This is a long fantasy novel broken up into 16 parts and originally published in four shorter novel, each one about 275 pages. The book begins with a brief introduction from a researcher in medieval texts telling us that he will be presenting a new groundbreaking translation of a medieval text (from Latin and French) from the late 1400s. This text is a new translation and he makes references to several older versions and gives us a basic run down of the process and results of those books. We are reading both his notes, his correspondence with his editor and other key figures, and we are reading his translation of the text. This extra material is very much part of the process and point of the book and provides a lot of funny and interesting commentary on the main narrative as well. His translation is of “Ash”, a narrative of a young mercenary captain working in and around the various warring factions of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1400s. She’s 20 at the time of our story and is both a lot like and nothing like Joan of Arc in turns.
Once we get to the actual book itself, we begin with an early introduction to Ash by seeing a few scenes of her childhood. She is a child of the streets, awash with violence, and once we get to the present, we see that she’s grown into a competent, sour-mouthed, military commander, a bit reckless, but also playing the game of mercenary politics.
The opening book (and I assume this mostly carries through — I am “live blogging” my reading) is like….what if Jeanette Winterson wrote a 1000 page novel of Assassin’s Creed, with the intrusions from the contemporary. There’s a back and forth discussion of the narrative between the translator discussing various language choices. He discusses how he updates curse words and makes the narrative make more sense.
Toward the middle of the first book, we end a long section with the reveal that a) the Turks have invaded Italy (apparently something unknown — (and didn’t happen really), b) they had golems (or robots or automatons). His editor is shocked and asked him to explain. He reports he’s only translating. A later archeological find in the world of 2000 seems to confirm this (or does it? — we’re left pretty well outside of things by the structure of the novel). In a later part of Book 1, we are also treated to the seeming blacking out of the sun — at a time of no recorded eclipse. The editor has further questions, and so do we.
Book Two continues on where we left off. One of the biggest changes from this book from book one is not so much the action of Ash herself, which continues forward, but within the publishers and scholars and how they are understanding and presenting the information. This shift from new story and new ideas to understanding creates a kind of pincer narrative in which we’re now starting to getting the two different storylines — even though the modern on is incredibly thin in comparison — are converging, especially given that the writing and translating is paired with the archaeological dig.
The effect for me then is sort of the opposite of Possession by AS Byatt in which the literary scholarship is primary and the text secondary. This is the inverse — the text is forward and the commentary secondary. I am not entirely sure the book needs the commentary at all to function, but its adds a sense of depth and veracity to it that feels playful.