In our world, the duchy of Burgundy, the Middle Kingdom, has had a fascinating, and often strange history. Wedged in the middle of Europe, from the Mediterranean and up toward the North Sea, parts of which are now France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, the Dukes of Burgundy have often been as powerful or more powerful than some of the full blown kingdoms they have dealt with. Burgundy is a hell of a lot of fun to play in the computer game Crusader Kingdoms 2. By accidents and turns of fortune, Burgundy disappeared from our history in a rather sudden fashion.
That sudden disappearance of Burgundy from history is the historical seed for Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle. Gentle uses secret history, alternate history, and the moldability of history to explore a 15th century that wasn’t … but perhaps once was. We are dropped into this 15th century that, even with the framing device of the book being an academic work, slowly reveals just how strange and wrong this 15th century is compared to ours. By the time the reader is fully into the first movement of the book, the fact that this 15th century is definitely not the one we remember becomes inescapable. And then that leads to other questions — how is it that this account is so different than the history we know? Is it a problem of scholarship and the reliability of the historical record? Is history changed itself? Is there a difference between those two ideas? What does this difference ultimately mean, for the past, the present and the future?
Even as the reader goes deeper and deeper into the book, the book shifts underneath the feet of the reader. From history, to alternate history, to fantastical history, to other places. The novel doesn’t let the reader be safe, be comfortable, and be set in a particular subgenre. Gentle keeps bringing readers deeper into her labyrinth of ideas, and with vivid, sharp writing, keeps them there. The journey through the book and its changes is as important, in the end, as finding out just what is going on with Burgundy and what it all means. The novel is extremely interesting on a textual level, with the academic notes and footnotes of the framing device trying to make sense of the strange events within.
The historical feel of the novel, even as an alternate and magical one, is dead on. Gentle has an MA in War Studies, supporting the accuracy and visceral depiction of medieval battles and the general life and times of a mercenary company in this era. From logistics to the swing of a sword, there is never a false note in how Gentle depicts what it would be like to be part of this very violent and bloody world. Sometimes the novel gets rather graphic in its depiction of the viscerality of battle and combat. Long before Grimdark was a thing, Gentle was doing Grimdark in her alternate 15th-century world.
Ash, in the end, though, isn’t just the story of Burgundy and the problems of history and scholarship and the fluidity of the past. Or about medieval warfare, even. It’s the story of Ash herself. Ash is our 15th-century mercenary captain — a woman who hears voices, voices that aid her in the role of being a female mercenary captain in this age of condottieri. She turns out to be a pivot in understanding the how and why of what happens to Burgundy, and it is Ash’s story and evolution and growth that draws the reader forward through the work. She’s surrounded by a motley set of secondary characters and antagonists that are equally well drawn, and have arcs of their own. I particularly was drawn to The Faris, a twin to Ash, using her power to hear that voice on behalf of the strange Visigothian Carthaginian Empire that exists in this alternate 15th century in a bid to conquer Europe for her masters.
Ash won the British Science Fiction Association award in 2000. The strange division of the novel into four pieces in the United States [A Secret History; Carthage Ascendant; The Wild Machines; Lost Burgundy] did it no favors in bringing it to American audiences, since the breaks in the individual four volumes were at best artificial and at worst ungainly and poorly thought out. Like the poorly conceived division of books in the original publication of Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes novels, these cuts, while making sense from a printing cost point of view, ultimately hurt its readership. It frustrated me as a reader when I first read it. With a new, complete ebook version of Ash, this is no longer a problem.
Like Ash, much of the rest of Gentle’s oeuvre, past, and present, does not get the attention that I think it deserves. Excellent writing, complicated characters, including strong female and genderqueer ones (who feel and act in a historically accurate way), interesting frames and themes — why Gentle’s work isn’t snapped up in this day and age, I can’t fathom. I do think Ash remains among the strongest of her work, and it is the book of hers, in a complete form, that I urge any readers interested in medieval fantasy , or interested in the work of the author, to pick up.