November 23rd, 2006

Review: Ilario: the Lion's Eye by Mary Gentle

Try imagining a world with strong similarities to our own 15th century but also with many differences. Carthage and its Visigothic King-Caliph dominates the seas of the western Mediterranean and seeks to absorb the independent Visigothic kingdoms of Iberia. In Rome, there has been no Pope in the Empty Chair for six centuries. And while old Alexandria is ruled by the Turks, the Pharaoh-Queen still reigns in Alexandria-in-Exile (still usually referred to by Franks and Iberians as Constantinople).

However, Francesco Foscari is Doge of Venice, Philip the Good is Duke of Burgundy, and in Florence a few pioneers - Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio - are creating the New Art.

We are in Mary Gentle's First History, the year is 1428 and Ilario - hermaphrodite, aspiring artist and ex-King's Freak - has fled to Carthage from the court of his native Taraconensis (one of the above-mentioned Iberian kingdoms) after an attempt on his/her life. But Carthage is no safer. What Ilario wants to do is to learn the New Art but life is just not that simple - and may not even be very long.

Mary Gentle gives us a story of over 600 pages of continually shifting intrigue, in what is probably her most accomplished novel yet (though not her most ambitious - that still has to be Ash). Her writing is both stylish, even brilliant, and readable. Her main characters are both very believable and sympathetic and while some of her settings (the story ranges round much of the Mediterranean) feel somewhat less real, they are still better and more originally imagined than those of even the best genre fantasy. The plot has all the repeated reversals of the reader's expectations that one has come to expect of a Mary Gentle novel - but they never violate those expectations as they have (at least in some readers' views) from time to time in her earlier works.

Except in one particular sense. Mary Gentle's hallmark mixture of unorthodox sex and violence, of dominance and submission, is certainly present in Ilario but less in the foreground than in any of her work since at least Rats and Gargoyles. And Ilario him/herself is the best adjusted and most fundamentally optimistic Gentle hero (of either sex or both) for at least 20 years. Be warned or encouraged.

Finally, yes, Ilario is a prequel to Ash. However it is very much a stand-alone novel, with only some largely inessential background material shared with Ash. If you have read neither novel, though, and intend to read both, read Ash first - the background material is both more fully detailed in Ash and something of a spoiler for it. But if you bounce on Ash, still try Ilario.

My advice? Buy and read Ilario. Enough other good SFF has been published this year that it will not necessarily be a scandal if Ilario does not get shortlisted for the various awards for this year - but equally it would be a deserving winner of any of them.

EDIT: A bibliographic note - at the front of the book, it says that Under the Penitence, a novella published by PS Publishing in 2004, constitutes part 1 of the book and that The Logistics of Carthage, a novella originally published in Worlds that Weren't in 2002 and reprinted in Cartomancy, also forms part of the story.

Part 1 of Ilario is indeed a slightly lengthened version of Under the Penitence (while there are small changes throughout, most of the new material is towards the end). However, The Logistics of Carthage does not form part of the novel in any form - and while it could be incorporated into a sequel, there's not the slightest indication that one is likely.