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A Secret History: The Book Of Ash, #1 Mass Market Paperback – October 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Mary Gentle first came to prominence with the lovingly conceived and beautifully written SF novel Golden Witchbreed. Its sequel, Ancient Light, then took the world and premise built into the first novel and deconstructed it thoroughly. Gentle's latest plays some of the same tricks with reader expectations.

In a typical fantasy milieu, the mud and blood of a military camp in 15th-century Europe, a scarred and beautiful 8-year-old girl kills her two adult rapists. She is Ash. In unflinching prose, Gentle describes the child's treatment in a men's camp, then the teenager's hard lessons in the art and craft of war, and finally the young woman's rise to command a mercenary army. Ash, it seems, is not only strong and fast but has the advantage of hearing a voice that instructs her on troop deployment. To the well-versed SF reader, the voice begins to sound suspiciously like a tactical computer.

Just as the reader gets ready to reassign the book to time travel SF, Gentle inserts--in what are purported to be excerpts from a 21st-century scholar's e-mail conversation with his publisher--hints that perhaps the novel belongs in the alternate history category. By now Ash and her army are embroiled in war and politics up to their fluted breastplates (armor, like all the historical detail, is minutely and accurately described), and if swords and poleaxes were not enough, she now faces golems and the Carthaginian army. Amazingly, Gentle makes this impossible mix believable, and by the end of the novel it is apparent that this is the beginning of a most interesting series. --Luc Duplessis


" One of the best fantasies I've read in the past 15 years, bar none." -- -- S.M. Stirling, author of Against the Tide of Years

" One of the best fantasies I've read in the past 15 years, bar none." -- S.M. Stirling, author of Against the Tide of Years

"The Mermaid's Sister" by Carrie Anne Noble
Travel with Clara and her sister as they work to understand how to be who they truly are and the power of helping others do the same. See more

Product Details

  • Series: Book of Ash (Book 1)
  • Mass Market Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Eos; Later Printing edition (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380788691
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380788699
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 1.1 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,744,669 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

All of this makes for a very realistic story.
Christopher Ware
I read all parts of this book in a single, enormous volume, and it's one of the best books I've ever read.
Robert W. Igo
If you like your historical fiction stark and grim this is a story to read.
John McCarthy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Richard R. Horton on April 25, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This is the first installment of an impressive new novel (or novel series) by Mary Gentle. In brief, it's the story of a female mercenary captain, Ash, in the 1470s, at the time of the fall of the Duchy of Burgundy. (By coincidence, these events occur at about the same time as yet another unusual alternate history/fantasy, John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting.)
The Book of Ash purports to be a straight-forward translation of a few contemporary manuscripts about Ash's life, and indeed there is a frame story consisting of letters and email between the translator and his editor. As such, they start out seeming to be "normal" historical fiction, with a very realistic and believable portrayal of Ash's childhood as a mercenary camp follower, then jumping to portrayal of her role as the Captain of some 800 mercenaries at the age of 19 or 20. All this is presented starkly: Ash's rape at the age of 8, and her subsequent killing of her attackers; the filthy conditions in her camp; the blood, pain, and discomfort of battle. Throughout, we get very nice details of such things as what sort of armour was worn. But slowly we realize that the world described doesn't seem to be part of our own history.
At first, we notice little details, such as the voices Ash hears, or the references to a different-seeming variety of Christianity, involving the "Green Christ", or the odd mention of Carthage and the Eternal Twilight. As the book goes on, we learn that somehow Carthage has survived into the 15th century, or has been re-established, and, more strangely, that the Sun never shines in the area of Carthage.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Kathleen Cobcroft on October 26, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Ash is a compelling dual story about a (fictional) female warrior/general in medieval times and the academic who studies her life in the near future. The book we read is a combination of book that the academic *nearly* published about Ash, and the e-mails that pass between him and his editor (this works better than it sounds).
The Ash story is compiled from the academic's translation of medieval latin texts (rendered into modern English, so Ash's soldier cursing has been translated into modern strong cursing), and is written as an entertaining novel with some pseudo-academic footnotes.
At first, the story would appeal to any historical novel reader (as long as they're OK with strong language and violence), but later in the series it gets into fantasy and also explores the possible nature of time and space quite a bit.
The long chapter-less parts make for late night reading (while you wait for a good place to stop), but I had no regrets for the dark rings around my eyes in the morning.
If you can't wait for the final volume, the whole work is published as a huge trade paperback in Britain (although reading it like that in one go can send you around the bend!), available at Amazon UK.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Maddi Hausmann Sojourner on October 8, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
A Secret History, the first of the four "Books of Ash", is difficult to categorize. While the book itself is stamped "Fantasy" on the spine, all the topics above apply at one time or another. And that, perhaps, is why several of the reviewers got annoyed with this book, because it refuses to stick to one category and stay there. This is not a failure on the book's part, but a success; this work is a tour de force.
The tale starts off as a translation of a 15th century manuscript, with notes from the (purported) author to his editor, and then we are absorbed into the story of Ash, Renaissance Battle Babe (well, mercenary company leader). Mary Gentle has done her homework on this period, and you will experience almost everything to make it real by dwelling on the discomforts. You will march through muck, mud, and mire, don and doff heavy armor more times than you will care to, while overhearing political calculations in where the next mercenary contract should come from. And the more you take in, the more twists are in store.
The breezy correspondence between the translator, Pierce Ratcliff, and his editor, Anna Longman, at first seems jarring compared to the long, complex, and thorough descriptions and adventures of Ash and her company. But do follow them, because they hint from the beginning that this book is not a mere swords without sorcery tale. The editor mentions that she studied Ash in college, yet we know Ash is fictional. And then all of Pierce's source materials either disappear or get reclassified as fiction. Not only do we wonder what will happen to Ash, trying to own land to keep a mercenary company in a land where women cannot own land; we wonder where Pierce's book will ever see the light of day. And why would his sources... change?
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Tango on September 29, 2004
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I read the entire series as one novel (the UK edition), so I am perhaps less qualified than the other readers here to judge the merits of the first quarter of it as a novel in its own right.

Having said that, I was hooked from page 1. The characters, including Ash herself and the "supporting cast", are first-rate, and drawn in Gentle's typically unflinching style. The setting is fascinating: not exactly history, but historical enough to be interesting as a narrative as well as an exploration of a particular period.

It's definitely not a book for the faint-hearted. It's brutal, filthy and extremely violent. Not violent in that epic-fantasy glamourised-sadistic way, but violent in the way that you'd expect medieval life and warfare to be. Hardened and accepting of human suffering as a fact of everyday life. When Ash says that she doesn't expect to live to middle age, you believe her -- and more importantly, you believe that this is a character who lives her life in the knowledge that it's going to be short and bright and in the end, ugly. There are no modern-day sensibilities transposed onto a medieval setting; Ash is as real as it gets.

True, this is by no means a perfect book. Others have pointed to the "buttressing" structure of the interspersed emails as annoying; I agree -- but on the other hand, the emails are relatively simple to skim-read, and you can always ignore them if you're really irked. It feels a bit gimmicky, but to be fair, does eventually grow into a plot of its own, with its own resolution.

The other problem I encountered was the increasing importance of the supernatural/sci-fi element in the later parts of the book. While I love sf, and appreciate the skilful combination of it with fantasy, it just didn't completely work for me here.
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