History as an alternative

A review of Ilario by Mary Gentle

A number of years ago I read Mary Gentle's Book of Ash series - her take on a Joan of Arc type of story with a little magical realism thrown in - and loved every bit of it (sadly it is not owned by the library). Gritty and well-researched, Gentle's alternative history seemed realer then the real thing, if you'll pardon my grammar. Since then Gentle sort of fell off my radar. Until now. Ilario: The Lion's Eye: A Story of the First History, Book One takes me right back to that moment when I discovered the author.

Ilario has been many things in a short life, the unwanted result of a mother's affair, the unwanted foster child of a family who used and abused, the King's Freak in the Iberian court, a young artist looking to learn the new style of painting with perspective, and a slave. Most of Ilario's difficulties arise out of being an unnatural creature in this medieval world - an hermaphrodite.

Mary Gentle imagines a medieval world in which Carthage is a dominant power, though it is covered in the darkness of the Penitence which make it night at all times. Ilario, who is finally freed from the Iberian court travels to see the Penitence in Carthage where he/she is attacked and made a slave once again. Ilario's fortunes turn once again when he/she is bought by the Egyptian castrato, Rekhmire.

If this sounds complicated - it is. But Gentle builds her world and characters so wonderfully, you can't help but become immersed. And happily enough, a second book in the history was published: Ilario: The Stone Golem.