Ash by Mary Gentle
I wanted to give this book five stars simply for the sheer originality in the crafting of the story. The combination of an alternate 15th century Europe and a wrapper story about a historian doing a translation of the text was brilliant. Not only do we get to read this vastly interesting mercenary story, but we also become intrigued by the historian's ponderings of how such a history could become "lost". What disappointed me about the book was that, despite the fact that the protagonist was a mercenary leader, there were relatively few battles in the story. Over four hundred pages, there were two battles that were clearly narrated and a couple of others that were offscreen. While I was not expecting constant action, four battles seemed awfully few for a mercenary band of this violent era. On a similar note, I wanted more exposure to the voice that Ash hears in her head that gives her tactical advice on the battlefield. I can only recall her using the voice once during a battle. This was a major disappointment since that was the major concept that grabbed my attention when reading about the book. Hopefully, this idea will be utilized more fully in the next three books. Between the scattered battles, the reader gets a vivid look at 15th century military life. Gentle holds nothing back in this regard. The view we get is harsh and candid. The reader is thrown into this world to sink or swim in the stark reality that Gentle creates. This is not for the weak of stomach! Of course, it's not all blood and guts. We get a look into the politics of a mercenary camp as well as vivid detail of the armor and weapons carried by the soldiers. All of this makes for a very realistic story. Gentle's protagonist is what makes the story interesting. Ash does what it takes to get her company through hardships alive and intact. She is at times cold and hard and at others introspective and vulnerable. She is a thoroughly fleshed out, three dimensional character with moods, feelings, fears, and desires. In other words, she is an imperfect human being rather than the near perfect characters prevalent in a lot of fantasy today. Ash's struggles to survive and to keep her troop intact are what drive the story forward through injury, capture, and political maneuvering. One other thing I might have wished for would be a deeper look into the minds of the supporting characters. All we see is Ash's point of view: what she thinks of other characters, her ideas about the situations they are in, and her opinion of the world around her. While this is effective in telling Ash's story (which is what the author was doing), the reader only gets one perspective on the world the author has created. I would have liked to see how her lieutenants felt about some of the decisions she made or their fears and hopes in regards to their own lives. All in all, this is a very powerful story, even if it is a bit slow in places. Gentle fleshes out her protagonist and the world she lives in vividly and thoroughly, making them entirely believable to the reader. I got lost in the narration, felt myself drawn into the world as if I was actually there at times. I am most definitely looking forward to the rest of the series.
Submitted by Seldom
First off, in the UK and thereabouts "ASH" is published in one big book--as it should be, because it is a novel (albeit a very long one)--and the US and thereabouts, you get it in four separate installations (A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, Lost Burgundy), with miserable cover art which you should ignore. Second off, I'm not the best person to ask about how good this novel is (and it's damn great)--since I can't express my thoughts as well on paper (virtual or otherwise) the way they should be expressed. Comes with the age and relative naivete, possibly. Anyway, the central character of "ASH" is--well, Ash, a young female mercenary captain in 15th century Europe--or rather, in an alternate 15th century Europe which has still got just about the same rulers (Lancaster's fighting York and you can tell which side the author is on; Charles of Burgundy is being bold, the Spider King Louis XI is being really devious, the Holy Roman Emperor is yada yada yada don't let this put you off either). You get a very realistic view of what life must have been like back then for Ash's scion of existence. She and her mercenaries actually fight--the novel is *full* of war with all of its brutality (rape, blood and guts, filth) and occasional camaraderie. Gentle does it well--she also modernizes, so you'll see (gasp) modern four-letter words. Meantime there are some historians communicating through Email about the manuscript(s) one is translating (that is, the rest of the presented narrative about Ash). Stick with me. It'll all come together. Ash hears voices that tell her how to fight and win. No, she's not schizophrenic... (read the book) Whilst Ash is trying to work her way up the social (mercenarial?) ladder, other things are happening in the land-- Carthaginian Visigoths (they're here in this version of medieval Europe) are apparently trying to conquer the world, and as they move, they bring with them total darkness (literally). They have some power that can cause the sun itself to become extinguished. Some power perhaps belonging to the mysterious "Wild Machines"--some power perhaps related to the voices in Ash's head. (remember those?) The Visigoths are incidentally led by a young woman who happens to be physically identical to Ash, except in that this general, this "Faris", has a face unscarred. (read the book) Ash doesn't know who the heck this young woman is, exactly. She may be her twin--but Ash doesn't know her *own* origin either-- I tore through these books rapidly. So, the characters were very cool (the ones that weren't scum--but then it's usually hard to differentiate!), and you grow to genuinely care for them. There are times when your heart palpitates violently because of what happens to them. Sometimes this novel will make you physically ill. So if you're squeamish--be warned. There's no dearth of psychology here, and though I'm not the best person to analyze it, I did catch that Ash is a soldier directly after she is a human being--and she must come to cope with that: with the way she seems to be/is to others, what she seems to be/is to herself, both physically and emotionally. But by the way I talk (write), I make it sound as if she is the only person here! And she's not. This is a real epic. There are her other mercenaries: her camp doctor, Florian, whom I really got a kick out of; all her darling Italians and Welsh and beefeating English; her priest, Godfrey...Ash also has a husband (don't ask--just read). There's more, too. You'll love this book if you are a) a military history buff, or b) a medieval/Renaissance history buff, or c) a fantasy/science fiction buff, or d) an intelligent person who likes to challenge himself (or herself). If you're all four, then rejoice, but only after you've gone out, bought, and read "The Book of Ash". If you're none of these, buy and read it anyway, you will be moved. You'd have to be moved one way or another, if you're a human being! Maybe you'll have a heart attack. Maybe you'll be fascinated (and have a heart attack). Maybe you'll survive. (Maybe.) What was I going to say? I forgot so much of it--I suppose this will have to do...
Submitted by Louise
I bought this as holiday reading expecting a typical sword, historical fantasy thing. What a surprise to discover the intriguing and complex stories that developed. Ash is actually two stories. One is the daring mercenary captain, Ash, fighting her way through ever increasing odds, against an enemy who has the strength to take away the sun and bring eternal winter to the world. The other follows the historian unearthing the "lost history" of Ash, unearthing, in fact, the changing history of Ash. We find ourselves twisting through a world of changing realities and parallel universes. This story is never predictable and follows none of the stereotypes so common in the market these days. Mary Gentle has an incredible imagination and writes her stories with an appreciated skill. Ash as a character totally absorbs the readers sympathy and empathy. I found the historian's tale initially jarring but was quickly intrigued by the complications and developing history that was being unearthed. This book is deep, complex and thoroughly engrossing. I can recommend it to anyone who is looking for more than just another fighting fantasy.