Bookshelf (Starburst Reviews) Bookshelf compiled by David Howe
• part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section
selected from Starburst #265

Selected this month:
Mary Gentle’s acclaimed Ash: A Secret History, and Ken Russell's irreverent Mike & Gaby’s Space Gospel

In this issue's Bookshelf: David Howe explores the world of Fantasy art with some recent books from Paper Tiger; best seller charts, August's new releases rounded-up, and five more reviews!

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by Mary Gentle
Published by Gollancz 1113pp (yes, over a thousand...)

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‘It’s the kind of book you can lose yourself in for days. Quite simply, it’s stunning.’

Though marketed as Fantasy, Mary Gentle’s latest novel (published in one massive volume here, but in three parts elsewhere) is actually Science Fiction. It’s also the kind of book you can lose yourself in for days. Quite simply, it’s stunning.

Ash: A Secret History consists of a series of historical documents (supposedly dictated by Ash herself) interleaved with relevant email correspondence between the documents’ translator and his editor.

Ash was a female mercenary captain who, along with her Company and surgeon Floria (who has a pivotal role to play in Burgundy’s future), lived and died in mediaeval Europe. But Ash’s version of Europe is subtly skewed, its religion based on Mithras and ‘the Green Christ’. It is also under attack by Carthage’s Visigoths, a ruthless civilization that uses genetic manipulation, golems, tactical computers … and knows how to ‘put out’ the sun.

This difference from history must be poetic licence, reasons the translator … until his archaeologist friend uncovers evidence that supports the documents, evidence that didn’t exist a few weeks ago.

Mary Gentle’s skill is such that she makes the miraculous seems totally plausible. A master of atmosphere and texture, her bravura portrayal of a Europe suffering under pseudo-nuclear winter remains vivid long afterwards. By no means an idealized view of a woman’s place in a man’s world – even the charismatic Ash suffers humiliation and rape and an arranged marriage – this life and warlike times of a medieval mercenary is unflinching and gritty and feels overwhelmingly authentic.

As for the plot, it’s brilliant. Every time my interest began to wane at yet another battle (if you don’t like blood and guts this won’t be for you!), Gentle unleashed a new and completely unanticipated plot twist and I was grabbed by the jugular once more. Emotionally gripping (OK, I cried!), this ambitious book succeeds wonderfully.

Starburst rating: 10 / 10
Barbara Davies

By Ken Russell
Published by Warner • 207pp, paperback

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'A Sunday School Nativity play scripted with all the reverence of a low-budget Britpop video..'

This is that old chestnut, excerpts from the New Testament reinterpreted as Science Fictional satire. But it’s by noted film director and maverick Ken Russell, so we can get away with it. Mike and Gaby are robot ETs posing as angels (Michael and Gabriel, of course), seeding the Earth with perfect beings, and watching in amazed horror as their Adam and Eve are led into sin and guilt by a darkly mysterious alien.

Later, even by their immortal timescale, the divine robots park starship A.R.K. 2001 over Bethlehem for a typically sarcastic, Russell-style version of a Sunday School Nativity play scripted with all the reverence of a low-budget Britpop video.

Among the best bits of fun here are the author’s hilarious suggestions for an alternative Hollywood supporting cast. Can you picture this lot together on the screen: Woody Allen as King Herod, Dustin Hoffman as Joseph, Clint Eastwood as John the Baptist, and Frank Sinatra as Christ’s prosecutor, high priest Caiaphas?

The blundering SF irony of cheesy miracles achieved via high tech wonders (which include re-animating Lazarus, transmutation of water into wine, teleporting processed soya from orbit, rather than manna from heaven, to feed 5000 waiting souls) are amusing, and yet these contrived gags do nothing to weaken the overly familiar plot. Also, in spite of Russell’s obvious cynicism, enough strangely fortuitous events leave even the robots baffled to ensure this pointed, millennial Space Gospel cleverly avoids charges of blasphemy. Well, that’s all been done before, anyway.

If you enjoyed the silly diversion of that flying saucer scene in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, this book is definitely for you.

Starburst rating: 8 / 10
Tony Lee

Reviews © Visual Imagination 2000. Not for reproduction