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

Ilario: the Lion's Eye
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: Ilario: the Lion's Eye
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 David Soyka

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Mary Gentle's Ilario: The Lion's Eye is subtitled as "The First History," which basically means it takes place some fifty years earlier in the alternate fifteenth century setting for her marvelous Ash: A Secret History. Presumably this nomenclature was some marketing guy's bright idea. You needn't read one to understand the other and the "first" history doesn't illuminate anything about the "secret" in the second; nor are the characters shared (unless you count a golem). Ilario is more of a mildly diverting complement to the much more intriguing Ash. Whereas Ash was a page turner even with over 1100 pages to turn, Ilario, comparatively shorter, though no lightweight at 662 pages in the Gollancz edition, seems a bit padded at times.

Ash is a subtle historical and literary satire, as well as of heroic fantasy in general (typical themes for Gentle), in which the darkened city of Carthage serves as a sort of "event-time" from which our historical universe branches. There's nothing in Ilario that provides any greater understanding to the events in Ash beyond that it takes place in this prior alternate universe to ours and allows Gentle to have some fun in moving about historical characters and events into different contexts. For example, when the title character, Ilario, vomits in the Alexandria library, an attendant throws sand on it to cover the sickly mess. Lest you not catch the irony, it is pointed out the sand is for the purpose of containing fire, and in this alternate history, the legendary volumes of that Egyptian library remain unscathed (and, indeed, are tied to the fate of both Ilario and possibly any future narratives Gentle wishes to pursue in this timeline).

The presence of bodily fluids is characteristic of the Gentle canon, along with flawed, unconventional heroes (who are frequently heroines) with unconventional sexual orientation (and in the case of Ilario, an hermaphrodite, all these bases get covered). Conspicuously absent, however, is much swordplay, which Gentle has always prided herself on "getting right." This is not an action-packed fantasy, unless your idea of action is constantly talking politics and evaluating strategies.

"What I can gather from Carthage, on the other hand…" Reckmire' tapped his fingertips together, and I guessed that he changed direction to give me time to gain composure. "…From Carthage we have little enough to fear as regards harming you, Ilario. They have reason to wish you alive and well in their hands, so they can keep the scandal-pot boiling nicely; all you have to fear from them is abdication. That way they keep the muck-racking alive, keep Videric out of office, keep Rodrigo off-balance, and begin to convince the Frankish kingdoms that Taraconensis is ripe for crusade." Honorius nodded. I realized he would be used to this scope of discussion, from his life in the north.

He reached to top my wine-bowl up, and said gruffly, "He's right. The worst they'd do is kidnap you."
p. 89

The foregoing excerpt pretty much typifies most of the narration. What should we do, what are the possible consequences, what if we're wrong? Quite possibly, Gentle is intentionally inverting the standard "action-hero" fantasy trope with "heroes of contemplation." Whether readers will find this "gently amusing," so to speak, may depend on whether they like something beyond formulaic elves and quest kind of stuff. Even those who do may occasionally wish that the characters would just shut up and get on with it.

To back up and provide a little background on who these various folks mentioned above are: the story is narrated by the newly freed, but shortly re-enslaved, Ilario. Ilario had been raised by foster parents who gave him into slavery to serve as King Rodrigo's court freak; eventually his real mother who gave him up, now wife to the king's chief counselor, Videric, acknowledges him. She also tries to kill him. Several times.

Upon being freed, Ilario travels to Carthage pursue his interest in becoming a master painter in the new realistic style. A misbegotten (and aren't they all) one night stand with a shifty customs officer results in two kinds of bondage. Ilario is sold back into slavery and purchased by Reckmire', a castrated Egyptian spy whose cover is acquiring books for the fabled Alexandria library, but who becomes one of Ilario's benefactors. The other bondage is the result of unprotected sex (which has complications if you are simultaneously male and female).

Reckmire' brings about Ilario's reunion with his actual father, Honorius, who has been off to various wars and totally absent from court and, until that point, Ilario. The resemblance between father and son is striking; so striking, that if the two were to appear together in court it would pose potential embarrassment to Videric to be seen as impotent, having produced no other children, and a cuckold.

Further exacerbating matters is that his mother's attempt to murder Ilario in Carthage causes political problems back in their homeland that result in Videric's removal as king's counselor. This weakens the king, and plays into Carthage's hands as it looks to broaden its borders. It provides further impetus for Videric to seek Ilario's assassination and return to power. The ongoing discussions amidst Ilario, Reckmire' and Honorius focus on not only how to avoid this, but how to return Videric to power to contain Carthage expansionist tendencies, without further endangering Ilario.

Playing into the final resolution is the appearance of a seemingly lost Chinese warship captained by Zheng He (an actual maritime adventurer whose documented travels extended to Indonesia and Africa) whose size and advanced armaments serve to cower the European kingdoms into allowing passage for our heroic triumvirate. Don't get too excited, though, there are no boarding battles or clashes of wooden ships, as a few fireworks manage to coerce cooperation.

Another subplot relates to Ilario's artistic ambitions. Indeed, the titular "Lion's Eye" refers to an excerpt from artist Leon Battista Alberti's On Painting, who appears in Gentle's alternate history, but is recast as a rabble rousing lawyer in love with a transvestite. (As a side note, Gavin Menzies, who previously proposed an alternate history of his own not widely accepted by historians in which China "discovered" America in 1421, conjectures in a new book that the possible 1434 arrival of Zheng He's fleet in Italy was an underlying cause of the Renaissance. The reason being, and get this, is because the Chinese introduced Alberti to realistic perspective that exemplified the Renaissance.) The Alberti quote is 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."

Gentle, a maker of a different kind of image, is striving for something a little more profound that was more pivotal in Ash -- namely how perceptions as they are expressed both in art dictate the course of history as much, and maybe more so, than politics. They can even, in a metaphorical reading of one of Ilario's adventures with a golem, gum up the works of machines of destruction.

These days, that's one fantasy I'd wish might be more realistic.

Copyright © 2008 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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