Set in the same world as Ash: A Secret History, a few decades earlier, Ilario follows the exploits of a young intersex painter as their voyage to learn from an artist pioneering the adoption of perspective to replace the old iconography is rapidly complicated by their family’s desire to eliminate the political complications they represent.
I was really looking forward to Ilario for a multitude of reasons. I loved the alternate history that Mary Gentle presented in Ash, and was excited to uncover more of the world-building here. One of my favourite historical periods is that of the Italian city-states during the early Renaissance, so I was particularly keen to see Gentle’s take on what they would have looked like in her alt history where the papal throne has been empty for centuries, something which Ilario’s desire to study under Masaccio would, I hoped, give a great view into. And intersex protagonists are all too rare, so the perspective of an intersex person living in a time of massive social change, written by an author who is very adept with different takes on gender roles and stepping outside of the gender binary… It should’ve been a fantastic book.
To be fair, it is still a decent page-turner, and perhaps a better book than my review might otherwise suggest, which is why I’ve gone a little easy on it in the rating. But compared to the standard set by Ash and the weight of my expectations, it was definitely a disappointment.
Ilario themself is not an enjoyable person to follow around. They are spectacularly petulant, stubborn, and impetuous, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, it just doesn’t jive with their background at all. They’ve essentially lived most of their life in slavery and talk many times about what it’s like for a slave to live with all of the cautions they need to take of their master, but the Ilario we see on the page hasn’t got the common sense with which the gods blessed an infant.
It would also be fine if they ever actually faced any consequences for their constant stream of temper tantrums and rash decisions, but Mary Gentle here is like the anti-Robin Hobb, blessing her character with every fortuitous circumstance she can throw their way. Their background is awful, but relative to the times and circumstances of their life, Ilario actually lives a really charmed existence from shortly after the story actually picks up. They’re sheltered from their family’s machinations by a wealthy parent who accepts them unconditionally, and is also a military commander with troops who also accept Ilario with little more than the odd blush or uncomfortable fidget, and are willing to throw down their lives for them. The Egyptian spy who rescues them from slavery in a roundabout way uses their political clout to shield them all the time and never expects any kind of repayment, along with remaining unswervingly devoted no matter what Ilario throws at them. Which is quite a lot, literally as well as figuratively.
I did really want to like the relationship between Ilario and Rekhmire’. (No, I’m not mistyping Rekhmire or Rekhmiré. It’s really Rekhmire’ in the book. Does that bug anyone else as much as it bugs me?) From his side, it’s lovely. His love for the totality of who Ilario is seems less demonstrative but more authentic than Honorius’s, who can be so blindingly paternalistic that he sometimes comes off as loving the idea of fatherhood more than knowing and loving who his child really is. But Rekhmire’ respects Ilario, gives as good as he gets when Ilario disrespects him, but is still always there for them. I don’t really think Ilario gave enough back in return for me to truly root for them, though.
It also bothered me that as an intersex person who has faced massive prejudice — admittedly, most of it in the past rather than in the actual story — Ilario is not only quite prejudiced themself, but there isn’t really any come to Jesus moment where they have to stop and confront that prejudice, or be confronted by the effects of it. One of Rekhmire’s colleagues was born male and castrated as a child, Egypt preferring eunuchs for scholars and spies, but she identifies and presents as a woman. Ilario is quite scornful and misgenders her frequently, and then she just fades out of the story without Ilario’s prejudice ever being addressed, which makes me wonder why it was included in the first place.
There are two areas of Ilario’s character which I think were handled well, even if they weren’t really enough to redeem Ilario to me. One is the artist’s eye through which they view the world. There are some very evocative descriptions of the way Ilario will stop to imagine the colours with which they would paint a scene, to appreciate the lines and shadows of a person. And I really loved the way that the author captured how huge a shift in mindset the introduction of linear perspective was. The other was the very non-didactic way in which parenthood for an intersex person in a very strictly gendered society was explored, with some unusually mature reflection from Ilario on how they felt about maternal or paternal instinct.
Given the book is something of a tour de force through many different locations, including the Italian city-states, Carthage, and Egypt, I anticipated some really lush world-building, but compared to Ash it was quite flat. It actually relied on the details already established in Ash such that I think anyone who hadn’t read that book first would be quite confused by some of the things that didn’t get explained, which, given this is neither prequel nor sequel but an unrelated story set in the same world, may be off-putting to some readers. I think the main reason why the world as depicted here feels so shallow despite the characters being well-travelled is because of how sheltered Ilario is in most of the locations. The narrative seemed to get stuck in a holding pattern for a while: Ilario is stuck indoors until both they and the reader are going stir crazy, Ilario throws a tantrum (and some vases) about it, they get to go out under armed guard, something promptly goes wrong, and we go back to the beginning of the cycle.
I am glad I read the book. Mary Gentle is a very talented writer, though this is not the best showcase of those talents. The setting Ash and Ilario share is one of the most interesting alternative histories out there, and I’m happy that she chose to return to it. There are some very loveable secondary characters here, like the cutest Pharaoh in the history of Egypt. The book will linger in my memory for some time. I would, however, only recommend it to fans of Ash who are keen to see more of its world and willing to adjust their expectations regarding the more limited scope of the story. I recommend that everyone else read Ash instead.