THE WILD MACHINES
by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Wild Machines, the third book of the Ash tetralogy by Mary Gentle, only covers a span of three days, but manages to include many pivotal changes in the series. Ash has escaped from Carthage, where she has learned about her own background and has begun to delve into the mysterious Wild Machines, the beings who are behind the voices which she and her twin, Faris, can both hear. This portion of the novel is set in the immediate vicinity of the city of Dijon as it is about to cave in to the siege laid by Faris and her Visigoth troops. Even as Ash learns about her own background, the modern historian, Pierce Ratcliff begins to find contradictory evidence that will prove his contentions about the Ash manuscript despite the setbacks his research suffered in the second book.
One of the most interesting twists occurs at the beginning of Ash’s involvement with the siege of Dijon when she confronts Faris and discovers that her twin is in denial about the voices they both hear and their origins. Because Faris has grown up with knowledge of what her voices are and are not supposed to be, she has bought into a mythology about them which may not be correct. Ash, without the preconceived notions, accepts the voices as she hears them and learns about them. When Ash and Faris begin to hear the voice of a dead man, it only compounds the confusion about the voices’ sources.
With the new voices, Ash and Faris begin to switch positions. Faris is new to the idea of the Stone Golem being unreliable, while Ash has always lived with the question of whether or not she could trust the advice she received. Furthermore, Ash has learned to fight without the intervention and advice from the Golem, an advantage Faris never had.
Ash’s surgeon, Floria, replaces her husband, Fernando, as the voice of the modern person in The Wild Machines, arguing with Ash that justice and good doesn’t matter when the end result is death. It is demonstrative of Gentle’s abilities that she manages to inject characters with 20th century sensibilities into the plot without making them appear too anachronistic.
The addition of one of Ash’s dead comrades to the voices she hears adds to the image of Ash as a fantasy novel rather than a science fiction novel, despite the themes of alternate worlds, alien machines and experimentation which pervade the work. Gentle still has another volume in which to explain the reappearance of Godfrey Maximilian, as well as the other strange ideas and artifacts she has introduced.
Throughout the series, Gentle has played with the conceit that the novel is merely a translation of a Medieval text with modern discussion occasionally interrupting it. In The Wild Machines, Gentle introduces the conclusion of that text, well before the end of her story. The fortuitous discovery of a second manuscript which dovetails with the original manuscript allows her scholar to continue his research and finish the story.
Of course, Gentle is herself moving into the endgame of the chronicle of Ash and Ratcliffe’s discoveries. The Wild Machines ends with a twist which should prove to have very interesting consequences in the final book of the sequence. Ash has finally gotten away from thinking of herself as secondary to Faris and is ready to take the lead in her relationship with her half-sister. While the natures of Wild Machines is no better known than at the beginning of the novel, their intentions are understood, at least by Ash, who realizes that the Visigoths are their pawns and expendable. Lost Burgundy, the summation of the tale has numerous threads to weave together and American readers should be jealous that British readers get the entire story between one cover without necessitating a wait between books.
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