ILARIO: THE LION'S EYE
by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ilario: The Lion’s Eye is set in the same world as Mary Gentle’s Ash, although several decades earlier. While Ash dealt with a woman in a traditionally masculine role, in Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, Gentle explores the life of an hermaphrodite trying to make its way in the world as both a man and a woman.
After being freed by the King Rodrigo in Spain, Ilario decides to journey to Roma to apprentice as a painter. Along the way it stops at Visigothic Carthage, which lies under the Penitence, a great area of darkness which sits, like God’s judgment, over the region. Ilario is quickly sold back into slavery, being purchased by the eunuch Rekhmere’. Maintaining a healthy attitude, Ilario is determined to regain its freedom and finish the journey to Roma.
On its journey, Ilario finds itself sold into slavery, in conflict with its birth mother, adoptive father, foster family, meets its father, and facing assassination. All Ilario really wants is to be left alone to make its own life in the world and study painting and other arts. Unfortunately, Ilario’s foster father, Videric, the former first minister to King Rodrigo of Carthage, has decided that in order to regain his position at court, Ilario must be killed.
Being an hermaphrodite in this period, Ilario must keep its true nature secret, although naturally its traveling companions, including its master, Rekhmere’, know Ilario’s secret. At times, Ilario uses its duel nature to its advantage, appearing as a man when seeking an apprenticeship in Roma or as a woman when having that gender would prove beneficial. Ilario isn’t the only character in Gentle’s novel who has gender issues. Rekhmere’ is a eunuch and eventually, the characters hook up with Neferet, who has her own gender issues. In many ways, these characters form the crux of the novel as Gentle examines gender roles in society.
At the same time, Ilario appears to be a focus of change in the world as kings and queens and lords battle, off stage, for supremacy and a golem appears in Roma, where Ilario finds itself painting the asexual creature to give it a more human appearance. Despite Ilario’s own desires, it appears that Ilario’s role in the world at large will be of utmost importance, although Gentle does not reveal that role in The Lion’s Eye.In the end, Ilario: The Lion’s Eye only really gets going at the end, which may be due to the fact that it is only the first half of the story. However, the division does come at a sensible place as Ilario passes a milestone in both her life and the story. The Lion’s Eye sets the stage for the continuation of the story and intimates resolutions to Ilario’s various problems lie ahead. The British volume, which contains the text of both The Lion’s Eye and The Stone Golem is surely more satisfying.
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