usually one of them. Ash, though, is a legitimate thriller. I ripped through its pages, because it’s the kind of novel where suddenly anything else you might be doing seems less exciting than reading one more chapter. Most chapters, and every one of the sixteen Parts, end with a cliffhanger. Ash is a novel that’s not afraid to throw twist after twist not only into its plot, but into its world, and its very genre, and it couples that driving plotline with a hectic, almost hysterically unrelenting pace. If Ash were a TV show, it would be visually defined by the walk-and-talk – there’s not a moment when Ash, and most of the characters around her, don’t not only have something to do right now (usually somewhere else), but something else they need to do next (which may or may not ever happen because something unexpected’s bound to happen before any plan can be completed). Events do occasionally slow down, trapping Ash in one place for a little while – but any pause brings frustration, because any time spent in one delay is time vitally needed for something else instead. There is, until the end, no release of tension. But unlike many rollercoasters, this one doesn’t go around in a circle. Ash marries – in a way so many stories attempt but so few attain – continual action with consistent trajectory. Although few things are predictable in advance, and a great deal of the enjoyment of at least the early part of the novel is working out what the fuck is going on!?, everything fits seamlessly into the narrative once it’s happened; everything progresses, step by step, albeit at times in mysterious ways, toward the climax. If ‘climax’ is even an appropriate word for this novel. This is, and I hope you’ll excuse the coarseness but I can’t think of a more appropriate description, tantric plotting. At every moment, it seems as though all hell will explode any minute now; the tension and excitement ratchet up, virtually every chapter, creating a constant sensation (at least outside of the first few Parts) of narrative climax, yet which is continualy held back, turned aside, revealed to only be a set-up for the inevitable true climax of the next chapter… and the next… and the next…
Is this the most exciting novel I’ve ever read? Perhaps not – it would have one or two competitors. But if you multiply that intensity by its shear duration, this book undoubtedly contains more excitement, in total, than any other novel I know.
*what this advantage is becomes very rapidly clear within a few pages, but I still don’t want to spoil it… part of the joy of this book is being repeatedly hit with “wait, what!?” moments…
**though in Italy, by this time the word ‘condottiere’ had become so prestigious it was used as a term of respect to describe any military commander, whether mercenary or monarch, and specifically mercenary leaders were known as ‘capitani di ventura’, captains of fortune.
So may we then conclude that Ash is an unimpeachable, incomparable success? Well, it may in a literal sense be incomparable – how many novels even approach its scale, let alone its quality? – but it’s not unimpeachable.
Ash is, for one thing, exhausting. I had to take a break about 700 or 800 pages in to avoid burning out – a great decision, in hindsight. [The first time I read it, about a decade ago, I didn’t take a break, and started to get frustrated – there’s only so much building of tension a reader can take before snapping]. It also, frankly, gets a little bit repetitive – not in content, but in style. As I’ve said, the novel and its characters are constantly on the move and very much on edge, and often that works brilliantly. It’s fantastically displayed right at the beginning of the first Part (after the Prologue), where we see the course of a battle through Ash’s eyes, from the opening charge right up to the way she goes through her camp debriefing and comforting her men – in a film, it would be a wonderful one-shot shaky-cam walk-(or-charge-)and-talk that establishes the character and her context concisely and evocatively. But it also means that a lot of the novel is people having loud arguments with one another that can never quite be resolved before another emergency develops. And although every emergency and almost every argument is welcome, the totality of it all does begin to wear you down. You long for people to just calm the fuck down, have a long bath, maybe book some sessions with a therapist. [or a quantum physicist, where applicable]. Indeed, I would love a sequel that was just 300 pages of these characters chillaxing and hanging out – they so deserve it.
But instead, they spend a thousand pages in the crucible, a lot of it spent talking to one another, and this raises the issue that Gentle’s dialogues are… I don’t know. I can’t decide if they’re realistically ‘wrong’ or just ‘wrong’ – the writing’s fine, but characters do seem to talk past each other too much, repeat themselves, bring things up out of the blue or have conversations that seem like bad excuses to manoeuvre to a particular revelation, and leave conversations seemingly without having pinned down a conclusion. Which is all… not unrealistic, because that’s what real people do too, and maybe it’s intentional (Gentle’s an unusually meta-theoretical author – she went through a phase, for instance, of stories in which the reader has no access to the mental lives of any of the characters). Or maybe it just needs a bit more editing. And yes, it does need a bit more editing: there were a couple of minor issues where I felt a small mistake had been made, and one issue of naming where I’m still not sure if it’s me or the author who’s gotten things wrong (and I’m not exactly going to go and re-read the whole damn thing to check!). By and large, however, the sheer relentlessness of the novel means that any confusions – accidental or intended – tend to be brushed past and forgiven.
