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Ilario: the Lion's Eye
Mary Gentle
Gollancz, 663 pages

Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle was born in Sussex in 1956. She left Hastings Grammar school at 16 and worked a variety of jobs such as a cinema projectionist, a warehouse clerk at a wholesale booksellers, a cook in an old folk's home, a valuation officer for the Inland Revenue, and a voluntary Meals-on-Wheels driver before finally becoming a self-employed writer in 1979.

In 1981, she began as a mature student at the University of Bournemouth where she took a BA in Combined Studies (Politics/English/Geography). Finding inspiration for her writing, Mary enrolled at Goldsmith's College to take an MA in Seventeenth Century Studies. For Ash, she took another Masters degree at Kings in 1995 in War Studies.

Mary Gentle finished her first novel at the tender age of 15. It wasn't published; the editor to whom she had sent it asked whether she had completed anything else. She sent them the first part of what would become A Hawk in Silver, published when she was 18. Her next novel, Golden Witchbreed came from an editorial slush pile for publication.

Mary Gentle now lives in Stevenage with her partner, Dean Wayland, a keen amateur historian and a teacher of medieval sword-fighting.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cartomancy
SF Site Review: 1610: A Sundial in a Grave
SF Site Review: White Crow
SF Site Review: Ash: A Secret History
SF Site Interview: Mary Gentle
SF Site Review: A Secret History and Carthage Ascendant

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

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Ilario: the Lion's Eye The first thing that comes to mind with this book is that it is a book that ONLY Mary Gentle could have written. Six hundred plus pages, brimming with... well... with everything.

Ilario, although a self-standing novel complete as and of itself, is billed as a prequel, a book set in the Universe of Gentle's blockbusting Ash: The Secret History, fifty years before the events that unfold in Ash -- its subtitle hints at this, being "The First History." It's a stab at fleshing out and explaining the weird universe that Ash and her cohorts live in. Its storyline provides an insight into the background and the motives which govern the Ash-alternate-Universe saga -- but that's just part of it. Ash was once removed from the reader, by virtue of being framed within an outer story of modern-day researchers of our own day and age "discovering" ancient documents and filing out the blanks -- Ilario makes no such attempts at a modern attitude. It is, ambitiously and perfectly, just itself -- a story presented bare, on its own merits, and by its own protagonist. It takes a special character to be able to carry a storyline -- in first person -- for the duration of a novel this long and complex, but that's exactly what Ilario does. It is a fictional "autobiography" of a creature born a true hermaphrodite with both male and female parts and passions; a creature who is an artist willing to go to extraordinary lengths to pursue that art; a creature who is hunted by his/her own natural parents because his/her existence and true parentage, if known, could spell the end of those parents' position and influence in a royal court; a creature who is fiery, fallible, driven, intelligent, and the classic round peg in a square hole, the kind of person who can pursue dreams and goals with fervour bordering on obsession, perhaps even achieving them, and yet unable to hang onto them for long because of his/her own nature.

Ilario moves through Mary Gentle's vast alt-history panorama (it's an odd world, one that makes you queasy, as though you've looked at our own through a twisted prism and seen everything displaced just a little) like a flesh-and-blood ghost, haunting royal courts, surviving in the best way he/she can, fighting his/her battles in any way that lies open, not shrinking from blackmail and sabotage where those become necessary, and in the meantime pursuing ambitions in the world of art, somehow managing to bear a child (never tell me the odds!). Ilario's passionate ambition, while trying to find a solid place to stand in the shifting grounds of history, is simply to be a painter, and a new kind of painter at that -- someone who paints things as they are and not in terms of the (then-currently) fashionable fad of using metaphors and symbolism to express ideas. Ilario seeks the clarity of vision that is "the lion's eye" of the title. Despite all the history and the Greater Events with which this story is overflowing, the basic tale in this book is Ilario's own quest, Ilario's own life, a tour de force example of how a history really can turn on a single person and that person's simple presence in the unfolding of the days of his existence.

It would not surprise me to see Ilario: the Lion's Eye on a number of awards lists in the coming year.

Copyright © 2007 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, and is currently working on a new YA trilogy to be released in the winter of 2006.


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