fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMary Gentle’s two Ilario books, Ilario: The Lion's Eye: A Story of the First History, Book One and Ilario: The Stone Golem: A Story of the First History, Book TwoIlario by Mary Gentle

For pure storytelling, don’t-want-to-stop-reading-it fun, Mary Gentle’s two Ilario books, Ilario: The Lion’s Eye: A Story of the First History, Book One and Ilario: The Stone Golem: A Story of the First History, Book Two, are among the best I’ve read. I lived in Gentle’s world even when I wasn’t actively reading the books. I dreamt of her Mediterranean Renaissance. I fretted about Ilario. I couldn’t wait to get back to the books when I’d set them down. Gentle’s worldbuilding is extraordinary, her characters are complete individuals, and her plot compelling. This is fantasy with a heart and a mind.

Ilario is a hermaphrodite in every possible sense of the word. He (I shall refer to him as “he” for the sake of convenience only; I could just as easily use “she”) not only has the sexual organs of both a man and a woman, but also has sexual desire for both men and women. He has no sense that he is primarily one sex or the other, no feeling that his “ka” or “soul” is one gender or the other: he is both.

That, standing alone, is a strong premise for a book, but Mary Gentle isn’t content with merely exploring one man/woman’s sexual identity. She sets her book in a world that never was, at a time that appears to approximate our Renaissance. Carthage was never conquered, and remains a powerful city-state. But it is a city forever shrouded in darkness, called the Penitence, and no one knows why. Under darkness, it cannot grow crops, and therefore has ambitions of conquest. Rome has been a backwater ever since Gundobad’s curse left Peter’s Chair (that is, the office of Pope) vacant. Taraconensis is another great power, from which Ilario hails. Turkey, too, is powerful, but it owes its position in the world to New Alexandria — formerly known as Constantinople — the center of Egypt in exile. The Alexandrian Library is the most renowned collection of writings of all sorts in the world — many, if not most, one of a kind. Politically and militarily, however, Alexandria is barely holding on.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhen the first book opens, Ilario is fleeing Taraconensis, where his birth mother, Rosamunda, has just tried to kill him. He has been freed by King Rodrigo from his position as King’s Freak, a slave mocked for his sexual identity. Rosamunda’s second attempt on his life is no more successful than her first, but it wounds him more — psychologically, for he loves her, though not physically. But she is married to Videric, the king’s First Minister, and he has ordered her to kill her only child. And she has her own reasons for obeying.

Ilario is an artist, and he chooses Carthage in order to paint under the Penitence, trying to get the colors of eternal darkness correctly. He seeks to apprentice himself to an artist who can teach him the New Art, an art that we, and Ilario, learn is based upon the study of perspective and proportion. He meets with misfortune almost immediately in Carthage, however, and the misfortune never lets up: he is bilked as a newcomer and made a slave again to an Egyptian, Rekhmire’. Worse yet, Rosamunda follows him and again attempts to kill him. There is more at work politically here than he knows, and more to come when Rekhmire’ denounces his mother to the powers that be in Carthage, causing an international incident.

All of this happens within the first one hundred pages or so of the first book, and I haven’t even mentioned Ilario’s night of passion with Marcomir, his discovery of his true father or Rekhmire’s status as a eunuch. The books take Ilario and Rekhmire’ to Rome, Venice, New Alexandria, and elsewhere about the Mediterranean, introducing all manner of what we know as artifacts of the Renaissance. Political intrigue is abundant, as Videric continues his quest to end Ilario’s life. Ilario’s own body betrays him, or blesses him, or both, as the reader struggles to bend his or her mind around the notion of a human who is both male and female. There is much to consider here about the nature of love as well as of sex, and the relationship of love to the configuration of one’s genitals.

Gentle’s writing is largely transparent, with rare moments of a keen turn of phrase. It is this transparency that allows the reader to become so thoroughly lost in these books. All else disappears so that you can smell the cheese in the artist’s glue, hear the thunder of the sea and feel the heat of the midday sun in New Alexandria. Tension builds as the politics grow more complicated, the assassins more numerous and the stakes higher.

Occasionally it is apparent that Gentle would have benefited from an editor, as when, for instance, she draws the same word picture several times within pages. In addition, the short epilogue should have been cut altogether; it adds nothing we need to know to the story.

And there is no reason whatsoever why this story should have been two books instead of one. The first book’s cliffhanger is an insult to readers, because it is not a true cliffhanger; its resolution is apparent by the fact that there is a second book at all. This is plainly a single book cut in two for profit’s sake, a fault to be laid squarely at the feet of the publisher. This recent regrettable trend is extremely annoying and makes books so expensive as to take them out of the reach of many. I would gladly have paid $35 for a single hardcover volume of nearly 700 pages rather than $30 for two trade paperbacks; the former would have been a fine addition to my permanent library. As it is, much as I loved these books, they are merely fine additions to my local public library.

I understand that Ilario’s story is a sort of prequel to Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. I look forward to seeking out the Book of Ash quartet or duology of books (depending on the publisher) and reading them soon. If The Lion’s Eye and The Stone Golem are any indication of what I can expect from this world of Gentle’s, then I have many fine hours of reading ahead of me.

Ilario — (2006-2007) Publisher: Ilario is born hermaphrodite, a true genetic chimera. Found abandoned on the steps of a chapel of the Green Christ, in one of the minor Iberian kingdoms, on a freezing snowy night, Ilario is fostered by Federico, an impoverished Iberian noble, who plans to gift Ilario to the king, hoping to gain favour at court. At the age of 15, Ilario joins King Roderigo as the King’s Freak, but while learning the ways of the court, Illario has another lesson to study: abandonment and betrayal. For Rosamunda, Ilario’s birth mother, has arrived — and the secret of Ilario’s shameful birth must be kept hidden, lest the resulting scandal ruin Rosamunda’s husband, Videric, the king’s most powerful advisor. When Ilario is freed by the king, he/she is summoned by Rosamunda. And when her attempt to murder her child fails, Rosamunda whispers ‘Run… ‘ And Ilario does… across the Mediterranean, to Carthage.

mary gentle ilario review the lion's eye mary gentle ilario review the stone golem


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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