The man broke off as I turned to face him, as people sporadically do.
For a moment he stood staring at me in the flaring naphtha lights of the harbour hall.
"—freewoman?" he speculated. [...]
"Your documents, freeman," he finished, more definitely.
The clothes decided him, I thought. Doublet and hose make the man. (p. 3)
With Ilario: The Lion's Eye, Mary Gentle returns to, and broadens our picture of, the skewed fifteenth-century Mediterranean world she explored to such acclaim in her gritty, witty, absorbing Ash: A Secret History (2000): a world in which Carthage is a Visigothic stronghold locked in perpetual darkness; in which proud Pharaonic Egypt (and its library) lives on—just—in Constantinople; in which Christianity is divided between the followers of Christus Imperator and those of the Green Christ, and the papacy is a magically cursed and powerless shell; in which the Arabs apparently never made it out of the Hijaz, and the Etruscans live on the margins, worshipping their old gods in precarious secret.
Ilario is altogether a different type of novel from Ash, however. While in Ash the enormously detailed canvas was used to tell an epic tale, Ilario's focus—or at least the scope of its plot—is much more limited. The book opens with our young narrator, hermaphrodite would-be artist Ilario, having fled his/her native Taraconensis (north-eastern Iberia) for the dubious sanctuary of Carthage after a particularly nasty family quarrel, to the tune of attempted filicide. (Gentle gets around the pronoun issue by putting the narrative in the first person; reviewers, unfortunately, have to make do with rather inelegant alternatives). The desire to learn a groundbreaking new style of painting, combined with the constant fear of assassins sent from home, keeps Ilario on the move. The result is a jaunt around Gentle's rich alternate Mediterranean—taking in Carthage, Rome, Venice, and Constantinople—which affects to be a tense race against time but in reality is more of a stroll, with cultural sightseeing and inter-character dynamics tending to edge out brushes with death. It's part picaresque, part travelogue, part prose chanson de geste: a leisurely tale of court politics and international diplomacy that, at heart, is much more concerned with the day-to-day life (and journey of self-discovery) of its narrator, and of such figures as the narrator encounters along the way.
This is handy, since Ilario is a singularly self-involved storyteller, generally taking an interest in events and people only insofar as they revolve around him/her, or can be so construed. It is not precisely an innocence-to-experience story: the knowledge and skills upon which Ilario draws in his/her dealings with the varied politics of the Mediterranean world are essentially those gained in earlier life, as a well-educated "King's Freak" at the royal court of Taraconensis, but they are perhaps differently and more insightfully deployed after months of avoiding assassins, coping with pregnancy and a pair of marriages, and seeing several new configurations of human society. (If Ilario's friends and enemies alike believe Ilario to have matured and changed drastically in the interim—as they say, repeatedly—it is perhaps less a marker of a true character arc, and more a measure of how their own perspectives upon Ilario have changed. This is thematically important.) In fact, the basic structure arguably has more of the chanson de geste about it: the protagonist suffers injustice at the hands of one in authority, but through the aid of a third party is able to achieve redress and bring some good ol' comeuppance down upon the villain. Gentle piles nuance and complexity on top, of course—and the denouement is rather more ambiguous, with Ilario ending the novel pretty much as rash and solipsistic as he/she began it—but this is what the story boils down to.
Meanwhile, the world is in flux, and Ilario is far from the only unpredictable new variable at work; through Ilario's interactions we see that cultural and political upheaval is in the offing, from a number of different sources. The Carthaginians, as readers of Ash will be well aware, have territorial expansion in mind, and plots to destabilise their Mediterranean rivals underway—although, one episode of shocking violence aside, their plans bear little fruit in Ilario, and they are more a lurking menace than an active threat. An immense ship, blown off course and into the Mediterranean, turns out to be from the lands of Chin (China), and by the end of the novel the establishment of trade links seems to be imminent. Further north, two real-world figures are thrown into the mix: a young Florentine exile, the polymath Leon Battista Alberti, produces agit-prop pamphlets against the ducal regime in his home city, with the help of a certain chap whom the other characters call "Herr Mainz," and his new invention: moveable type. Finally, there is beleaguered Alexandria-in-exile, forced from its Egyptian homeland and clinging to existence on the edge of the Black Sea, with the Turks on its doorstep. Its Pharoah-Queen, aware that her age-old civilisation's time is almost up, hopes to recruit the aforementioned German printer, in order to reproduce—and distribute—the vast intellectual wealth of its famed library (in our own timeline, of course, a loss long lamented by the fifteenth century). In the book's most enduringly poignant image, Rekhmire' explains the possibilities to Ilario:
"Do you know what there is, every few yards, on every floor in the Library?"
I shook my head.
"Sand buckets. Blankets. Against fire. So many of those scrolls are the sole copy. Our scriptoria work through the night as well as the day, but ... can you imagine? To have as many copies as a printer's machina could make?" His voice took on a pained quality. "And then—never to lose the last copy of a book, ever again?" (p. 250)
What bibliophile (still less a history geek) could resist such a dream?
Where Ilario stands out, and where it will likely attract the most attention, is in its treatment of three broadly interlinked themes. The most prominent of these is gender. Ilario, who possesses the (mostly) functional organs of both a man and a woman, is only one of a number of characters who—in terms of biology, self-identification, or both—inhabit a spectrum of gender (and sexuality) that goes far beyond binary oppositions. Eunuchs, for example, enjoy high social status and great respect in two of the societies in Gentle's world—Alexandria-in-exile and (unseen, but discussed) Chin, where they are used extensively in government and diplomacy—and a pair of Egyptian eunuchs play correspondingly important roles in the novel, Ilario's closest friend Rekhmire', and Leon Battista Alberti's female-identified lover, Neferet. (Ilario, too, has relationships with both men and women, and these again do not fall easily into categories of "gay" or "straight," on either side.) When we first meet Ti-ameny, Pharoah-Queen of Egypt, she wears a fake beard, part of her ceremonial regalia and aura of authority. These multifarious configurations of gender are examined in large part through their intersections with Gentle's other major themes: seeing and being seen, and social hierarchy and power.
