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The Lost History of Mary Gentle's Ash (book review)

"There must be a human history… It will become a ghost-history, as all your species vanish and become impossible."

-Mary Gentle, Ash: A Lost History-

I want to imagine Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Lost History as the mythic Burgundy and mythic Carthage that, according to the novel, have been irrevocably lost––written over by our history and recalled only as rubble strewn throughout our past. The book within the book, the “Fraxinus” manuscript and the notes of its translator and editor, is described as being pulled from circulation, disappearing into myth like the lost history it was meant to excavate. Is it really strange, then, that Gentle’s award-winning Ash would vanish behind the wavefront of publication, following the fate of her novel’s subject matter?

Ash appears in the late 1990s to much excitement and acclaim. Like the archaeological manifestation of Visigoth Carthage and its golems, Ash is a revelation. Over 1000 pages, a footnoted book within a book, a cunning combination of historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction… Critics celebrated Ash. It was yet another example of how science-fiction could transcend the supposed limitations of the genre. And now, in 2009, it is out of print.

I want to imagine that Gentle was prophetic, a pre-cognitive mathematician like the Giordanists in her other novel 1610, and had described the fate of Ash by formulating the fate of its fictional subject matter. The final Afterword of the book within the book, after all, which speaks of the fate of the translated manuscripts, is dated 2009.

I want to imagine that the ruins of Ash: A Lost History have also been scattered throughout the past and future of literature. Kentaro Miura’s Berserk (later adapted into an anime series), for example, began in the early 1990s, years before Ash. And yet Berserk appears as a crude imitation of Ash: Griffith’s “Band of the Hawk” a distant echo of Ash’s “Company of the Lion.” As Borges indicated in his essay on Kafka, some books define their precursors. I can excavate the ruins of Ash in Berserk, but not vice versa: the former, though written later, reads as if it has come first––like its book within the book, its shadow is cast backwards through time.

But Ash does not occupy its fictional universe, it is not “the First History” of a Lost Burgundy or Lost Carthage. Its near erasure from popular publication cannot be blamed on a quantum rewriting of literary history, or the mathematical conspiracies of the ferae natura machinae––the wild machines.

At the same time, we cannot blame the book’s failure to remain in print on the shortcomings of its author. Mary Gentle possesses an impressive mastery of prose––she constructs sentences as if she consults the voice of her fictional machina rei militaris, she describes events with the visceral precision of a witness to a reality that did not exist. This is an author who collects Masters degrees to write novels.

These days there is an increasing trend of gritty realism in fantasy literature (Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold are two of the more recent and good examples of this trend). While some may yearn for the days of innocent Tolkien-esque fantasy, and lament that this grittiness is just a “fad”, I am one of those who is glad that there has been an attempt to bring reality to the idyllic “feudalism lite” (to cite Mieville) that has mystified so much in this genre. There is nothing heroic about the sword-bearing hero, really, and nothing terribly glorious about the wars between kings. With Ash: A Lost History, however, Mary Gentle was already bringing this gritty realism to fantastic literature before it was a trend. Indeed, Ash is far grittier and real than most of what passes as gritty and real in fantasy literature today. It begins with rape, mutilation, and murder. Her world, an alternate history of the late fifteenth century, is appropriately filthy. The time of kings and queens, the feudal glory loved by so many heroic fantasy lovers, is a time of excrement and urine, class and gender oppression, and the stupidity of chivalry. People die, and die horribly: starvation and plague, shitting themselves in combat, getting dysentery and gangrene… Almost all of the main characters have been slaughtered by the end of the book. All of the feudal values are presented for what they are; nothing is Platonically coded as “good” or “evil.” So one would think that, since this type of fantastic literature is becoming popular, Ash would be repopularized as well.

Then there is Mary Gentle’s examination of class and gender, common themes in her work and also much-loved themes by the literati. If Ash is unpopular with the sci-fi cultists, what about those who study “real literature”? Queer and trans themes have become popular in so-called “serious” literature, after all, and Gentle has been dealing with these themes, with sophistication, for a long time. In Ash there are queer characters and cross-dressing: gender and sexuality is historicized, just as it would be in other Gentle books where a common theme is the deconstruction of gender and tropes associated with gender––the intersexed Ilario of Ilario, the gender-queer Dariole of 1610. One could even imagine numerous theses written on Gentle in the literature departments. But she is not celebrated, regardless of the merits of her prose, structure of her books, academic understanding of subject matter, or transgressive themes.

And then there is the sophistication of its fictional history. Ash is not merely part of that subgenre called “alternate history,” it is also a history of alternate histories. It is a theorization of the possible history that calls into doubt our own understanding of history both socially and quantum mechanically: “History is very much a matter of interpretation.” Moreover the realism of her history reveals a wealth of understanding about our own history.

Yet Ash: A Lost History remains as elusive as the first history it describes. As elusive as the catastrophe the wild machines had hoped to avoid: “You do not want to see the Miracle wars…” It is currently “under the penitence,” the permanent twilight that blots out the sun over Carthage. Or perhaps it is more like “the empty throne,” the cursed papal seat of a different Rome with a different version of Christianity, abdicated by the publisher. It does need to be published again (but perhaps without the horrible cover design that could have been drawn by an Ilario-before-proper-training) so that it will not remain vanished like its First History.


  1. Just surfing your blog after seeing hte link to your Cell 16 post on FB. Great review. This makes me more excited to read this.

  2. Just realized you posted this now, Ryan, because of a massive commenting furor that, for some reason I still do not understand, happened tonight on a variety of posts. Glad you liked the review: and yes, you really should read this - I know you'll love it.


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