Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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If you’re into alternate and secret history —

At Skiffy and Fanty, an intriguing review of a four-book series by Mary Gentle that I hadn’t heard of but that’s been out for some time:

ASH: A SECRET HISTORY

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. … 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.

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I’m not sure I know enough about enough about real history to get the most out of this alternate history . . . in fact, I’m sure I don’t . . . but according to this review, “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.” Hmm, this does sound intriguing.

The only book by Mary Gentle that I ever read was RATS AND GARGOYLES, and I guess I didn’t much care for it because it doesn’t seem to have stuck with me.

On the other hand, this ASH quadrilogy does sound like my kind of thing — here’s the Goodreads summary:

For the beautiful young woman Ash, life has always been arquebuses and artillery, swords and armour and the true horrors of hand-to-hand combat. War is her job. She has fought her way to the command of a mercenary company, and on her unlikely shoulders lies the destiny of a Europe threatened by the depredations of an Infidel army more terrible than any nightmare.

There are definitely tropes I like in this one, sounds like. Also, wouldn’t it be interesting to compare this work with Django Wexler’s THE THOUSAND NAMES?

Has anybody read this? Or other books by Mary Gentle? What did you think?

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9 Comments If you’re into alternate and secret history —

  1. Elaine T

    Gentle hung out in one my hangouts on the Net when she was writing this – it’s like LOTR one long book split (in the US) for publication. I really really wanted to like it, because it sounded fascinating. The writer knows her military stuff, the characters sounded well drawn etc., the two alternate histories colliding need a master’s touch to pull off, and Gentle has it…

    But I bounce hard off almost everything Gentle writes (still have her first book, and did finish the Golden Witchbreed duo) and this wasn’t any different. I haven’t tried ASH for a while, maybe it’s time to attempt it again.

    One thing about Gentle – have you read GWB? The ending is grim, right? ALL her stuff is grim. ASH isn’t any different, and the main character is a female mercenary in a renaissance era level army. The writer shows the downsides of this early on – she said so people who can’t handle/don’t want to read it are warned before getting too far in.

  2. Rachel

    Well, if her stories tend toward the grim, that would be why I didn’t go on with others of hers after RATS AND GARGOYLES, I bet.

    Still, I might try ASH — as long as I’ve had prior warning.

  3. David H.

    I got about halfway or two-thirds of the way through the first Ash book, before giving up. I’m not sure why it failed for me, specifically. I read summaries of the last 3 books and decided it wasn’t for me.

    I’ve read two other books by her… GRUNTS (which is a fantasy following the Orc side of things), which was OK enough. The other was 1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE (or A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE: 1610) which I remember quite enjoying even if I don’t remember a lot of details.

  4. Pete Mack

    Gentle is a pretty dark writer, with a fine sense if ironic humor. Ash is literally dark, too…right up to the last two chapters, when everything works out in the end.
    The Witchbreed duology is perhaps darker than her later works. In that series, everything goes utterly, horribly wrong in the last two chapters.

  5. Craig

    I read the ASH series a while back: I liked the high concept, but the tone was too gritty for me and the details of the alternate history irritated me in a couple of ways. A good bit of this is that Ash herself is a sort of dark fantasy variant of Joan of Arc, who is one of my very favorite characters from Real History.

  6. Pete Mack

    Ash is a lot more than “sort of” based on Joan of Arc. I came back to post a realization about Golden Witchbreed. It’s a lot like Sharing Knife in it’s worldbuilding, except it’s done by an author who doesn’t really believe in happy endings.

  7. Rachel

    Well, I’m definitely off Golden Witchbreed, then. Sounds like would not work for me, at all. But the 1610 duology sounds good — maybe I’ll try that one instead of ASH.

  8. David H.

    Er, 1610 isn’t a duology as far as I know–just one big book. (The UK and US version flip whether 1610 is the title or the subtitle.)

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