Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.
The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.
It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.
Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.
All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.
So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.
That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.
The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.
I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.
Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)