>Ash by Mary Gentle

>I just finished re-reading Mary Gentle’s Ash, having devoured it joyously when I first got the paperback in 2001. It’s an alternative history of the 15th century, told through the eyes of warrior-mercenary Ash, who’s kind of a cross between Joan of Arc and Ellen Ripley.

The period detail is compelling, but the novel’s real hook is the interweaving of Ash’s exploits with a set of present-day correspondence between the translator of Ash’s chronicles and his publisher. As the translation progresses, he – and we as readers – gradually learn that Ash’s world is not entirely like our own. Something is up with history.

No spoilers here. Suffice it to say this long novel swiftly evolves from historical adventure to mysterious fantasy. It’s full of battles and armour and medieval siege strategy … but there’s also stone golems and a healthy dollop of quantum physics. Towards the end there’s a battle scene that positively drips blood, yet is so charged with both emotion and narrative drive I could hardly breathe. And Ash herself – powerful, confident, geautiful, scarred, vulnerable, and ever mindful of “the picture she makes” when she strikes a heroic pose – is undoubtedly one of the great characters of modern fantasy literature.

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