by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Lost Burgundy is the final book in Mary Gentle’s US version of the Ash sequence, published in one volume in the UK. In This book, told mostly during the siege of Dijon, Gentle’s twenty-first century history, Pierce Ratcliffe, begins to examine the manner in which history has been changing throughout the book. In the Medieval segments, Ash continues to gain ascendancy over her sister-clone, Faris as the King-Caliph of the Visigoths decides to visit the siege in person.
Gentle has spent three long books developing her characters and situations and does not rush to a conclusion in the final volume. The slow pace of the first half of the novel during the siege of Dijon provides insight into life in a walled city under siege, although Gentle distances the reader from many of the cruelties of the siege, despite earlier showing no squeamishness about describing battles, rape or day-to-day living in a fifteenth-century mercenary camp. Gentle permits only a small amount of information about the world outside Dijon to reach the readers, indicative of the isolation of the characters in the besieged city.
While much of “The Book of Ash” has been a low key description of life in the fifteenth-century, Gentle has continued to build the suspense over the importance of the Kingdom of Burgundy to the salvation of the world and the plans of the Wild Machines. In Lost Burgundy, the importance of Burgundy is focused on the person of the new Duchess, playing with the Medieval idea which equated the ruler with the state. Ash is willing to allow Dijon, and therefore Burgundy, to fall if she can guarantee the survival of the Duchess.
Although the action over the course of the four books is held within a year, the length of the novels makes the appearance and disappearance of characters feel more spaced out. Characters who have disappeared with their fate unknown, reappear in this installment, often with major, but reasonable, changes in their characters or situation. These reappearances have a tendency to throw a kink into Ash’s plans or desires.
Even as Ash and her cohorts settle into the drudgery of siege-life, Ratcliffe and his colleagues begin to make headway into the modern mysteries they have had to confront throughout the previous novels. Gentle introduces a scientific rationale for the changes they are witnessing, as well as for the supernatural contrivances which exist within the text of the manuscripts Ratcliffe has been translating. While not all of Ratcliffe’s explanations may be convincing, they do provide a solution to the difficulties he has been having.
In many ways, “The Book of Ash” is two separate stories. The first the story of Ash, which reads like a well-written and well-researched Medieval fantasy. The second is the novella concerning Ratcliffe and his research, a procedural mystery played out with academics rather than detectives. When interspersed with each other, the two stories play off each other’s strengths, creating a holistic view of the events which is stronger than either component.
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