A male voice interrupted my thoughts, speaking the language of Carthage. 'Papers, freeman—'
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.
The opening five paragraphs of Mary Gentle's Ilario: The Lion's Eye lay two of the novels central themes squarely on the table: parent-child relationships and the uncertainties of gender identity. There are many others — political manoeuvring, the nature of history, the ideals of Renaissance art — but these two take us straight to the heart of the book.
Ilario is an alternative history novel set in the same "First History" as the earlier Ash: A Secret History, but about half a century earlier (necessarily earlier, though the reason for that necessity is a massive spoiler for Ash). This is a version of the 15th century in which much is the same as the history we know, but much very different. Unlike Ash, though, which includes both SF and fantasy elements, this contains only one or two aspects that set it aside from straight history, if not entirely the history we're familiar with.
The book's written in first person which, as we quickly discover, is a practical necessity as well as narratively appropriate. Ilario, a former privileged slave, is a pure hermaphrodite, who not only has the physical aspects of both genders in equal measure but also has a personal identity in which they are equally balanced. Just imagine writing 663 pages while trying to skirt around the issue of whether the central character should be called he or she.
The illegitimate child of a nobleman's wife and a soldier, Ilario has been the King's Freak to an Iberian kingdom (though not exactly one of the Iberian kingdoms we know) and freed just before the start of the novel. All s/he (it'll have to do) wants is to be a painter in the new style that's challenging traditional mediaeval art, but life isn't that simple, and s/he unwittingly becomes the centre of a political crisis that envelopes much of the Mediterranean world.
The Mediterranean world of the First History, that is. Ash began with a Europe that seemed normal enough — just odd hints that all is not quite what it seems — before confronting us with an invasion from the Visigothic kingdom of Carthage, which most certainly doesn't belong in any history we know. Ilario, as we've seen, opens in Carthage, and quickly introduces us to many other differences in this version of history. Rome is now a crumbling backwater, and Constantinople is the centre of an Egyptian empire in exile — though still threatened by the Turks. There's no sign of either an Arabic empire or of Islam at all, while Christianity has a very different form and background, seeming to have been European in origin.
Gentle introduces a number of historical figures into this world, including Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of printing, though in many cases they're slightly displaced in time. For the most part, though, it's populated by exotic figures like Ammianus, King-Caliph of Carthage, or Ty-ameny, Queen of Alexandria-in-Exile. Not to mention the lost fleet of Zheng He from the strange land of Chin — presumably this history had no Marco Polo to bring back word from the great civilisations of the east.
Like all alternative history, Ilario is to some extent commenting on history as we know it by showing how it could have been different. Fascinating as this is, the story is fundamentally about the characters, and they're a varied and engaging crowd. Besides Ilario, the most important are Rekhmire' — the Egyptian eunuch, book-buyer and spy — Ilario's father Honorius and mother Rosamunda, and Rosamunda's husband Videric. The cast ranges, though, from Honorius's mercenaries (Gentle has always done soldiers well) to the fascinating Queen Ty-ameny.
Not to mention Onorata, the baby Ilario improbably manages to produce. Although the baby's main contribution to the action is to scream and yell, it's most of all in Ilario's relationship with Onorata that both the gender and parent-child issues come to their head. Is Ilario the child's mother or father? S/he feels s/he should be the mother, but only knows how to be the baby's father, and that imperfectly.
On the other hand, just as Ilario has an improbable number of parents (five, counting step and foster) Onorata has "fathers" on all sides, most of whom seem better at it than Ilario. Ilario has been rejected by his/her mother, who has made a number of attempts to kill the "monster" she's produced, and consequently has no model of parenthood to create a relationship with Onorata — or thinks s/he doesn't, while actually not making a bad job of it.
The other main theme of the novel is the coming of the Renaissance — in the First History, just as in ours — in all its forms. Ilario's training as an artist focuses on the revolutionary concept of painting what you see, not what you know is there, and this concept informs all aspects of the story, from Ilario's unique gender to the politics.
Especially the politics. The Renaissance produced not only Leonardo and Erasmus, but also Machiavelli (pictured left), and the realpolitik he described is alive and well in Ilario. Even the more sympathetic politicians, such as Ty-ameny, are unsentimental and realistic, exploiting the difference between what's actually there and what people "know" to be there.
Ilario isn't for readers who look for breakneck action. It certainly has action, excitement and terror (the attack of the stone golem, one of the book's few fantasy elements, has all these) but it also has long sections of reflection and discussion: the final five chapters, for instance, are essentially a single conversation. Personally, most of these passages held me spellbound in their complexity and the ideas they throw out, but probably wouldn't interest all readers.
Occasionally (very occasionally) there's too much of this even for my tastes. In the final scene, for instance, the gender politics that have been subtly shown and implied throughout become perhaps overstated, though only by a little, though the relationships being explored at the same time certainly prevent any loss of interest.
Mary Gentle's world-making and her philosophical subtexts are among her great strengths, but (as should be the case in fiction) her greatest is her ability to create characters capable of fascinating the reader. Ilario, in particular, is someone who attracts and exasperates in equal measure: idealistic, reckless, intelligent, conflicted, occasionally clueless, with an explosive temper. S/he sees everything and everyone in utterly visual terms, as an artist. Even (especially) at moments of greatest tension, when s/he expresses the tension by defining exactly what colours would be needed to paint the scene.
Gentle has something of a habit of creating odd couples (Valentine and Casaubon, Rochefort and Dariole) and Ilario and Rekhmire' make an excellent addition. The hermaphrodite and the eunuch, they seem opposites but fit together perfectly. And at least they have similar tempers.
Ilario: The Lion's Eye isn't quite my favourite Mary Gentle book (that's still the incomparable Rats & Gargoyles) but it's certainly helped maintain her as my favourite living author (formerly jointly with Iain Banks, who alas no longer qualifies). I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates wonderful characters, epic sweeps of history and the challenge to think as you read.
Note: The UK paperback edition of this, with the cover shown, is a single-volume edition, but in the US and on Kindle it's published in two volumes as Ilario: The Lion's Eye and Ilario: The Stone Golem. However, these are in no way separate books, merely a novel published in two parts. And, if you have the full edition, don't allow yourself to be seduced into buying the "continuation", since you'll have already read it.