A Secret History by Mary Gentle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When it comes to depicting violence and sex in 20th century fiction, two modes dominate. The first -- and my preference as both a reader and a writer -- involves dropping intelligent hints to stimulate the imagination. The second reveals every grunt and thrust, every leakage of every bodily fluid. To say that A Secret History employs the latter technique would be a gross understatement. This book should sport a warning sign: "Do Not Read If You Are Pregnant Or Have A Heart Condition."
Suffering neither physical limitation, I kept reading. Halfway through, I started asking myself why. I like to savor the words and lose myself in the story. My aversion to the extreme violence and profanity on every page of A Secret History robbed me of that sort of reading experience. But, intrigued by the female mercenary captain at the story's center, I kept turning those pages.
In a time when empires and alliances shift like sand, the Visigoths with their mighty army and magic-powered machines arise out of Africa to darken the sun. Literally, and for weeks at a stretch, not unlike the ninth plague of Moses' day. Setting their sights on Burgundy, opulent and powerful 15th-century jewel of Europe, the Visigoths begin devouring every nation in their path, spreading the darkness in their wake.
Until they encounter Ash.
Born in the mud and dung of a mercenary camp, of unknown parentage, she slew her first man at age eight. While most young women occupy themselves attracting men to their beds, Ash attracts men to her banner. They follow her because she wins, and she wins because of the unerring guidance of a sacred voice wise in the ways of war. And because she genuinely cares about the eight hundred men and women of her mercenary band. This concern shines through her vulgar and masculine demeanor.
Though religious, Ash is no virginal Jeanne d'Arc. Money alone motivates her, not some Higher Cause. That begins to change when she realizes she may be the only obstacle between the Visigoths and their conquest of Europe.
A Secret History features a literary device that at first I dismissed as a gimmick. Ash's story unfolds as though it were a hitherto undiscovered medieval manuscript suffering translation by a late 20th century historian, complete with footnotes. Transcripts of email correspondence between the historian and his editor appear at intervals throughout the text. Don't give into the temptation to skip these sections. Rather than detracting from the flow, the email transcripts form rungs of a ladder to propel the novel onward, containing information that aids the suspension of disbelief.
Not a book for the fainthearted -- consider yourself warned! But if you crave a unique fantasy that eschews the object-oriented quest cliché, then refill your digitalis prescription and buckle yourself in for the ride.
(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)
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