by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Carthage Ascendant begins immediately after the end of A Secret History (and, of course, follows directly in the British one-volume edition of the Book of Ash). This section opens with Ash and her new employer, the Lancastrian John de Vere, approaching Charles the Bold with plans to attack the Visigoths at their capital of Carthage in an attempt to destroy the stone golem which provides the Visigothic general the Faris with tactical advice.
Gentle begins to flesh out the character of Fernando del Guiz, Ash’s husband de jure. In A Secret History, del Guiz is portrayed as a bored nobleman who is rewarded with a wife who was causing problems for the Emperor. In Carthage Ascendant, del Guiz is portrayed as a more modern voice. One of the few people who reacts in horror to the warrior culture in which Ash and her compatriots live and to which he, at least theoretically, belongs. At the same time, Gentle is careful to show del Guiz as he would be seen by his contemporaries, thereby distancing him from any modern ideals.
As with A Secret History, Gentle strives for an authentic and unromantic depiction of the fifteenth-century. This is clearly brought home when ‘Amir Leofric categorizes Ash’s health prior to the beginning of a torture session. He describes the evidence of dirt, disease and infestation in a matter of fact tone which Ash accepts in the same manner.
Given the general realistic feel of Carthage Ascendant, some of Gentle’s phrase choices are particularly anachronistic, such as Ash’s thought that her “ass is grass” or her invitation to del Guiz to “step into her office.” When Gentle uses such modern phrases, the text becomes extremely jarring. On occasion, Gentle excusing these anachronisms with footnotes presenting the “original” Latin.
Of course, Gentle is writing a fantasy novel, so no matter how realistic her world appears, eventually she will introduce things which cause the reader to suspend belief. Ash has the ability to hear voices which give her advice during battles. She learns the ostensible origin of these voices and make an attempt to destroy the source, a tool used by the Visigoths and her apparent twin sister. In the process, Ash learns that the Visigoths themselves are a tool, although to what purpose, she is unable to ascertain.
Gentle’s modern scholar, Pierce Ratcliff, and his editor, Anna Longman, continue to discuss historiography in the form of questions their manuscript about Ash raises about the history of the Burgundian period. No longer content to espouse traditional theories, their discussions have begun to move into more theoretical realms of parallel universes
Carthage Ascendant is a strong continuation of A Secret History, building on the ideas and characters in the earlier book in a way which does not allow it to stand on its own. At the same time, it is stronger than the first book in the series, for Gentle is able to advance her plot in Carthage Ascendant while A Secret History mostly laid the groundwork for this and, one would assume, the subsequent novels.
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