I have long had a debate in my mind about the place of the woman warrior in fiction, particularly the type most often presented in epic fantasy/sword & sorcery. Robert E. Howard, Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell, and Tobias Buckell, for example, have all included the undaunted, sword-wielding, occasionally bra-defying warrioresses in their tales of adventure and battle. But in these stories, the women are most often just men with breasts. A distracting veneer is lacquered on the character: she is sexualized, given a sword, and kicks ass, but little is done to represent what actually makes her a woman. After all, feats of strength, unwritten codes of honor, fights for power and control, heroism in battle, etc., etc. ad infinitum are manifestations of the masculine world. Just one of the guys, rarely are such female characters presented for their intrinsic qualities. This is what makes Mary Gentle’s 1999 Ash: A Secret History such an intriguing read. More ‘grimdark’ than Martin or Abercrombie have thus far been able to accomplish, the graphic story of one woman making a place for herself in a male world makes me believe it is fully possible to represent the qualities of the ‘fair sex’ on the Medieval battlefield. A stunning read in many, many ways, I can no longer read the woman warrior in fiction without thinking of Ash.
Ash: A Secret History is a book that proceeds along two lines. The first is purported to be the modern translation of Ash’s autobiography. Recently discovered after centuries hidden away, it reads in story format (i.e., mimetic dialogue, exposition in storytelling form, etc.) and covers a brief moment in Ash’s childhood and, in extensive detail, the twentieth and final year of her life. Leader of a mercenary group operating in 15th century Europe, her eight hundred swords are loyal to the man. Following their captain anywhere, the Azure Lions sign contracts as the field dictates, and in the process attempt to stay alive as emperors, dukes, and lordlings fight across the battlefields of Italy, Germany, and France. Though respected for the position she has won for herself, Ash must still deal with prejudice and her role in the continent’s rulers’ plans. The life of a Medieval mercenary is already difficult enough, but arranged marriage, conception, and the will needed to maintain authority over a group of misfits requires every bit of strength Ash has. But when Carthage attacks the continent, even the best of intentions may not be protection enough.
Sleeved between the chapters of Ash’s final year are letters, emails, and memos exchanged between the scholar doing research into the autobiography, Pierce Ratcliff, and his friends and fellow historians with interest in the effect Ash’s story has on general understanding of 15th century European history. Truly epistolary in form, whole lines are blacked out and handwritten notes exist in the margins, making Ratcliff’s portion of the narrative feel genuine. A ‘meta-story’ develops in the course of the correspondence, and Gentle uses these sections for commentary on historical research, particularly its mutability. Science is eventually dragged in and Gentle’s ultimate point — question, rather — is a profoundly interesting one, and, like the outcome of Ash’s story, simply cannot be predicted. The conflation of the two storylines is a masterstroke.
And what about those fantastic elements — what makes Ash a fantasy novel rather than straight-forward historical fiction? Introduced slowly (easy to do in a book of such length), golems, an anachronistic lion, a blotted out sun, a twin, an earthquake, voices in the head, and a couple other elements, minor and major, round out the fantastic portion of the narrative. These are most often pushed to the background; realist elements are continually foregrounded (save the voices), meaning the narrative is almost at all times grounded. When the fantastic elements do appear, they are a surprise, forcing the reader to reevaluate the benchmark the story is using for reality. But by the halfway point they have all been introduced, allowing the reader to engage with the text within a confined set of ideas, rather than a continually expanding arena of possibility — the bane of many a work of fantasy.
This would not be a review of Ash: A Secret History if there were not to be a mention of its length. With a page count at more than 1,100, it’s an investment in more than just money, its literal weight measured in pounds not ounces. (In fact, for the US market, publishers divided the book into its four natural parts: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy). Different readers bring different expectations to the table, but for me, Ash’s story never slowed. Parts of Ratcliff’s correspondence do not engage at the same level as Ash’s storyline, but certainly the book has an appeal that much, much of the epic fantasy market, which produces books of similar length, fails to induce. Where Connie Willis digresses to expound on historical trivia, Gentle subsumes such knowledge into ‘real-time’ exposition and dialogue, meaning there are no overt infodumps. By doing so, the narrative stays focused on Ash the entire length (the story literally never leaves her point of view) and the details of Medieval mercenary life are grafted onto her actions and behavior. The result is a plot that continually moves forward — something necessary for a book of such length, and all to its success.
