Ilario:The Lion's Eye by Mary Gentle
Ilario: The Lion’s Eye
By Mary Gentle
Published by Gollancz, November 2006
Review by Hobbit.
In which we return to the alternate world of ASH: A Secret History (2000). Here, as in ASH, the world is similar, yet different to our own. In this world we have events that echo events of our Renaissance, and yet others that are not; the world of Gentle slipstreams in and out of what really happened.
In ‘real’ history, in AD 429 a Vandal fleet sailed over from mainland Europe to North Africa, with a capital established in Carthage by AD 439. The leader of the Vandal fleet, Gaiseric, later in AD 455 sailed east and sacked Rome. In Gentle’s version, the Visigoths (a Germanic people of Northern Europe) ruled a non-Arabic North Africa from AD 711, and there is a Visigoth Arian Christian invasion of a Spain/Iberia that was part of the Church of the Green Christ. The Visigoths are the new Byzantines.
Here in Mary Gentle’s new story, it is 1428; earlier than the events of ASH in 1477. Like the real history, Carthage is still a place of power, but here it is with a Visigothic King-Caliph Ammianus commanding the Mediterranean and seeking to control the independent Visigothic kingdom of Iberia. Carthage itself is ‘under the Penitance’ – a mysterious, dark, permanent cloud that readers of ASH may be aware of.
Elsewhere, Rome is a city in decline, being referred to as ‘The Empty Chair’, having become a place without a Pope for centuries. Christianity in the alternative world refers not to Jesus Christ, but to the Green Christ, and Judas Iscariot is called Saint Gaius Tradditore, not a traitor but a soldier-warrior who was strong enough to do what had to be done. Instead of Egypt we have Alexandria-in-Exile, ruled by the Pharaoh-Queen Ty-ameny.
Here however the story concerns itself mainly with Ilario: a hermaphrodite, once the King’s Freak of Rodrigo Sanguerra’s court and now given his/her freedom from slavery. (And here I do what I try not to do usually: some minor spoilers.)
[MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW]
The story starts with Ilario starting his new life with a certain degree of recklessness in Carthage, which leads to him/her being put back into slavery. Fortunately he is bought by an Alexandrian, Rekhmire’, whose occupation as a book buyer for the Pharaoh-Queen Ty-ameny is not what it seems. He takes Ilario under his tutelage in a rather un-slavelike manner. As the book progresses, we find that Ilario’s life is threatened by his mother, Aldro Rosamunda, and step-father, Aldra Videric, (who happens to be the main councillor to King Rodrigo of Taraconensis); they see Ilario as a threat, as a weakness that can lead to the demise to their positions of power and influence, and are determined to remove him/her before their secret is discovered. And just to cap it all, Ilario is pregnant.
[END OF MINOR SPOILERS]
Gentle’s characteristic brutal bleakness is still present; so too the dark humour of earlier works. However, there are differences in this complex, yet more subtle work. More muted are the militaristic actions of warfare as shown stunningly in ASH. Though they are present, and very well done, this is a story where diplomacy, not open warfare, predominates. There are battle scenes, but here it is the battles of politics and espionage that prevails.
Also muted are the events precipitated in ASH. The magical elements here are minimal and could be ignored, unless you were looking for them. Indeed the ‘magic’ can be seen for the most part as merely advanced science, should a reader wish to perceive it in that way. To the non-genre reader with a limited knowledge of history the book could very easily read as a historical novel. There are links to ASH, though they are not explicit. In fact, the book references an extract from the short story ‘The Logistics of Carthage’ (in the short story collection Cartomancy, 2004, and the collection Stories that Weren’t (2002)) that is not obvious – I couldn’t see it. More noticeable is the first section of the book which is pretty much the PS Publication ‘Under the Penitance’ (2004) with a different ending. Here it becomes a seamless part of the extended travelogue that is Ilario: The Lion’s Eye.
And what of the ‘Lion’s Eye’ reference? It is given in the faux-quote at the beginning of the book: ‘A legend of classical times says that, so strong is the eye of the lion, that its sight does not die with its owner. And here, by the lion’s eye, we see prefigured the art of the true maker of images: the painter whose vision remains long after he himself is dead.’
And so we meet another aspect of the new book. Here we are at the dawn of a new Renaissance. Ilario is an aspiring artist, keen to take up the ‘New Art’: a more realistic way of painting which involves perspective, very different to what has gone before. This is reflected in the way way Ilario sees things in the novel. Often it is with an artist's eye in terms of colour, shade and perspective. This can be a little wearying.
So too is this story at the dawn of the printing press, and a foreshadowing of the tumult that results. As Ilario’s personal situation lies in chaos, so does the world around him/her. It is a world of change, yet one whose changes will have permanent effects.
And this is something that Gentle shows to great result. The book is divided into five sections, showing different aspects of Ilario’s world. There is the dark world of Carthage under the penitence, the squalor of a declining Rome, the secrecy of Renaissance-like Venice, the Egyptian world of Alexandria-in-exile, the courtly intrigue of Taraconensis, even aspects of Ancient China. The cumulative effect is one of a Grand Tour of Gentle’s world, though one that is notably focused on characters and events rather than places. Some parts do seem a little too long for their own good, the Venice section particularly for me, though they do give an excellent impression of a fully-realised world.
There are a lot of themes recurrent from earlier novels in this book. One Gentle motif here is that, as in many of her earlier books from the White Crow series to ASH, Gentle teases with an exploration of sexuality. whereas Ash and Valentine were females in a male-orientated environment, thus allowing the writer to explore gender roles, Ilario’s unique hermaphroditic ability to cross genders allows him/her to conveniently act as both male and female when the situation seems appropriate. This does lead to some amusingly different viewpoints at times, and a startlingly graphic sex scene in the first few pages of the book.
Another recurrent premise is that Gentle looks at the importance of dominance and submission in society, through slavery. Ilario has been and becomes a slave as well as a slave owner, something which is not without irony. In the book there are also a recurrent theme by examining relationships with some sort of dominance/submission - between parent and child, officer and soldier, tutor and tutee, employer and employee. Gentle manages to take all of these and produce something of thought and depth whilst simultaneously juggling an imaginative plot.
This is something that is not always easy, nor always managed. There are a lot of events here when taken out of context may seem far-fetched, to say the least. Certainly if the story of a hermaphrodite, a eunuch, and a homicidal mother is not your cup of tea, then this may not be for you. However it is to Gentle’s credit that her characterisation and world building is so good that the story seems plausible, and whilst reading I was willing to be entertained by it.
Most intriguingly, though Gentle’s earlier cynicism of the human condition is still there, there are signs that the writer may be mellowing. Ilario at times even shows a positive aspect towards personal relationships, particularly between Ilario and his/her Alexandrian friend Rekhmire’ and Ilario and his/her father Honorius, though the complex relationship between Ilario and his/her mother and stepfather shows that Gentle still has the ability to write caustic characterisation and jibe at areas previously poked – in particular, a section on Ilario’s need to atone is quite caustic in its dealings with religion, for example.
In summary, this is a large, multilayered and complex book (and perhaps, for some a little longwinded in places) that is a subtler work than much of Gentle’s earlier books. If I was honest, this subtlety meant that Ilario did not have the cumulative impact that ASH had on me, and therefore it is perhaps not the best place to start reading Gentle’s books – ASH is still recommended for that – but for many who have read previous work, and like what they’ve read, this will be a welcome and enigmatic addition to a writer with vision who still has the power to shock and amaze.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, December 2006.
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