Under the Penitence
by Mary Gentle
Review by John Berlyne
PS Publishing Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 190461910x
Date: 01 July, 2004 List Price £10.0 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
A treat for the many fans of Gentle's ingenious and gigantic Ash: A Secret History, this brand new novella is set in the same world (though it stands alone). A limited edition of 500 copies signed by Gentle. A hard cover is also available, priced at £25.00, signed both by Tuttle and S.M. Stirling who wrote the introduction.
My Death by Lisa Tuttle, Turns & Chances by Juliet E. McKenna, and Under the Penitence by Mary Gentle are each published in two limited edition states by PS Publishing. The latest batch of novellas to be released by the ever-developing PS Publishing is a mixed bag indeed. Not in terms of their genre identity necessarily -- all three titles are easily recognizable forms of fantasy; nor in terms of their intrinsic quality per se -- all are by established authors with an equally established following. Judged, however, on their achievement as novellas, to my mind they vary very much in their success.
My Death by Lisa Tuttle:
All this serves as background. When asked by her agent what she wishes to work on now, our writer impulsively tells him that her next book is to be a biography of Helen Ralston and the novella then follows her on the trail of Ralston's life story, culminating in a meeting with the woman, now well into her nineties.
There's a big tag to this story that I must steer clear of lest I be guilty of spoiling. However as a novella, I found it all a little too pat, a little to contrived. Though as a story form, the novella forces the writer to concertina the plot somewhat, Tuttle's construction comes across as very self-conscious -- to quickly are problems solved and often only by coincidence or by the convenient pre-requisite being close to hand. For example, the writer's agent just happens to know someone who owns a Ralston painting and that someone just happens to be at home when called upon. In another example, the plot calls for someone proficient in sailing and, of course, earlier on we've been told of our protagonist's hobbies, one of which -- well, figure it out. In a novel, these plot requirements can be hidden in the length of the story, or obfuscated without the reader realizing, but in a novella the writer has to be far cleverer and far more subtle.
Though Tuttle has a pleasant and accessible style, the structure of this story thus falls down. By the end, what is called for is a neat Tales of the Unexpected finish, one that both surprises us and leaves us with a sense of conclusion, but we don't get this at all. Instead the focus of the story leaves us in a puff of smoke and the meaning and reason behind what we've just read escapes us. As a coda, I am forced to observe that Tuttle (or perhaps her editor) is guilty of some real slip-ups in how Scottish people speak. It is always irksome to me as a British reader, when enjoying a story set here but written by a foreign writer, to hear distinctly American idioms coming from the mouths of the characters. This robs the work of its authenticity and when that happens, suspension of disbelief goes right out of the window. A Scottish gentleman would no more apologize to his guests for his cake being "store-bought" than he would offer them grits and sarsaparilla!
Turns & Chances by Juliet E. McKenna:
Under the Penitence by Mary Gentle:
Gentle is no stranger to short fiction either -- she has published plenty of it over the years and this experience in the short form shines through in "Under the Penitence", for of the three novellas I'm reviewing here, this one is by far the most successful.
Having invented such a panoramic setting for Ash: A Secret History, Gentle finds she still has many stories to tell within it. Set in the same Visigothic Carthage, Gentle returns again to the theme of gender that inhabits so much of her work. "Under The Penitence" tells of Ilario, a true hermaphrodite possessing the functioning genitalia of box sexes. Having spent most of her life as a plaything at the court of a foreign king, Ilario has now been freed and is pursuing what he/she perceives as her true calling -- that of a painter. Arriving in Carthage, Ilario intends to practice his/her art there for a while before travelling on to Rome to apprentice with some master painter. However fate is cruel and Ilario winds up drugged and sold into slavery.
Gentle brings an element of saving grace into this unfortunate scenario, for Ilario's new owner is an enlightened man who listens with interest to his/her story. In further exploring the gender identities within this story, Gentle introduces this new character as an eunuch, which immediately gives him some empathy with the protagonist. Sexuality is a fluid thing here. However, though freed from her previous employment, the politics of court have followed Ilario into slavery and this genuine, though far from hapless, unfortunate is pursued by a party that wishes him/her dead. The twist here is that the would be assassin is Ilario's true mother, an aristocrat whose motives are packed full of shame, guilt and confused love for her abominable child, whose own shame in turn colours his/her perceptions and creates many misplaced loyalties.
It is really a triumph that Gentle manages to convey such a complex set up so economically, whilst at the same time evoking period, setting and character with such apparently effortless clarity. Of the three PS releases, this is definitely the one to spend your hard earned cash on ? and the grapevine suggests that it stands as the forerunner to a full blown novel centering on the fascinating and evocative Ilario.
All three releases are issued in two limited states. For further details, visit the PS Publishing web site .