Mary Gentle’s Ash is a really big book. It’s probably pushing half a million words. It is also very good.
The most useful way to describe it is “historical fantasy”, although it’s probably technically science fiction. But if you think you’re going to read a historical fantasy, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sort of book you’re going to get, while “science fiction” would be very misleading. The eponymous Ash is a female mercenary captain in Burgundy in the late fifteenth century. Naturally, she is involved in a number of wars, and she gradually gets caught up in bigger and bigger events.
The rest of this article will discuss specific plot elements of the book, and thus probably spoil things for you if you haven’t already read it.
War is, obviously, a major part of the book, but Gentle does a better job of not glorifying it than many people I’ve read. Important characters are killed in battle, quite gruesomely, and things are destroyed. Even Ash, by the end of the book, is having to face the fact that she doesn’t like deciding to send people she knows to their deaths, and that she’s chosen (well, really, been forced into) a job in which she has to do that almost every day.
Fernando del Guiz, Ash’s husband for part of the book, is an interesting character. He starts off as an obnoxious noble with a rather unfortunate past with Ash. Ash is madly in lust with him, and doesn’t know why, but that’s normal. Does lust ever have a good reason? What makes him interesting is that he is portrayed through Ash’s eyes, and she spends a lot of the book despising him. However, the reason she despises him is that, as soon as he sees the reality of war, he realises that he wants no part of it; it’s destructive, wasteful of life, and not a good thing. As he was raised as a knight, this is quite a realisation. At first, Ash sees this as sheer weakness and cowardice, but her opinion has been modified slightly by the end of the book.
The interesting thing is that I suspect he would be much more sympathetic as a viewpoint character. Ash has actually killed people for no reason; the worst he has done is humiliate someone while he was a teenager. I think this has to be deliberate; he’s drawn so that you see him through Ash’s eyes, but can go beyond her perceptions if you think about it.
Obviously, whenever I read a fantasy novel I’m thinking about the writing techniques, and what I could do in the same vein. They fall into three classes. Some make me think “I can do this. I could write a successful novel”. Others make me think “Maybe I could do this, but I’m not sure”. Still others make me think “I wish I could do this”. Ash is in the second group.
In particular, the ending is relatively weak. This is something that I’ve noticed in a number of the other books by Gentle that I’ve read. The ending, specifically, feels rushed. Too much happens in two pages, and given the lead-up to it, it is not at all clear that it fits the characters. The actual end of the book is a little too smartypants, I feel, and doesn’t actually succeed in drawing everything together.
Of course, the book as a whole is, as I said, very good, so the ending isn’t actually bad. It’s not hackneyed, or incredibly predictable, or utterly unjustified given the lead up to it. It just doesn’t strike me as being up to the standard of the rest of the book. I think this may be a problem with the choice of viewpoint character. Ash does not have the background necessary to understand what is going on at the end, which means that the ending has a number of weaknesses, both in what the author can tell us, and in the decisions that the protagonist makes. On the other hand, Ash is the only sensible viewpoint character for the book, given her role in the story. So I think that, in order to avoid this problem, Gentle would have to have written a completely different book.
I also suspect that this is a problem that wouldn’t become apparent until you were writing the last couple of thousand words, at which point going back and starting over is simply not an option.
I think Gentle created herself a frame within which she could tell the sort of story she wanted to tell, and, when she got to the end, found that she couldn’t quite wrap things up properly. To a great extent, it doesn’t matter. The story is told well for the main body of the book, so I would still recommend it.