Ash: A Secret History
appears to be the faux history of Ash, a medieval woman who lead a mercenary company, in the form of a translation of a manuscript written shortly after her death, complete with a framing device of emails from its modern translator to his editor. It is that, but it’s also much stranger than just
that. Don’t skip the emails, they’re not window dressing but essential.
The weirdness seeps in early on, with a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” whose lyrics suggest an entirely different religious tradition. Ash hears a voice in her head which she interprets as that of a saint, but it's also referred to as a “tactical machine” or even “tactical computer.” The translator has a footnote with the original text to explain how he got that translation, along with a note that it obviously must really
mean something else. What in the world is going on here?
Along with Shadows of the Apt
, this gets my vote as one of the greatest giant fantasy epics that most people haven’t even heard of, let alone read. Ash
is complete in four volumes, which were released all at once as it was written as a single gigantic novel. I recently re-read it, and went to see if there was an e-version partway through so I didn’t have to lug around four fat volumes. There is and it’s only $3.99 for the entire thing, which is why I decided to write about it. Ash
is definitely not for everyone. It’s both deeply weird and extremely dark. Eight-year-old Ash is raped (non-graphically, but…) on page one
, then manages to kill the men who raped her. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. On a grimdark scale, it’s darker than Shadows of the Apt
, but less dark than Gentle’s own Ancient Light
- not “rocks fall, everybody dies,” but “rocks fall, a lot of people die. And also shit themselves. And do horrible things.”
Most of the characters are objectively terrible but I found a lot of them compelling and even likable despite that. My favorite is the most important queer female character. (There’s several, as well as important male characters). Also the adorable pet rats, who have a higher survival rate than the human characters.
There’s a very interesting central theme in Ash
about the erasure and interpretation of history, particularly in regard to women. Ash is extremely unusual within the context of her time, as the female leader of a mercenary company, but less unusual as a woman involved in war as an active participant rather than a victim. That’s a part of history that tends to be erased or elided. Women in support roles (for instance, washerwomen) are not counted as part of the army, while men in similar noncombatant roles are. Exceptional men are lauded as such, while exceptional women are either erased or held up as proof that they are
an exception and should not be viewed as proof of what women can do.
Here’s an example from the real world. I’ve read a lot of first-person accounts and histories of the war which is variously known as the First War of Indian Independence, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and the Sepoy Mutiny. (That by itself an example of what I mean by erasure and interpretation of history.)
One of its leaders in the fight against the British forces was an Indian queen, Rani Lakshmibai, who was killed in battle. Multiple accounts attest that not only did she personally fight in combat, but so did other women. However, Indian accounts tend to say “There were women in the army, including as gunners,” and “the Rani was found dead along with two women in her personal guard,” while British accounts tend to say “So many men were killed that sometimes women were seen doing tasks such as assisting the gunners,” and “the Rani was found dead along with two of her handmaidens. All three were disguised as men.”
How are they getting such different narratives from the same set of facts? Multiple groups of people saw women involved in combat, wearing the same uniforms as the men. One set of people concluded that the women were actually handmaidens or other civilians and were in disguise. Another concluded that they were female soldiers in uniform, doing the things that soldiers do. Those are vastly different stories, suggesting vastly different things about the military culture of Jhansi. Ash
delves into that sort of thing from all sorts of different angles. It's an incredibly immersive experience if you’re up for it. I spent a couple days nearly entire devoted to re-reading the series, and I had a great time. The worldbuilding and story are fascinating, and the sff elements are really cool.
Warnings for rape, child abuse, misogyny, very graphic violence, homophobia (on the part of the characters, not the author), racial slurs, animal harm, and more.
Please no comments along the lines of "There's enough bad stuff in reality that I have no need or desire to read about it in fiction." That's a totally valid point of view, but seeing that comment every time I post on darker works makes me hesitate to post on them, and I'm trying to post more in general.Ash: A Secret History