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Under the Penitence

by Mary Gentle

introduction by SM Stirling

(PS Publishing, £ not advised, 76 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition paperback, also available as signed, numbered limited edition hardback, published December 2004.)

Review by Nick Jackson

cover scanThe whole of Mary Gentle's extraordinary tale takes place in Carthage, under the dark cloud of 'the penitence', the origin of which remains an enigma. It is in this twilight world of permanent and shifting shadow that the characters collide with each other. Mary Gentle's fantasy is veiled with sexual and political ambiguity. The central characters, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch, are outcasts who form an uneasy alliance.

The themes of betrayal and abandonment are treated with a light touch but there are scenes of great physical and emotional violence as well as a poignant sense of loss. The characters' dialogue is consistently alive and compelling, avoiding any hint of false archaism.

Mary Gentle imbues her description of Carthage with the painterly vision of her main character, Ilario, an itinerant artist. Ilario's eye for eerie detail is what makes the setting of this novella so memorable: "The great wing of darkness hung over the city. Beyond the harbour entrance, on the horizon, the last edge of light feathered the sea and sky with green, gold, ochre and a shimmering unnatural blue ... "

Ilario's divided sexual and psychological nature and fiercely independent streak makes a fascinating focus for the narrative and the quest to live and work in freedom is an absorbing one, transforming Ilario into an everyman/woman for our time.

The story-line is at times complex, with a prolonged flashback to Ilario's previous life, and the emotional and physical epiphanies in the characters' lives sometimes demand much of the reader's attention, but Gentle always manages to keep a reign on the various strands of the narrative. The conclusion gives a sense of more questions raised than answered but this is no bad thing. Gentle leaves us with an overwhelming sense of the inner journey of Ilario, whose identity will perhaps never be completely at peace.

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