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Literature: Ash: A Secret History
U.S. one-volume hardback cover.
Ash: A Secret History is a 2001 Fantasy / Alternate History / Historical Fiction / Science Fiction novel by Mary Gentle. The story follows a 15th-century female mercenary captain, Ash, as she gets involved in literally world-changing events. It's long, doorstopper-long; at 1,100 pages, it's often billed as the longest single-volume fantasy novel.

It can also be found Divided for Publication in four volumes in U.S. paperback printing: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy.

This work contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Go ahead, take a rough guess.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The Wild Machines, an ancient self-aware computer conglomerate, ultimately wants to wipe out all humankind and remain the only intelligent thing on the planet. However, it turns out that they only wanted to prevent the chaos and horror that would result if humanity were to keep developing its innate Reality Warper abilities, making them more Well-Intentioned Extremists than anything else.
  • Alternate History: Although somewhat inverted, in that there is no past point of divergence. Rather, the end of the novel is a point of convergence.
  • Anti-Magic: The power of the bloodline of the Dukes of Burgundy is to prevent miracles from happening.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Happens a few times to Ash and others.
  • The Cavalry: Played with in the arrival of John de Vere with the Turkish troops when Ash and her company are under siege in Dijon. The troops are too few to turn the tide in Burgundy's favour; however, they present protection, since the Carthaginians really do not want to attack them and risk a war with the Ottoman Empire.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Ash miscarries hers and Fernando's child while in a Carthaginian dungeon.
  • Covers Always Lie: Ash is named for her white hair. Now look at the Redheaded Hero on the cover to the right...
  • Curse of The Ancients: Discussed, with the editor settling for translating Ash's swearing as modern four-letter words in order to retain its shock value.
  • Divided for Publication: For the American printing; the original UK publication was single-volume.
  • Fictional Document: The historical narratives being translated and polished in the Framing Story by the historian Pierce Ratcliff.
  • Framing Story: The book is supposedly the work of historian Pierce Ratcliff, who is piecing together the story of Ash from historical documents. Interspersed in the inner story are correspondences between Ratcliff and his editor as the story related in these documents begins to diverge from known history.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The heroine's name is a stealth acronym for the book's title.
  • Gayngst: Floria gets a lot of this. She ran away from home because of her intolerant family, and she and her lover Esther were sentenced to death. While her aunt saved her from execution, she didn't do the same for Esther. She joined Ash's company as a Sweet Polly Oliver, only to have the soldiers try to lynch her when it came out that she was female and a lesbian. She also falls in love with Ash, but represses it because she's certain Ash is headed for a violent death.
    • Averted with Angelotti, whose homosexuality is pretty much tolerated by everyone in the company.
  • Golem: The Carthaginians have them. This is one of the first clear signs that this isn't our history.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Ash has facial scars inflicted by her rapists when she was a child, but they are described as non-disfiguring, even making her look more impressive.
  • Hearing Voices: Since puberty, Ash hears a voice in her head telling her which tactics to use to win battles. She thinks it's the voice of God. It turns out to be the voice of a Carthaginian war computer that she has been specifically bred to hear.
  • Heel-Face Turn: At the end of the story, the Wild Machines, who have spent history trying to wipe out humanity, are now working with Ash's plan, maintaining Lost Burgundy and keeping reality functioning.
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: Ash is in some respects very much like Jeanne d'Arc, including hearing voices.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: the book is supposedly what Pierce Ratcliff, the historian who's piecing together Ash's history or legend, is writing for publication. Interspersed in the work are snippets of Ratcliff's private notes and correspondence with his editor.
  • Mystical White Hair: Ash herself. It turns out that the white hair is a by-product of the intensive breeding of the Carthaginian bloodline that can communicate with the machina rei militaris.
  • Private Military Contractors: Ash's mercenary company, made of soldiers from all over Europe.
  • Rape as Backstory: Ash, aged 8, is raped right at the beginning. She kills her attackers.
  • Reality Warper: In the alternative history of Ash, everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. The power of the Dukes of Burgundy is to negate this reality-warping power of the human mind, settling the world in a more rigid and mundane state.
  • Shown Their Work: Gentle completed a master's degree in war studies as research for the book, and it shows.
  • Straight Gay: Master gunner Angelotti, despite being a Pretty Boy, is far from camp.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Florian/Floria
  • Taking You with Me: Ash convinces the soul of Godfrey, which has merged with the Stone Golem to call down lightning to destroy the Stone Golem and himself. It works, but the Wild Machines are still able to access Ash's mind without the Stone Golem, making Godfrey's sacrifice all for nothing.
  • Translation Convention: The characters speak in reasonably modern English, including cursing, as a deliberate stylistic choice to make them more approachable and understandable.


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alternative title(s): Ash A Secret History; Ptitle2n3alwgm
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