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A Secret History by Mary Gentle

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Book Information  
AuthorMary Gentle
TitleA Secret History
SeriesAsh
Volume1
Year1999
GenreScience Fiction
 
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
 
Submitted by Archren 
(May 24, 2006)

“A Secret History” is the first book of a complete quadrology. In it we are introduced to Ash, the female captain of a mercenary company operating in Western Europe in the 1470s. Interspersed with her story are a number of communications between the scholar who is translating her story and his editor. Both of these narrative threads are interesting and powerful; although the contemporary thread simply seems like a nice addition at first, it quickly becomes something much more intriguing and possibly sinister.

The feel of the world that Ash lives in is well developed. To be a mercenary at that time was to live an existence that we would call squalid, but was better than some others. The camps are full of sex and violence as well as dirt and boredom. This is accepted by all as the norm. It’s disturbing to read about child molestation being regarded as unpleasant but normal, even by the child involved, but it is possibly not far from the truth of the times.

Of course, the fact that Ash is a woman is not normal by any means. She knows this, and has to work around it at all times. On the battlefield she has additional help: while she herself is probably a brilliant soldier, there is a voice in her head that helps her solve tactical problems. It is no abstract saint’s voice or feeling from God. It sounds like nothing so much as a tactical computer. Unfortunately, even it can’t help her when she is maneuvered into an unwanted marriage as a “reward” from the Emperor Frederick (of the Holy Roman Empire).

There is a lot going on in this book, and the pacing is wonderful. The author knows how to build narrative tension and keep things interesting. The question of what is real is pervasive. When Ash talks about golems, is that just European legendary thinking creeping in? Or does she mean real, honest-to-God walking around Golems? At first the answer seems obvious: just as one can write off date errors as medieval sloppiness, so one can ignore golems as mere embellishment. But back in today’s world, the archeological evidence is about to unleash some surprises. I’m looking forward to getting the second book, “Carthage Ascendent,” when I can find it. We’ll see if Gentle can keep up the pace and mystery of what she starts in this unique novel.




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