Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Book of Ash, Volume 1 - Mary Gentle

1999; 424 pages. New Author? : Yes. Full Title : A Secret History, The Book of Ash, #1. Genres : Alt-History, Sci-Fi, Historical Fiction, Fantasy. Overall Rating : 8½/10.
Europe in the mid-15th century is a turmoil-embroiled, crappy place to live. A hodgepodge of small kingdoms and duchies vie for power, and mercenary armies roam the countryside looking for employment.
One of the mercenary bands is led by Ash. Now in her late teens, she killed her first two men (with just cause) when she was eight. Guided by a voice in her head, she excels in battle tactics. It is challenging to keep her army fed and paid, yet so far she's managed to do it. But there is a great dark force surging northward out of Africa, the like of which Europe has never before seen.
What's To Like...
There are two storylines here - one in the present; the other in the 1470's. The present-day one is given as a series of e-mails between a historian and his publisher. He is in the process of translating a newly-discovered manuscript about Ash, and the 1470's timeline is in effect his translation. This allows Gentle to use some modern, anachronistic words, especially when it comes to cussing.
The first quarter of the book is historical fiction, and is well done. You can feel the grit and grime, and see the soldiers in their armor, which they have to work at constantly to keep it from rusting. However, around page 135, golems and dwarves and Visigoths show up, and you realize you're not in Kansas anymore. It's a different world, one where Carthage is still a force, and Mithraism exists right alongside Christianity.
There is a lot of cussing, and some savagery and ravagery. The coarse language seemed a bit strange coming from a female author, and some readers found it off-putting. Personally, I thought it enhanced the realism.
Kewl New Words...
I'm skipping a bunch of technical terms about armor, etc. Gormless : lacking intelligence. Farrago : a motley assortment of things. Bolshie : radical, left-wing (here, an anachronism). Chine : a ridge or crest. Wattle : sticks and poles intertwined with twigs and branches, and used for walls and fences. Frowsty : musty, stale-smelling. Fug : a smoky, smelly atmosphere. Chiaroscuro : an artistic effect characterized by strong, light & dark contrasts of a single color. (Wiki it). Pantler : a servant in charge of the pantry of a large household. Dagged : having a pointed flap along the edge of a medieval garment. Attainted : disgraced, having a stigma (a legal term).
Godfrey must have read something of this on her face. He said to Constanza del Guiz, "Sorry to be so unkempt, my lady. I've been riding from Neuss. Captain Ash's men need her advice on several things, quite urgently."
"Oh." The old woman's surprise was frank and genuine. "Do they need her? I thought she was a figurehead for them. I would have imagined that a band of soldiers functions more smoothly when women are not there."
Ash opened her mouth and the younger serving women whipped a light linen veil over her face.
Godfrey Maximillian looked up from inadvertently shaking his muddy cloak over the tailor's bales of cloth. "Soldiers don't function with a figurehead in charge, my lady. Certainly they don't raise over a thousand men successfully for three years running and have most of the German principalities bidding for their services." (pg. 85)
"The heavens are out of order..." Godfrey Maximillian did not stop pacing. There was a book in his hands, illuminated in red and blue; Ash might have made the text out with enough time to spell it letter by letter; he paused by one of the candles and flicked from page to page with a rapidity that both impressed her and filled her with contempt for a man who had no better use for his time than to learn to read. He did not even read aloud. (pgs. 231-232)
Don't count your castles before they're stormed. (pg. 249)
This is Book 1 in a 4-part series. It was originally published in the UK as a mammoth 1,133-page single volume. Apparently the publishers think we Americans suffer from ADD. That's ridicu... oh look! A spider!
Now where was I? Oh yeah. I found this to be a great start to a monumental story. It's only problem was that the book ended abruptly, which I presume is due to the US publishers breaking up the huge, single story into four equal parts. If you like the genres listed above, and if you're okay with some cusswords and coarseness (Make lust! Not love!), you will find this to be a good read. 8½ stars.


Julie said...

I have to say that I feel like a pantler in my household. :D Kewl new word!
Abrupt endings seem to be very popular lately with some of the books I've been reading lately.
Nice review!

Hamilcar Barca said...

you're right. that seems to be a common "hook" to get readers to buy the whole series of an author's books. it seems like nobody writes a stand-alone science fiction or fantasy book anymore.

i for one am not amused. :-p