by Mary Gentle




Ilario: The Stone Golem
Cover by Cliff Nielsen

  Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In Ilario: The Stone Golem, Mary Gentle finishes the story she began in Ilario: The Lion's Eye. Ilario, Gentle's hermaphroditic painter in an alternate fifteenth century, has just given birth to its daughter, Onorata, and is living in fear of the assassination attempts by its step-father and mother.  Over the course of the novel, Ilario, the eunuch Rekhmere' and Ilario's birth father, Honorius, must come up with a means of ensuring all of their safety from the enemies in high places they have managed to make.

The characters journey from Venice, where the assassins found them and Ilario gave birth at the end of The Lion's Eye to Constantinople, where Rekhmere''s true identity becomes more apparent. In Constantinople, with the assistance of the Queen Emperor Ty-ameny and the arrival of one ship of Zheng He's great treasure fleet from distant Chin, Ilario, Honorius, and Rekhmere his upon a Byzantine plan to keep Ilario safe from her step-father Videric's assassins and Honorius on the good side of King Rodrigo who has become suspicious at Honorius's decision to remain with Ilario rather than obey a recall summons.  In order for their plan to work, however, the characters must journey to Carthage and eventually face their enemies.

Gentle continues a rather slow pace in revealing her story, more concerned with getting into her characters' heads than she is with action.  As Ilario: The Stone Golem nears its conclusion, the reader is surprised to realize that only about a year has passed since Ilario was first introduced in The Lion’s Eye.  During that year, however, Ilario has grown, both as an artist, as a person, and in its relationships with its parents, former masters, and various other individuals who it has met.

There are a few false notes in Ilario: The Stone Golem.  The presence of Zheng He’s ship just as Ilario and Rekhmere’ reached Constantinople seems almost as if it is a dues ex machine.  The presence of the fleet, and Zheng He’s openness to Ty-ameny and Ilario, permit Ilario and Rekhmere’’s plans to come to fruition.  Without his presence and willingness to be used for European political intrigues, Ilario’s return to King Rodrigo’s court and subsequent travels would have been much different affairs. However, Gentle never really provides a logical reason for Zheng He’s appearance and demeanor.

Although Gentle appears to be telegraphing her plot, she keeps her control on several of the characters and their situations, allowing them to act in ways which are consistent with their personalities, yet at the same time surprising the reader and the other characters. For all the plot surprises, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the novel (and its predecessor) is the openness with which Ilario is accepted by those who know it.  Always concerned about letting people know the truth about its hermaphroditism, once away from King Rodrigo’s court where Ilario was the King’s Freak, it doesn’t come across any real bigotry, but rather is accepted by the Empress of Constantinople, the admiral of the Chin, and the various commoners Ilario comes into contact with, at least as accepted as the eunuch Ilario travels with or the queen-in-king’s guise of Ty-ameny.

Ilario: The Stone Golem provides a satisfying conclusion to the novel begun in Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, although given the link to Gentle’s Ash, it does raise the question of what ties exist between the characters of the present novel and the characters and situations in the other book.  Taken on its own, however, the two books of Ilario form a complete novel that stands on its own, whatever links Gentle may have in her own mind to her other work.

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