If I had a serious objection, it would have to be directed at the interstitial e-mails and letters stuffed between parts, the correspondance of the author, Dr Ratcliff. I’m not sure the writer has yet been born who can carry on a story both compellingly and believably through the medium of the e-mail, and Gentle, for all her brilliance, isn’t the exception to that rule. The e-mails sound awkward and unnatural; and at least at first they do little more than make explicit what was already clear in the text itself and its context. They’re like explaining the joke. Now, in the end, all of this pays off in the most spectacular way. This postmodern foible isn’t just a bit of window-dressing, it’s absolutely essential to everything, and the e-mails fully merit their inclusion by the end. But they’re definitely the weak flank of the novel until they reach a certain point.
[However, I love the way that the conceit of Ratcliff as an editor/translator of the text allows Gentle to break the genre format with informative footnotes, explaining historical details or elucidating obscure historical terms (for instance, it lets her simply set up and utilise the mediaeval system of time, and lets her get technical on arms and armour without baffling the reader).]
And then there’s the ending. Or endings. There are, broadly speaking, three endings. I won’t tell you what they are. But I will characterise my approximate reactions:
Ending 1: …wait, seriously? Is this…? Oh. Huh. Well OK. I guess that makes… but isn’t this an anticlimax? Also, why does… huh. No no, it’s good, this is good. It’s just… a story THAT big, and an ending that sma…
Ending 2: WHAT THE FUCK!? How are you… you’re not seriously… HOW COULD YOU THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? This is madness! No author would seriously try to… this is… how is this meant to… REALLY!? you’re going with… well bravo for trying, but it’s just not… huh? But… this is how you’re ENDING a novel? This is…
Ending 3: I’M IN LOVE THIS IS MY FAVOURITE NOVEL EVER.
It reminds me, come to think of it, of a musical technique where a composer brings their work to a rousing… oh no, not a conclusion, it’s kind of left hanging, what’s going o–… and then the coda breaks in and it’s far more rousing and satisfying for having followed that twisty bit of confusion. But please, read carefully. Because Gentle does throw more plot, and indeed more metaphysics, into her three endings than more novelists attempt in an entire novel. It feels, looking at it in the cold light of day, that this conclusion should not possibly work. And probably for some readers it won’t (although frankly it doesn’t matter by that point – the journey’s worth the cost of admission alone). But for me, and I know for some others, it works so, so, so well. There aren’t many novels where my favourite chapter is the last one!
So here we are. At the end. And what do I really think overall?
Well, here are my scores:
Adrenaline: 5/5. Maybe it never, or at least rarely, hits the absolute peak of excitement some novels do – but it sits just below that peak for so long, whipping the reader onward one cliffhanger at a time – that this has to get top marks here.
Emotion: 5/5. Again, OK, maybe it’s not an absolute tearjerker. I’ve read more emotional books. But I think this is as emotional as a novel could be reasonably expected to be. It’s continually emotionally engaging throughout, with real moments of tragedy (in one case literally stomach-churning) and triumph, and by the fine you reach the final line (in Latin, obviously) you’ve been through a rollercoaster of feelings.
Thought: 5/5. Does the metaphysical side hold up? Almost certainly not as quantum mechanics, probably not as metaphysics, and I’m not entirely certain it even makes sense on its own terms. But it makes something close enough to sense that it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Along the way, the worldbuilding (and world-mirroring) is constantly intriguing, the character arcs and the plot inspire speculation, and there are even a number of thought-provoking conversations. Again, while it’s maybe not a philosophy textbook, it’s as think-y as a reader has a right to expect from a novel.
Beauty: 4/5. Gentle’s prose is mostly elegant, and she gives us many moments of beautiful imagery, and some fine lines. Having said that, we should admit that this does not set out to be a polished, pretty novel, and it certainly has a rough edge.
Craft: 4/5. Gentle is capable in every regard, and masterful in some. Her characterisation, her prose, her wonderful pacing, her research, her worldbuilding, her plotting, and just her sheer command of huge forces (there’s a lot of characters, a lot of geography, a lot of time, an a LOT of pages, but it never gets tangled up)… all I can mark her down for is that a few moments seem rushed and others dragged out, and some of her conversations and handling of the mechanics of scenes did not quite ring perfectly true. The novel is slightly too ambitious even for her obviously enormous talents. And I suppose we might also, without seeming critical, accept that Gentle’s style, while attractive and effective, is not what we might think of a true stylist’s style – by which I mean that perhaps the small details of prose and scene are not quite as perfect as some authors might have made them (while certainly not being a problem).
