UNDER THE PENITENCE
by Mary Gentle
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although Mary Gentle’s Under the Penitence is set in the same universe as her Sidewise Award-winning Ash: A Secret History, knowledge of that novel is completely unnecessary for enjoyment of this latest work. Under the Penitence deals with Ilario, an hermaphroditic freak from the court of King Rodrigo in Spain.
After being freed by the King, 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. Maintaining a healthy attitude, Ilario is determined to regain freedom and finish the journey to Roma.
In this unlikely scenario, Ilario comes to learn more about its heritage and the world in which it lives. Gentle is capable of presenting this information in a realistic manner which does not seem forced. Her characters all have motives which seem reasonable and the plot progresses in a realistic direction.
For the most part, the characters are personable, whether Gentle's protagonist, who just wants to be allowed to live its own life, her mother, the conflicted Lady Rosamunda, or her master in Carthage, the Egyptian scholar Rekhmire'.
The secrets and misconceptions of Ilario's part are only part of the truth which is revealed as Gentle moves her characters through the plot to their fates. Ilario learns that things it took for granted and believed were not the case. Much of the book, therefore, deals with the discovery that reality is not always was is perceived or "known," from the early interpretations and misinterpretations of Ilario's gender to the things "everyone knows" about the cult of Baal as practiced in Carthage.
In Under the Penitence, Gentle tells an important story in Ilario's life and gives some vague indications of what may happen to Ilario, Rekhmire', and others when the book has ended. At the same time, especially given the misdirection Gentle provided throughout the book, the reader is left with the desire to have Gentle continue Ilario's story.