21 February 2007

Locus Reviews Mary Gentle

by Nick Gevers

from Locus Magazine, February 2007

Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, Mary Gentle (Gollancz 0-575-07661-5, £20.00, 663pp, hc; ; 0-575-07660-7, £14.99, tp) November 2006.

The novels under review this month all concern alterations to recorded history: in Mary Gentle’s Ilario, the past is not as we recall it, but the difference is temporary; in Stephen Baxter’s Conqueror, someone in the future is apparently intent on remaking the past, but his success or failure is shrouded artfully in fog; and in Paul Park’s The White Tyger, another timeline has superseded ours, but one may wonder as to its authenticity and permanence. Bold counterfactuals, all riven with ambivalence, make for a feast of uncertainty…

Mary Gentle is known for her long novels, and Ilario: The Lion’s Eye is appropriately massive at 663 pages, outweighing its gigantic immediate predecessor, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003), by an ounce or two, and functioning as a prequel to the biggest of the lot, Ash: A Secret History (2000, 1,100 pages), which was split into four volumes by its US publisher. Luckily, Gentle is comfortable with, and thoroughly expert at, the sprawling historical or allohistorical epic, the thoroughness of her research and humorous complication of her writing making her books seem if anything too short; and, although Ilario is comparatively slow moving, it possesses a painterly intensity that more than compensates.

Set in the 1420s, a few decades before Ash, Ilario is foremost an elaborate character portrait, but it also illumines the origins of the apocalyptic events set out in Ash. What deeper motives underlie Carthage’s campaigns of conquest later in the fifteenth century, and the surgery to history that brings our version of matters into being, expunging the timeline familiar to the mercenary captain Ash and the willful refugee Ilario? Ilario’s wanderings carry him/her around the Mediterranean, to most of the urban centers crucial to the power politics of the age; and although Ilario has only a vague inkling of the afflicted future, the reader obtains a clear impression of the tensions building. There is Carthage in North Africa, a major player, still ruled by Visigoths attached to the Arian heresy and its ideal of Christ as Imperator, and languishing under the so-called Penitence, a permanent condition of night. Without sunlight, Carthage and its legions, heirs to martial traditions Punic and Roman, must seek abroad for sustenance, and the petty kingdoms of Spain are in effect Carthaginian vassals, though on the face of it uneasily independent. Arian Christians wage Crusades against their Catholic adversaries in France, and the Catholics have troubles of their own, centering on a curse, presumably Arian in provenance, preventing anybody elected Pope from surviving more than a few days — Rome is known as the Empty Chair, and St. Peter has no papal heirs. To the east, Pharaonic Egypt still exists, but in a curious condition of exile in Constantinople, where the transferred Alexandrian Great Library remains the world’s greatest repository of learning (this whole circumstance is rather rum, a logical weakness in Ilario, but never mind.) Egypt itself and much of the Middle East are ruled by the Turks, who here, in the absence of Islam, worship Astarte and possibly other Babylonian gods; Mehmet II, presumably the same Ottoman Sultan who in 1453 in our history expunged Byzantium, menaces Alexandria-in-Exile in identical fashion in Ilario’s world. Wars are definitely in the offing, subject only to postponement or palliation, and Ilario, moving impertinently from court to court, does his/her erratic best in that regard, tweaking royal beards, blackmailing and manipulating high personages, sabotaging a Carthaginian golem, and enlisting a Chinese admiral to keep military passions damped…

To explain the ambiguous pronouns employed above: Ilario is an hermaphrodite. Seemingly the offspring of Videric, First Minister to the King of the taifa state of Taraconensis in Spain, he/she is a major potential political embarrassment, initially kept in servitude as King’s fool, but then forced to flee when his/her mother Rosamunda and Videric try to do away with Ilario for the genetic dishonor he/she represents. Ilario goes to Carthage, is enslaved there, is bought by Rekhmire’, an Alexandrian eunuch, scholar and spy, and escapes with him to Rome and then Venice, Videric’s agents always in pursuit. Ilario is charismatic, volatile, amorous, a typical Gentle protagonist in other words, in measurable continuity with Ash, Valentine, and Dariole; romantic impulse leads him/her into many perilous situations, with Rekhmire’’s counsel only occasionally restraining this natural, fallible exuberance. Amidst such passionate turmoil, Ilario’s only real ambition is to become a painter, training with the emerging Renaissance masters in Italy and learning to express his/her brilliant powers of observation on canvas (that is the “lion’s eye” — absolute acuity of vision.) Ilario is narrator throughout, and an attractive one; we can’t sample his/her artwork with its innovative realism, but a swashbuckling memoir is the next best thing, or better. And so, as if to guarantee entertainment for a future reader, calculating all the while how Videric can be evaded, appeased, or hoodwinked, Ilario alternately stumbles and glides from destination to destination, meeting his/her true father (he’s a general, conveniently, with capable mercenaries on retainer), becoming apprentice to a temperamental Florentine artist, falling in love with an Etruscan woman, participating in arquebus-combat in Venice, contracting a marriage of convenience, bearing a daughter (whatever the odds against), visiting the Pharaoh Queen in Constantinople, hitching a ride aboard the flagship of the eunuch Admiral Zheng He, and returning to Taraco to confront Videric in person. It’s an exciting, vivid progress, a very superior example of the intelligent picaresque, the thoughtful adventure tale.

All the same, Ilario may disappoint some Gentle admirers hoping for more formal ambition — after all, Ash and 1610 feature playful frame narratives, clever scholarly and structural experiments and gambits, varying voices, while Ilario is unadorned, unframed, simply Ilario in extended autobiographical mode. And it’s possible to regard Ilario as an irritating, self-indulgent guide through the landscapes of the “First History”: he/she is smug at times, prone to extended banter with companions, and overemphatic of the need to protect baby Onorata no matter the wider cost. Yet this is perhaps the point: above all the regular satisfactions of her fiction, the color, the action, the philosophic reflection, Gentle seems to be striving here for a masterpiece of characterization, in the warts-and-all spirit, and Ilario stands out from the page as flawed, as conceited, and as opportunistic as a real person in such circumstances would likely be. And in that characterological sense Ilario is indeed successfully experimental: here is (probably) literature’s most extended examination ever of hermaphroditism from the inside, in all its complications, confusions, and epiphanies. The extraordinary gender sensitivity and flexibility Ilario embodies, novel shades of sexuality at every turn, and new angles on plain old heterosexuality in the bargain — factor all that in, and Ilario is the foremost SF/fantasy novel of gender in quite a while.

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This is one of over forty reviews from the February 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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