Pick-your-own-class-reading: The Book of Ash

Originally I was planning to read and report on Archive Fever, because it just seems like I should. But the copy I requested through the library didn’t materialize, and I thought there was a reasonable chance that while reading I’d just want to stab somebody.

So instead I picked a book where a lot of people get stabbed.

Mary Gentle’s The Book of Ash (published in four volumes in the U.S. a bit more than a decade ago) is the story of a fifteenth-century mercenary commander, the academic writing a new history of her life, and the artificial intelligences that want to destroy humanity to save the universe.

(And yes, part of the reason I picked Ash was because a) I took the reference to a former student’s use of comics as a bit of a challenge and b) I wanted to see if I could do a coherent synopsis that was also concise enough to give me time to talk about why it’s relevant fodder for discussion in a class on archives.)


A Secret HistoryThe bulk of the story is that of the mercenary commander, Ash, told in third person. The framing narrative deals with Pierce Ratcliff’s research into her life, and is mostly presented in the form of e-mail exchanges between Ratcliff and his publisher. But Gentle’s plot complicates the distance, detachment, and one-way information flow implied by the term “framing narrative.”

Ratcliff is preparing a biography of Ash when inconsistencies begin to crop up. New sources appear and others disappear or are (and had been for decades) reclassified as fiction. Manuscripts include incorrect or obviously impossible events: saintly voices, mechanical golems, and a previously unknown Visigoth Empire in North Africa. Archaeological evidence supports this newly-revealed past. Ratcliff and his associates attempt to rationalize their evidence as normal errors or exaggerations, or something at least compatible with known history, but after the weight of evidence proves unarguably contradictory they confront the possibility that history is, in fact, changing before their eyes. This is, to say the least, rather troubling. A team of specialists study the phenomena, but it is not fully understood until Ash herself reappears in history, explaining her old and new past to her biographer.

During her military career, Ash benefits from military advice offered by the voices in her head. Early on, this is treated like a period-appropriate fantastic detail that renders historical fiction fantasy, but Gentle also weaves in more and more clues that Ash’s past is not the one with which we are familiar: not least is the existence of Carthage as a very real military threat to Europe. In the course of Plot—military engagements, a marriage, personal revelations from her closest friends, a kidnapping, a daring escape, etc.—Ash discovers that she (like the apparently unstoppable commander of the Visigoths) was born in Carthage as part of a breeding program. Rather than saints or psychoses, the voices belong to a tactical computer created by ancient artificial intelligences (known as the Wild Machines) which have an agenda of their own.

The Machines have worked to create a pliable human with the rare ability to perform miracles, with whom they hope to destroy Burgundy, home to humans who can suppress the effect of miracles (and thus threaten the Machines’ plan). The Machines’ ultimate goal, once free of the constraints imposed by Burgundy, is to use their wonder-worker to unmake the human race: they have foreseen a future in which humanity, rife with wonder-workers who can remake reality, destroys not merely itself but all history. The unpliable Ash chooses an alternate miracle, temporarily removing herself and her company from conventional space and time and permanently exiling the Wild Machines and Burgundy—but allowing the ongoing performance of miracle-suppression, insuring the continued reality of existence.

Situating the book in SF

Carthage AscendantAlternate histories abound in science fiction, but Ash is unconventional (and not merely because it has so many trappings—not least the medieval setting—associated with commercial fantasy). Most alternate histories will pick a point of departure—e.g. Babbage’s computing devices are ubiquitous in the nineteenth century (The Difference Engine), a Europe more devastated by the Black Death never got around to enthusiastic colonization (“Lion Time in Timbuctoo”)—and then work through the “what if?” implications of that scenario. Gentle’s alternate history is much more meta; she explicitly plays with the concept of history, not merely its contents.* The first U.S. volume is titled A Secret History and the characters in the framing narrative discuss ways in which the material revealed by the new evidence might actually have existed in the interstices of conventional history. (Medieval superstition and convention supplying saintly voices, Victorian sensibilities erasing female fighters, military defeats relegating major powers to insignificance within a generation, the racism of European historians moving them to disregard the military and political significance of a mixed-race African empire.) This sort of thinking about history as a discipline, construct, and process (and not merely a series of interconnected events) isn’t something you see very often.

Ash from a historian’s perspective

Ash: The Wild MachinesAsh is relevant for historians for the meta reasons above. The primary conflict over the nature of history is settled, for all intents and purposes, by Ash and the Wild Machines on 5 January 1477.