This also would not be a review of Ash if there were not to be discussion of the book’s forays into feminism. The majority of my notes centered on this aspect. Suffice to say the novel is a bold, challenging read. Not in the effort needed to keep turning the pages, but in the daring of the scenes, and the contrast of gender which perpetually abounds. In the very early going, Ash states:
I’d rather have had my life as a whore than be the kind of virgin you were hoping for. When you understand why, we might have something to talk about.
This attitude is one of the most basic ideas, if not the foundation upon which the novel is built. Taking Ash as any paean to Jane Austen femininity would be a mistake.
Taking her as a man with breasts would be, too. From her childhood onward, Ash’s life is brutal. Raped, bloodied, pissed on, scarred, and all other manner of abuse preceding and analogous to her leadership of the mercenaries, the coarse young woman is tough as nails, but not one of the guys. She talks like them and has authority, but her interests, the motivation for her actions, and the thoughts in her head are a woman’s. In some rough-trodden way, the mercenaries she employs are her family. She fights, not to gain power or be the hero, but to stay alive, to have a place amongst her soldiers and society at large, to give her life purpose and meaning, and to give the soldiers in her unit the best possible chance of staying alive in such war-ridden times. She is a protector, their mother figure. Her past oscillating between clouded and clear, she also lives to identify who she is in the admittedly exceptional situation she’s made her way into, and contextualize the experiences she’s had — some of which are indeed bizarre — into a coherent worldview that satisfies all of her desires and sense of right and wrong toward being whole inside.
Gentle never sexualizes Ash beyond realism (could Robert E. Howard, et al say the same?). Readers are forced to look upon the young woman as a female in a man’s world. The resulting character differences are inherent, so the qualities which make Ash a woman become clear. One result is reader empathy, while another is to make patent the feminine view, a view that does not depend on masculinity to be comprehensible. The novel’s action, dialogue, and plot movement are superb, but it is the contrast of gender wherein lies the book’s greatest success. (Some would say that commentary on history may be the greatest; I could also agree to that.) The reader learns of Ash so intimately that it’s impossible for her not to leave an indelible mark on the imagination.
In the end, Ash: A Secret History is well-researched historical fantasy that plays with accepted history for the purposes of creating a strong feminist narrative, as well as calling into question the physics of history. The reader can decide which is stronger, but regardless, the combination, and the resulting fashion in which it comments on epic fantasy, makes it one of the most important books in the genre. Ash possesses all of the qualities of a woman warrior, but the story of the last year of her life — her maneuvers through Europe, the chaos of Carthage, the siege of Dijon, and the other intense battle scenes — fully flesh out in compelling fashion what makes Ash both woman and human. The book’s length is a significant undertaking, but completing it is a fulfilling and revelatory experience that will stay with the reader, particularly as it is literally impossible not to compare Ash to any other woman warrior encountered in sword and sorcery, and fantasy in general, thereafter.
(A side note regarding related texts: It goes without saying Ash’s story bears comparison to Joan of Arc’s in reality, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (for length as well) for its desire to revise history. By contrast, Tobias Buckell’s The Executioness is a story that has the intention of delivering a narrative with the same feel as Gentle’s, but which pales in comparison for its lack of a realistic female perspective and only partial ability to portray a woman in a man’s role. Connie Willis, whose historical interests would seem a logical parallel to Gentle’s, is an interesting contrast as well. Willis foregrounds the imparting of historical knowledge over all other aspects of literature, Gentle proves it is entirely possible to integrate historical detail into character and plot, telling a more engaging tale in the process.)