Ash is a mercenary captain, fighting for the King of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, or whoever else will pay enough to see her company through the winter, at the tail end of the 15th century – and wildly successful, considering she’s a young woman who grew up as a penniless camp follower. This probably has more than a little to do with the fact that she gets her tactical advice from the voice of God she hears in her mind.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Pierce Ratcliffe is in the process of translating a manuscript that purports to be Ash’s own account of her career. His arguments with his editor over whether discrepancies between Ash’s account and the historical record mean that the manuscript is a fake take a turn for the weird when the physical evidence around him starts, slowly but surely, to change.
The novel covers some incredible ground in its 1100-odd pages (it was, for a while, billed as the longest single-volume fantasy novel in the English language). Not only do the characters roam all the way across Europe and the Mediterranean and back, but the story resolutely refuses to fit itself into a single genre. What starts out as a fairly straightforward historical military adventure soon develops hints of fantasy and alternate history before shifting into high historical fantasy like a roller-coaster dropping out from underneath the reader, and finally winding up in… an altogether different genre entirely.
The world Gentle presents is often a cruel one – she doesn’t shy away from faithfully presenting either the effects of medieval weapon A on body part B, or things that desperate mercenaries do to people weaker than themselves. I found, though, that this only made me more desperate to see the characters come out the other end, or even achieve their smaller, personal goals – which range from finding love and acceptance to just getting the suit of armour back for which you saved up for years and years and years.
All in all, it’s a highly entertaining, well-crafted and tremendously well-researched story, highly recommended for the sort of people who think that A Song of Ice and Fire needs to spend more time with the grunts in the mud than the princes in the castles.
PS: If any of this sounds interesting, then the best news is that it’s cheap! The Kindle edition is selling for $7.50, and used copies can be had for less than a buck if you look around a little.