Ash: A Secret History; by Mary Gentle (short review)

I recently reviewed Gentle’s Ash – but the review was ridiculously long. I thought I’d better produce a condensed version. I usually do that for my Goodreads reviews anyway, so here’s the review I wrote for GR… (you can still find the full review over here)


The first thing that should probably be said about Ash: A Secret History is that it’s probably the apex of the epic fantasy genre – or at least, the best thing written in the genre since The Lord of the Rings.

Ash was published in the same year as George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, with which is shares a great deal – but it’s pretty straightforwardly better in every respect. It was published the same year as Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny – but, while I’ve gotten more out of Hobb’s long Realm of Elderlings cycle as a whole (17 books and some short stories and counting), that’s probably mostly because of weight of characterisation and emotional connexion that can be established over such an immense scale (not to mention that Hobb’s plots unfold across at least three novels at a time), and I think it’s only fair to say that, as a single work in its own right, Gentle’s novel probably achieves more than any single one of Hobb’s. Ash was published the same year as Robert Jordan’s Winter’s Heart, but the Wheel of Time looks like childsplay beside Ash. In its vitality, its colloquialism, its sporadic brutality, it presages the work of authors like Joe Abercrombie… but, at least from what I’ve read so far, in this case the prophet far outdid those who came after her. Indeed, “a bit like The First Law, but better in every single way” wouldn’t be a bad first analogy – with all due respect to a very popular author, it makes those books like a child’s crayon imitation of an Old Master painting they once glimpsed.

The first few decades after The Lord of the Rings were arguably dominated by the desire to imitate that work, or at least to find a way to reach a compromise between it and more conventional modern fiction. The last few decades have in a way been dominated by the desire to move decisively away from that text, to find something different that fantasy can be. At least in the realm of epic fantasy, that search seems to have been answered by Ash. Unfortunately, that answer seems to have been lost unheard in the wilderness.

The second thing that should probably be said about Ash is that I’m not sure it actually is an epic fantasy. It straddles the boundaries of historical fiction, alternate history, epic fantasy, and science fiction, with a little but important dash of postmodernism too (in the form of interleaved e-mails correspondance by the ‘translator’ of the original ‘text’, and the meta-fiction of that translation, which is cunningly woven into the narrative itself). This may be why it’s – otherwise unaccountably – escaped notice in the genre.

I suppose maybe the third thing to say, if only in the interests of clarity, is that Ash is a novel about a young, female mercenary commander in what at first appears to be – and sort of is – 15th century Europe. Only… it’s sort of not. But I don’t want to say much more. This is a novel where even the genre is arguably a spoiler. Really, talking about anything more than a few pages into the novel is a spoiler. Clear? Right, then…

The fourth thing to say might be that very few people seem to have an ambivalent reaction to Ash. As a very rough metric: of the first 30 reviews that show up for me on GR, 20 of them are 5-stars, 2 are 4-stars, 3 are 2-stars (one ‘confused’, one ‘swamped’, and one who thought it was ‘too long’), 2 are 1-stars (neither of whom read much of it), 2 don’t give stars, and only 1 is a 3-star. Indeed, the most liked review gives it 5, and the second-most-liked review gives it 1 (probably because he only read 25 pages, and hence didn’t make it as far as chapter 1…). If you read this book, you’ll probably love it (indeed, a lot of GR reviews list it as one of the reviewer’s favourite books ever – if I’ve not been clear, that’s true of me, too). If you don’t love it… you probably won’t like it at all.

Why is that? Well, so far as I can see, there are two reasons to dislike this book:
– a total disinterest in its topic and themes, or even repulsion from them; or
– a complete failure to get the point.

You might, for example, not like this novel because, quite reasonably, you only read 60-page novellas. Ash, by contrast, is over 1,100 pages long. Ash can see your so-called ‘doorstopper tomes’, and can crush them into a pulp beneath its unparalleled mass. There are only a handful of novels in the history of fantasy (or, indeed, any genre) that are longer than it, and none of them are standalones (it’s substantially longer than The Lord of the Rings, for example). Now, personally, when that wordcount is NOT an excuse for sightseeing and procrastination, but is packed to the gills with action and adventure and character work, I see that length as a bonus, not a disqualifying flaw; but you may disagree. I’ll concede that, cliffhangers aside, it’s not one for people who want immediate gratification…

You might not like it because you refuse to read fantasy, or anything with a hauberk in it. Or, you might not like it because you only read fantasy about hauberks and the occasional dragon, and you get distressed when you don’t quite understand what’s going on, or when there’s quantum involved, or pyramids, and you just hate it if every things get weird.

You may also not like this novel because you want stories about fluffy pink bunny-rabbits who live inside rainbows. This would not, then, be the novel for you. This is a novel about life and warfare in some (unreal, heightened, subtly (and less subtly) fantastical) version of the middle ages, and a lot of people get killed or injured, occasionally in some detail. Gentle helpfully throws some traumatic childhood experiences, battlefield injuries and a little educational animal-killing into the prologue just to warn people of a swooning disposition away – no, the rest of the book will not in general be that brutal, but little bits of non-gratuitous, character-advancing, realistic adversity will be waiting for many of the characters over the course of the novel, and if that’s not something you’re ready for then… well, this isn’t for you.
Come to think of it, just the first page of the prologue makes that pretty clear. Just the first couple of paragraphs. This is not the Belgariad. It’s not Harry Potter.

