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
Here in Mary Gentle’s new story, it is 1428; earlier than the events of ASH in 1477. Like the real history,
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
[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
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
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.