Under the Penitence
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.)
'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.
whole of Mary Gentle's extraordinary tale takes place in Carthage, under
the dark cloud of
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
Elsewhere in infinity plus: