Completed 8/8/2018, Reviewed 8/9/2018
I really struggled with this book. It took me eight days to read a 322 page book, which is a long time for me. I didn’t care for the plot, and many times, it devolved into soapiness. It’s a shame because I would think there’d be so much you could do with a story about a true hermaphrodite during the Renaissance. This is the first of a two-part series. It ends in a cliffhanger, but I don’t feel any compulsion to read the second part.
The story is about Ilario, someone with fully functional genitalia of both sexes. Ilario can pass as a man or a woman, depending on how they dress. (I’ll use the third person plural pronouns for Ilario). They lived in a kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula where they were the King’s freak, after being raised by foster parents. After nearly being killed by their birth mother, they leave for Carthage. There, they’re kidnapped and sold into slavery, but their master, Rekhmire’ is a gentle Egyptian eunuch who purchases him for scroll copying. In addition, he lets them pursue their love of painting, even going to Rome so that they can study under a master of a new style of art. However, they are being chased by assassins hired by Ilario’s birth mother and step-father, who is the first minister of the court of the King, because they’re embarrassed to be related to a hermaphrodite.
The book is told in first person, but I didn’t feel like I really got inside Ilario’s head. As characters go, I found Rekhmire’ to be quite likeable. He was a compassionate person and treated Ilario well. I also really liked Honorius, Ilario’s birth father. Both men were very accepting of Ilario and embraced them with a deep love and respect. However, there’s one scene that went on and on that I didn’t care for. It was a discussion between Ilario, Rekhmire’, and Honorius which was basically an exposition that recounts the story of Ilario growing up and being hated by their step-father and birth mother, and the plot to kill Ilario. It was simply painful to read and I felt it could have been told much cleanly and concisely. I think that was the point where I realized the book wasn’t written well and that set the tone for my inability to get too far into the book each day.
I was really disappointed in the world building as well. Considering the stories locales include Carthage, Rome, and Venice, I didn’t get the feeling that I was in any of those places. Carthage was interesting in that it was covered by a darkness called The Penitence. But the only thing that I really got out of it was that there was a specific kind of lamp in use all over the city, and the author referred to those lamps at every opportunity. Rome had its ruins and Venice had its canals, but the author just didn’t do much with them.
I give this book two stars out of five. I was really looking forward to this book because of its intersex main character, but the execution of the book made it a disappointment. This is surprising because the author won a British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel for another book, “Ash”. However, I’m less likely to read that one because of my experience with “Ilario”.