A Secret History: The Book of Ash #1
by Mary Gentle
Published by Eos
2 Out of 5 Stars
The story of a female mercenary in the 15th century, A Secret History: The Book of Ash has an interesting premise, so I settled in with a hot cup of coffee and prepared to witness Ash kick ass, preferably Tarantino style. And then I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and it's the last page . . . and, holy shit, no ass kicking in sight! Not one can of whoop-ass opened. This, of course, pissed me off.
I'm not really sure how to describe A Secret History, but I can list what I consider to be its shortcomings. Obviously, these did not bother others as much as they did me. The book is highly rated, which is why I expected as much from it as I did.
A) There are actually two story lines: one takes place in the present day and is a series of e-mails being sent back and forth between the author and the publisher. Apparently, the author's source material has been compromised as many of the historical documents he used in researching his non-fiction account of Ash have been mysteriously reclassified as fiction. These e-mails bog down the narrative and can be summed up as follows:
Publisher: I have serious doubts about your source material. What is going on? You have to tell me!
Author: I don't understand it either. But I'll look into it. In the meantime, you won't believe what I've found! I can't believe it! Did I mention that you won't be able to believe it? The world won't be able to believe it! But here's a tidbit to tide you over [insert tidbit here].
Publisher: Received your last e-mail. This is amazing stuff! But I have a problem with your source material. What is going on? You have to tell me!
(And repeat, ad nauseum)
B) The character of Ash is completely unbelievable as a mercenary captain capable of inspiring men to trust in her leadership. She struts around in armor, cusses a lot, and . . . basically, that's it. Then again, from what I've seen of the "rousing and inspiring coach monologue" of football movies, maybe that is enough to inspire men to beat the crap out of one another. She doesn't do much of anything other than be pushed around by events. She seldom seems in control and never really makes any decisions that demonstrate her skill as a warrior or tactician. In part, this is because Gentle introduces us to 8 year old Ash (apparently just so she can have Ash raped as a child and witness her brutal retaliation, thus establishing why she would so whole-heartedly embrace a life of violence) and then jumps forward to Ash in command of her mercenary band known as the Lion Azure. She leap-frogged what would have been the most interesting part of Ash's story and the part needed to solidify the reader's belief in Ash as a warrior: how did Ash rise to power and come to command her own army?
C) Even though it's sloppily explained by the contemporary historian translating the history of Ash as his attempt to modernize the language of the story, there are a lot of modern idioms and phrases used that take away from the authenticity of the time period and which I doubt any true historian would so gleefully sprinkle throughout a text.
There are a few mildly interesting twists, but the one dimensional characters and lack of fidelity to the time period mean that this is a series I won't continue.