We are so often a disappointment to the parents who abandon us.
This is a return to the world of Mary Gentle’s alternate world of mercenary captain Ash although this book is set in a different part of the world and 50 years earlier, there is no need to have read one to read the other. I’m a big fan of Ash, and this is very similar in feel, although it doesn’t have the alternate narrators or indeed the flashing between the past and the present. But the idea of a central character who doesn’t fit in their society, who is trying to be themselves even if they don’t really know who they are.
In this case our first person narrator is Ilario, who, when we are introduced, is fleeing home for Carthage. Ilario has lived almost entirely at the Court of the king of Terraconensis as the King’s Freak. Ilario is a true hermaphrodite, and so fits as neither man or woman in a time when gender rules are strict and unbending. S/he has now been freed, but after suffering a murder attempt from her/his mother, Ilario runs to Carthage, only to find slavery waiting there too.
This is an alternate history so Carthage and Rome were once allies rather than enemies. And religion is a little different. Not to mention the political situation.
But that is all setting and world-building. Important to set the characters and plot, but if they weren’t as well formed then this book simply wouldn’t work. I really enjoyed this book. Ilario’s constant battle to be seen as neither man nor woman, but not really knowing how to do so. Seeing how other people also battled to relate to him/her. It is the characters that make this book come alive. But for those expecting as much action as appeared in Ash, well think again, while plenty happens in this book there is considerably less action and much more discussion in this book. I found this equally as entertaining, other readers may not.
But what I found really entertaining was the fact that Ilario is constantly battling to be recognised as Ilario, neither a man or woman, but in the end realises that because politically and legally s/he is seen as the equal of a eunuch Ilario has many more freedoms than a woman of the time.
“That knowledge that you have absolute legal power over your wife… it follows you everywhere, do you understand me? Everywhere. If she can’t say no, her yes is worth very little.”