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Literature / Ash: A Secret History

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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.

Has nothing to do with the James Herbert novel Ash (2012).

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.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Godfrey and Floria both fall in love with Ash and are unable to act on it: Godfrey because he is a monk; Floria because Ash is straight, and because she forces herself to control her feelings since she is certain Ash will die in battle. Ash in turn ends up falling in love with Fernando, who turns out to love the Faris.
  • 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. As such, the Wild Machines have manipulated Carthage to destroy Burgundy, as they cannot perform their 'dark miracle' until that bloodline is ended. Instead, at the end of the book, Burgundy is turned into a “filter” for objective reality, negating all of humanity’s power to perform miracles. After a few chapters of realization that Burgundy is beginning to fail in this role, with potentially apocalyptic consequences, it’s discovered that the Wild Machines have since replaced it, using their vast computational abilities to filter reality instead.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Happens a few times to Ash and others. Ash describes it as completely normal, even for hardened veterans.
  • 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. This leaves her completely barren, stopping Leofric from using her as a Breeding Slave for more slave generals.
  • Cosmic Horror Reveal: The Carthaginian invasion is revealed to be masterminded by the Wild Machines: emergent, prehistoric artificial intelligences who want to destroy all of humanity. Then it’s revealed that they want to destroy humanity to save the universe from what they will become.
  • Covers Always Lie: Ash is named for her white hair. Now look at the redheaded hero on the cover to the right...
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: One of the first signs something's wrong with this history is that everyone swears by the Green Christ and the Briar Cross/Oak Tree instead of the regular Christ and the regular Cross. Christus Viridianus (also known as Christus Imperator) was still born from a virgin and died betrayed and martyred, but shares nothing else with the Jesus we know — he was adopted by a Roman emperor, grew up into a general, and was murdered in a succession crisis. And he was a full-scale Reality Warper of the sort that horrified and inspired the Wild Machines, explaining his miracles.
  • 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: in the very first scene of the book we learn that Ash is mentally prepared to thrive in the harshest of CrapsackWorlds. Having grown from infancy with no parental supervision at all (the children in her mercenary camp have to suckle from dogs because even their mothers take no responsibility for them), Ash is raped by mercenaries as an 8-year-old, and kills them, and promises to kill whoever punishes her for that act of self-defense. She is whipped anyway, but decides that her scars are what make her beautiful.
  • 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. And as known history begins to diverge to match the documents.
  • Friend to All Living Things: When Godfrey was a child, he used to go out in the forest and spend hours just standing amid the wild beasts, similar to St. Francis of Assisi.
  • 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.
    • Most of the Carthaginian forces make peace with Burgundy after their general is slain.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Ash tells Floria "I love you as much as I've ever loved anyone, I just don't want to fuck you."
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: Ash is in some respects very much like Jeanne d'Arc, including hearing voices. It’s suggested that Ash may have actually been the “prototype” for the Jeanne myth, despite having been born long after her time.
  • Jerkass: Fernando starts out as a huge jerk and a misogynist, among other less-than-pleasing qualities. He eventually grows out of it.
  • A True Story in My Universe: 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.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: subverted - children in Ash's mercenary camp don't know who their fathers are, but they also don't know who their mothers are, as mothers take no responsibility for their children, so those children have to suckle from lactating dogs to survive.
  • The Marvelous Deer: To decide who shall become the new Duke of Burgundy, the pretenders to the throne try to bring down one of these. Floria succeeds, and as she does, the power of her bloodline causes the stag to morph from an ethereal, supernatural creature into an ordinary dead animal.
  • Mystical White Hair: Ash herself, who hears the voice of the Lion guiding her tactics. 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.
  • Only Known By Their Nick Name: not having ever had anyone take parental responsibility for her, Ash was never formally named, and didn't get the nickname she would come to be known by - "Ashy", or "Ash" - until she was two years old.
  • Outside-Context Problem: The Wild Machines are entities that medieval Europe doesn't have the scientific understanding to properly conceptualize. One memorable chapter of the Framing Story revises the description of the Wild Machines given to Ash with contemporary terminology: "ferae natura machinae" becomes "silicon-based 'machine' intelligences", "manipulating the energies of the spirit-world" becomes "drew upon solar electromagnetic energy", and "evil miracle" becomes "consciously guided alteration of the basic fabric of probable reality", to name a few.
  • Private Military Contractors: Ash's mercenary company, made of soldiers from all over Europe.
  • Raised by Wolves: Parental Neglect is so complete in the mercenary camp that even the women take no responsibility for their infants (or even identify as their mothers) so Ash and her fellow children have to suckle off lactating dogs and eat discarded scraps in order to survive.
  • Rape as Backstory: Ash, aged 8, is raped by two men from her mercenary camp (and her face mutilated) in her Establishing Character Moment in the first pages of the book. She kills her attackers and then is publically whipped as a punishment for killing in self-defense - she threatens to kill whoever whips her and receives extra punishment for her insolence.
  • 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.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Deconstructed with Ash and Fernando. At the start of the story, Fernando is a pretty massive Jerkass to Ash. She, on her hand, hates his guts, while still being attracted to him on a physical level and resenting it. It takes most of the novel for him to develop into a good, if flawed, person, which in turn makes Ash fall in love with him... and when she does, it turns out that he loves the Faris.
  • Straight Gay: Master gunner Angelotti, despite being a Pretty Boy, is far from camp.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Florian is actually Floria, a transvestite.
  • 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 the act a Senseless Sacrifice.
  • Translation Convention: The characters speak in reasonably modern English, including cursing, as a deliberate stylistic choice to make them more approachable and understandable.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: turning the Deliberate Values Dissonance up to eleven to set the tone, the book begins by showing the prepubescent children of Ash's mercenary camp engaging in sexual intercourse with each other, being violently raped by adults (as a matter of course), and voluntarily whoring themselves to adults for food.