Endearingness: 5/5. It’s not absolutely loveable. I mean, just its shear weight is going to limit how often I re-read it. And there are one or two – and particularly one – moments where the darkness was a little too much. But by and large, I loved it. I don’t think I really did credit above to how fun the novel is, how unexpectedly funny in places, and how powerfully compelling the character of Ash herself is (although, sure, I may have a type…). And let’s reframe that criticism: the idea that I could have read a 1,100-page novel, for the second time, and be thinking seriously about how frequently I might re-read it in the future says an awful lot about about how great this novel is. I loved it, with a couple of reservations, when I read it ten years ago. Now I’ve come back to it with more experience and much less patience… and I still love it, with even fewer reservations. It isn’t actually my favourite novel ever, but if I tried to draw up a list it would probably be on it.
Originality: 5/5. A perfect score in this regard is an understatement. Some novels, you know the ending five pages in; in this novel, you don’t know the ending even five pages from the end. And it’s not just because of one big twist. This is a wild ride that smashes along entirely unexpected rails, constantly surprising – without ever seeming incoherent. Few novels can match it in that regard – and none, I suspect, can pair that wild imagination with rock-solid (and fascinating) historical research…
Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
Look, I get nervous when I praise things. What if I’m just being silly? What if you hate it? And sure, I can imagine readers who hate Ash: A Secret History. Maybe they want something light and fluffy. Maybe they want something easier on the grey cells. Maybe they just don’t like the genre – too much fantasy, or too little. Maybe they’re literary snobs who automatically claim to dislike any novel that makes their heart beat faster. Maybe they hate the characters – in which case, I suspect the ending may fall flat for them. Or maybe they just plain don’t like any novel that seriously threatens to damage their wrists when they hold it.
But they’re wrong.
If it’s not to your taste, that’s fine – although I think it’s a novel that could appeal to a very wide range of tastes, in point of fact. But to your taste or not, this truly is an exceptional piece of storytelling with many virtues and few flaws.
It should also be a must-read, for anyone with pretensions of knowing anything about Fantasy as a genre, and certainly for anyone thinking of actually attempting writing a novel in that genre. In many ways, it feels like the answer to questions about Fantasy that hadn’t been asked yet, but that would become prominent in the 18 years since its publication. In the landscape of modern epic fantasy – Martin or Abercrombie, Hobb or Lynch – it feels like a landmark and a guidepost, a definitive version of what modern epic fantasy can be – so definitive that very few books in the genre I think can really stand comparison with it. In many ways, it’s a novel that a great many people, answering a great many questions about how to write Fantasy, should be able to point at and say “there, that’s how that works”.
And yet it isn’t. And yet, far from being acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of the genre, it’s mostly forgotten. If I tell someone to read Ash, they don’t say “oh, I’ve been meaning to get around to that”, they say “what’s that?” – and that’s a tragedy. [it didn’t even get the proper acclaim at the time – although it did win the BSFA for Best Novel. It came 2nd for the Campbell Memorial, and was nominated for the Clarke (beaten by Perdido Street Station) and the Tiptree. It only came 5th in the Locus poll that year although, to be fair, it was a tough year: it came behind A Storm of Swords, Perdido Street Station, The Amber Spyglass, and Tim Powers’ Declare, which won the WFA that year].
Now, let’s come down to ground. The scores above I think translate to this being the best novel I’ve reviewed on this blog – the best thing I’ve read in ten years. Is it? Probably not. At least, I’m not sure I think so. Subjectively, this is probably because the two areas I’ve found… well, not flaws, but imperfections… that is, in its beauty and its craft, are the two areas I probably personally value the most in literature. Objectively, these benchmarks may have overrated it because they have only a small range for each score, and hence consistently overrate books that do everything well over books that do some things truly brilliantly. It’s true that some of my 5/5 marks above were ‘low 5s’ that might be subject to debate. And yet – even if I downgraded every single 5 to a 4, the book would still come out as ‘Very Good’ at the absolute least (which would make it one of the best epic fantasy novels I’ve ever read). And that, I honestly believe, would be a very harsh judgement on it indeed.
Which makes it, unfortunately, a little ironic that this stupidly long (and not particularly informative!) review will probably greatly limit the impact of my recommendation. So I think I’ll have to go and write a second review – one short enough for people to actually read…