And speaking of the first few paragraphs, people may in particular refuse to recognise the quality of the book because of its protagonist. Gentle picks up the over-used fantasy trope of the supernaturally badass tomboy with a traumatic past – and she looks at what that really means. At the sort of world that would produce such a woman, and at what such a woman would really look like. So if you’re somebody who pretends to want “realistic” fantasy as an excuse for hating anything with a strong woman in it, this book isn’t for you. But at the same time, if you’re somebody who pretends to want “positive messages for women” while actually just reflexively dismissing anything “problematic” as a fashion statement, this book is also not for you. It’s all about problematic. In fact, it’s downright interested in problems.

If, on the other hand, you really DO want strong female characters as empowering role models, confronting, circumventing and/or exploiting misogyny and patriarchal assumptions, or if you really DO want non-utopian fantasy in which personal successes (and failures) are grounded in a historically realistic and meaningful, nuanced context of prejudices and injustices, then maybe this novel can offer some common ground for some of the disagreements in modern fandom…

And on that note, let’s move on from the introductory statements and say clearly: if you’re interested in epic fantasy even slightly, and neither length nor a little unpleasantness (only a little of which is actually depicted graphically) is going to put you off, then you should read this book.

Specifically, why should you read it?
– it’s a thrilling rollercoaster of an adventure story. Yes, it’s really long, but almost every chapter ends in a cliffhanger. I probably haven’t been glued to a novel in this way for a decade – since the last (and first) time I read this novel, in fact. And the couple of books that might have been similarly exciting in that time-period were much shorter, so the total excitement here… well, it combines the surface thrills of the adventure story (battles and escapes and so forth) with the stakes and scale of a true epic.

– it’s emotionally engaging and psychologically real. So much is happening that characters rarely have time to rest and hang out, but through all the action and the arguments, Gentle skilfully establishes a cast of rounded, understandable, individual and sympathetic characters, and makes us care what happens to them.

– it’s the best worldbuilding I’ve ever read. If you want a fascinating yet believable world where every detail makes you want to find out more, this is the book for you. As an added bonus, most of this incredibly setting is… our world. Gentle has a history degree, and a masters in war studies, and a hobby of historical re-enactment… and it shows. From the geopolitical balances to the battle tactics to the specific places that the armour rusts or rubs, down to the shoes they wear when its muddy, Gentle gives us a pre-modernity that’s vividly lived-in, dirty, that matters to the people who inhabit it, rather than being, as some fantasy makes it feel, something seen third-hand, blurred, a short-hand we’re not really meant to pay attention to. And that depth and understand in turn feeds into the characters, who as a result are not merely 20th century Americans dropped into king arthur’s court, but men and women who have grown up in a world very alien to ours.

– it’s unique. It’s filled with twists you won’t predict, and its ending – or endings – are mindblowing.

And why might you not like it? Well, as mentioned above, maybe you just want a wholly different sort of book. You might also be an afficionado of the great poets, and object to the fact that Gentle’s prose is at best good, and at worst solid (rather than truly, poetically sublime). You might want a deeper insight into The Nature of Human Existence – because this novel does have some insights into that, but there’s only so much philosophising can be fit between the pages of a thrilling adventure story. You might feel that the conclusion of the novel, while stunningly (no, really, I was physically stunned) ambitious, doesn’t actually work, and that the novel is a bit anticlimactic in the last few dozen pages as a result – I strongly disagree, and indeed the final few pages may be my favourite of the entire novel, but I acknowledge that Gentle takes a big running leap here and whether she sticks the landing may be something some people may reasonably disagree with me on. You may also quite reasonably feel that the 20th-century interstitial material struggles to fit in through much of the novel, that it starts out by just making subtext text, that Gentle, for all her grasp of the middle ages, hasn’t quite mastered the rhythms of the slightly awkward business/social e-mail, and that this element of the novel feels dragged out, not hitting top gear until surprisingly late in the novel – and indeed, I’d agree that this is a minor but recognisable flaw in the book.

You may also feel that the novel is just too much of everything, and run out of energy somewhere around the 700-page mark. Personally, after a fevered week of reading, I took a rest for a few days to recharge my mental energy for the final climax to avoid hitting the wall. If you don’t do that, you might find that the steadily mounting tension and tantalisation overcomes you, and you end up pulling your hair out and screaming into the night. It’s better not to do that.

If you feel like you can cope with these things, however, you should read Ash: A Secret History, because it’s absolutely brilliant.

If that’s not persuaded you, or if you’ve read it and want to compare thoughts in more depth here’s the full, stupidly long version of this review…


3 thoughts on “Ash: A Secret History; by Mary Gentle (short review)

  1. Sounds amazing. Could it be adapted for television, you think?

  2. Absolutely!
    It wouldn’t work as a film – too long, too complicated. But it would fit an episodic structure perfectly.

    You’d probably have to replace the interstitial e-mail framing story with actual scenes, and they wouldn’t necessarily work brilliantly at first, but that wouldn’t be an insuperable obstacle.

    I think the big problem is that it’s too big for an episode, too short for a ten-season epic. You’d need a fair expenditure on castles, cities, armies etc, so a studio would be looking for it to be a big, multi-season hit. And I don’t think that would work. I think you’d be looking at one season. It’d be a long season, and maybe you could break it into two short seasons, but beyond that I think you’d really be stretching it out, unless you invented a lot of sideplots – which there’s absolutely space and material to do, but then I’d worry about it being too slow and dense.

    So I’d guess it ideally ought to be two short seasons, and I don’t think TV economics would support such an expensive show running for so long, with the risk of a relatively unknown property attached. So I’d love to see it done, and it could be done really well (and would make a star out of whoever plays Ash), but I’m not holding my breath, unfortunately.

  3. I should also add: as well as the semi-episodic structure suiting a TV series, a lot of the writing is a good match too. To massively over-simplify things, most of the novel is made up of two kinds of scenes: exciting action set pieces; and people having emotional arguments with one another. Both of which work really well on screen.

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