The Ratcliff sections of the book are very much about the process of producing history: the professional concerns of an academic; the corporate requirements of a publishing house; the analysis of secondary works in the field; the word choices of a translator; the interpretation of data; the effort to fill in places where the historical record is silent.

The question of collaboration and authorship is of great interest to public historians. Individuals providing oral histories are, by definition and barring Ouija boards, living participants in the history-making process. The medieval subject of a modern-day biography might reasonably be considered a somewhat more passive subject. But a scholar cannot help but be changed by what he studies, and manuscripts speak across the centuries. Despite the fact that details of her appearance and background had changed, Ratcliff knew Ash when they met. Most biographers, writing about an individual born centuries earlier, do not have the luxury of conducting a personal interview to fill in information not addressed by the written record, but to a certain extent the mode of transmission is irrelevant. Everything Ratcliff knew about the past (the first history and the second), and everything he inferred about the future (his fears and then his confidence in its rationality), came as a result of a conscious act of communication.

Ash from an archivist’s perspective

Lost BurgundyApproaching archival work as a historical discipline means that I am inclined to see any alternate history—particularly an alternate history about history—as at least peripherally related.

Even before the speculative implications begin rolling out, the Ratcliff sections are focused on stuff as the practical basis for academic scholarship. A fresh translation of an existing manuscript means an updated interpretation of the material. A newly discovered manuscript could be a career-maker…or killer, if it proves to be a fake. Archaeological evidence supports or opposes a given version of history.

Gentle makes it clear that Ratcliff is not working in a vacuum, but a vast ecology of scholars. He teams with archaeologists and, eventually, physicists, to untangle the mystery of Carthage. His work builds upon that of prior generations of historians. The material with which he is most personally concerned and most expert—manuscripts—comes to him through librarians and other intermediaries. The efforts of those professionals to catalog, categorize, and secure materials has a great impact upon Ratcliff’s ability to function as a professional. Manuscripts revealed to be missing, fraudulent or classified as fiction threaten to scuttle his book (and potentially his career).

The stuff is obviously of great interest to the Wild Machines. It is impossible (or insufficient) for them to remake history without also remaking its physical evidence.§ A plausible history is part of a reality-based universe. Actions must be immutable and fixed—and seen to be so. New interpretations of data are permissible—as close as any human, genetically incapable of working miracles, can come to rewriting reality—but that data must always conform to a single, plausible string of events. We are (and have been) what we create, and if there is to be any meaning to the universe then those creations, those identities, must make sense. Good history doesn’t just happen; it’s constantly and consistently constructed.

From this perspective, the Wild Machines are not merely genocidal AIs run amok for the greater good. They’re selecting and appraising everything.


Talking about Ash in the context of the archival and historical disciplines is not, in the end, much of a stretch. Even sections that read as straight medieval fantasy or historical fiction have a convincingly realistic feeling, a testament to the benefits of research and, in a sense, a show-don’t-tell statement about the value of historical study. Foregrounded plot details about the nature of historical evidence dovetail nicely with larger thematic issues about the construction of reality. It’s not a perfect book** but it’s ambitious, and successful in a way ambitious books rarely achieve.

* It’s worth noting that Gentle has a background in history, not merely because it is a credential but because it is awesome: she got a Master’s degree as preliminary research for writing Ash. Given the depressing tendency of graduate degrees to simply pad a resume, or offer consolation for the unfinished dissertation, it’s nice to see someone obtaining a degree because she was interested in the material. And it’s always nice when authors bother to do research.

Ash is an enticing “what if” on another meta level. What if the nature of history had been the existential threat of the early twenty-first century? But instead of Project Carthage we got Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, and Ash (in the tradition of all near-future SF) became an alternate history shortly after publication. One reviewer opines that it became not merely an alternate history, but a lost history, out of print and largely invisible in the genre.

Guy Gavriel Kay comes to mind, particularly for issues of memory and identity in Tigana and the Sarantium duology; but while the writing is layered and historically aware, his worlds have histories that are rational and linear.

§ See also Dick’s “Adjustment Team.”

** Which one is? Gentle’s missteps—a sagging middle, romantic entanglements, resorting to infodumps to explain high-concept plot elements—can also be read as conscious decisions, even virtues. One particular scene, which I once considered clumsy infodumping to a passive character, seemed a decade later to be an illustration of resourcefulness and strength of will. The words didn’t change, but my interpretation did.