The former manifests most obviously in Ilario's artist's eye for colour and detail, which is used to great effect in several places, most notably in descriptions of the sickly, artificial light in Carthage, a city cloaked in the mysterious, unending night known as the Penitence. It also appears during Ilario's apprenticeship in Rome, as the result of a consideration of the techniques and theory of what we would think of as Renaissance art—most importantly, perspective. This, in essence, means re-learning how to see the world and to paint what is there from life—a revolutionary notion in a world that, in art (as arguably in other areas of life), has long prized the symbolic and idealised over the real or truly representative. From this motif comes a consideration of gender as presentation and perception. Ilario, having learned the need to be endlessly mutable through courtly training and bitter experience, changes between men's and women's clothing and demeanour as the situation demands it—to all intents and purposes becoming, in the eyes of those observing, the gender he/she has assumed. On several occasions, this enables Ilario to hide in plain sight, fooling pursuers who see only a man when they are hunting a woman, or taking advantage of the underestimation accorded to a woman's strength and intellect. On others, it allows Ilario into worlds—such as artistic apprenticeship—that would be forbidden to one or other sex. Almost universally, Ilario is treated according to the gender he/she presents to the world—by the standards and expectations set by society for each sex:
Viscardo and Fulka and the others treated me as I was dressed, but with much less of that attitude common in Rodrigo's court: that a woman who can talk like a man is as amazing as a trained jackdaw—or that a man who can speak like a woman must be an effeminate catamite. (p. 275)
Or else, when the illusion fails or the truth is known, Ilario is treated as one to be reviled and feared precisely because Ilario is uncategorisable as man or woman, and is thus unpredictable:
Berenguer [...] might from time to time still give me wary looks when the two of us chanced to be in a room alone together, as if I might leap on him, and seduce and rape him simultaneously. (p. 345)
It is here that the third and final theme, power, comes into play: in the rigidly-stratified societies of (much of) Gentle's alternative late medieval world, gender is—like birth, wealth, race, education, and religion, together with less tangible factors like honour and reputation—above all a determiner of status. It is this status in the social hierarchy—and, by natural extension, in law—that dictates how individuals must behave, to whom they must defer, and how others treat them in turn. The prevalence of slavery and, to a lesser extent, serfdom, underlines how stifling this is: Ilario is a former slave, and becomes a reluctant slave-owner later in the novel; would-be assassin Ramiro Carrasco is forced into a life of violence by a lord who has the power of life and death over his family, because they are the lord's tenants. Ilario's mother, Rosamunda, although undoubtedly rather prone to shifting the blame for her reprehensible actions onto others, makes a telling point about the limitations of even freeborn life, for many people, when she says:
"The last thing you want is any legal taint of womanhood about you—trust me, Ilario. [...] It would alter your relationship with your father. And your husband, should you marry a man. That knowledge that you have absolute legal power over your wife ... it follows you everywhere, do you understand me? Everywhere. If she can't say no, her yes is worth very little." (p. 655)
Of necessity, a strong measure of protection goes hand in hand with the ability to fit into this framework: Ilario is a freak—an outsider excluded from the protections and restrictions of ordinary social roles—precisely because he/she cannot be slotted into this schema, and suffers for it. It is hardly surprising, then, that even Ilario, long since wearily accepting of his/her own indeterminate status, is filled with terror at the thought that any child he/she carries might share the same biological curse, and thus be condemned to the same dislocation and vulnerability, adrift from the rest of society. Yet, by the same token, as Rosamunda suggests, Ilario potentially has a freedom unavailable to anyone else: moving through all worlds and belonging to none, Ilario is a random element, and operates as such within the plot (sometimes involuntarily through the politicking of others, but increasingly with volition), even if the world-changing political significance accorded him/her at times edges on the implausible.
If Ilario is ultimately something of a disappointment, the reasons have less to do with Gentle's intention than her execution of it. Although it lasts for just over half the page-count of its predecessor (and chronological sequel), Ilario feels considerably longer; the story drags, bogged down by needlessly-extended considerations of politicking or inter-character relationships, especially during the drawn-out section in Venice (where plot exigencies keep the narrator confined indoors, depriving us of even the travelogue element), and there are precious few changes of tone and pace to punctuate the narrative. Sometimes, it feels like Gentle is stating the obvious, giving readers conclusions we could undoubtedly have reached for ourselves. Sometimes the description is so repetitious that it could surely have been edited out:
Ramiro Carrasco shot me a puzzled look, standing holding Onorata among the baby's luggage. (p. 427)
Then, a page later:
Beyond her, Ramiro Carrasco de Luis, with the baby's luggage piled up in a mountain about his knees, cradled Onorata up against his shoulder. (p. 428)
There is still much to like: a generous amount of earthy and bathetic humour, and Gentle's characteristic eye for authentic detail and for situations and plot strands grounded in historical circumstance (together with, crucially, responses that ring true with the mindset of this half-real, half-created world). Unsurprisingly, the novel's most vivid moments almost invariably involve skirmishes with firearms or medical procedures—things that Gentle is exceptionally skilled at evoking. But too many would-be climactic scenes play out through long-winded dialogue—not least, the showdown between Ilario and his/her estranged mother. Ash was undoubtedly heavy-going, in places; but there was a lightness of touch, a sense of momentum, and a liveliness to the characterisation that Ilario all too often lacks.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, UK, where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.