Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.
I re-read Doris Egan’s Ivory trilogy recently and since I never did properly review these three, despite talking about them fairly often, I wanted to do some reading notes. There are some slight spoilers below, and one largeish one that isn’t really a spoiler since the outcome was never in any doubt.
Gate of Ivory
Here we meet Theodora for the first time. Originally from the planet of Pyrene, educated on the planet of Athens, Theodora has ended up robbed and stranded on Ivory. Technically she’s an anthropology student, but really she’s in a sort of limbo, making her living by telling fortunes in the marketplace and trying to save up enough money to buy her passage back to Athens. Then Ran Cormallon, First of the House of Cormallon offers her a job that will pay her way home. Theodora and her voice are one of the main reasons these books work half as well as they do. She’s sympathetic but not perfect, stubborn and contradictory, sometimes a mystery even to herself. She also starts chapters with “Reader, I married him” and then goes on to say, “sorry, you’ll have to indulge me, I’ve always wanted to use that line” (very paraphrased! don’t quote me!). In short, I find her delightful.
There’s also Ivory itself. I worry a bit that its portrayal relies on stereotypes, although I do think it’s more nuanced than that. Theodora’s reaction is also so very much her reaction–she clings so much to the ideals of Athenian society even when she rebels against them. And Ivory is interesting, because it has magic. Literal magic; Ran is a sorcerer and a very good one. But it also exists within a science fiction universe, and attempts are made at explaining the presence of magic scientifically. I can’t think of another world that does this, and Egan is very good at contrasting the different cultures within the four-world system.
If Foreigner is a bit like “the middle part of Memory going on relentlessly” (thank you, Jo Walton!), Gate of Ivory is a bit like the lighter bits of, oh, say, Cetaganda bubbling along cheerfully. Except when it’s not. I remember these books as comfort books, and they are. But on re-reading I also found that there’s a bleakness that’s just underneath the surface. Things happen that hurt, and they can’t be undone. Theodora can’t really go back to Athens and you know this quite early in the book.
At the same time, this is overselling the bleakness. The surface really is quite comforting, and the dialogue is pure enjoyment. Gate of Ivory is, I think, my favorite of the three because it’s so focused on Theodora herself and her relationship with Ran. It strikes me that in a certain way this is a very classic novel of manners–heroine in limbo until male main character arrives and the action starts? Netherfield Park is let at last, in a science fantasy world? It’s not as far off as you might think (see also, Theodora’s Jane Eyre reference above).
This is my least favorite of the three, to be honest. For one thing, I don’t think the plot holds up for an entire book and I kept wishing that things would happen. There’s leisurely and then there’s too much. For another, Ran and Theodora are in danger from so many different angles that it actually stops being thrilling and starts being annoying. Neither of them is allowed to be quite as competent as we know they are, and the whole feeling of the book is one of stymied-ness (is that a word? it is now).
And one character dies horribly in a way that I had forgotten. It’s not someone who is so key to the narrative that it’s completely devastating, and yet it’s still quite upsetting.
Anyway, for all of that, the negotiations that Ran and Theodora still have to work out are nice, although they lose some of their power when set against the larger backdrop of danger and misunderstandings at every turn. And the dialogue sparkles. Theodora is starting to understand Ivory a little better, although she frequently runs up against large gaps in her understanding because her own background is so different. I found myself satisfied but not comforted.
Theodora and Ran have to investigate a murder! Meanwhile, an old friend from Pyrene has showed up on Ivory and Theodora has to deal with that. You miiiight be able to start the series by reading Two-Bit Heroes, but there’s no way you could start with Guilt-Edged Ivory. Too much depends on the set up of the previous books, especially the relationship between the Cormallons and Stereth.
The murder itself is interesting and relatively ingenuous, but not really the reason to read the book. It also has one of those out of nowhere solutions that drives me a bit nutty, especially when the detectives are not Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. It strikes me that there’s actually a bit of a mystery component to all three books, least so in Two-Bit Heroes.
The other aspect is Trouble in House Cormallon, which there always is. In this case, it’s the marriages of both Ran & Theodora, and Kylla and Lysander. Ran and Theodora are threatened by the fact that Ivoran genetics have drifted far enough away that Theodora could well die from a pregnancy, which means that she can’t assure the future of House Cormallon, which is a huge concern for the rest of the House. This part was interesting in that it explores a bit more how Egan is attempting to science fictionize her fantasy, and also because it shows a bit the role and limitations of the First. Kylla and Lysander are in trouble mostly because Lysander is being pressured to take another wife, one from the Six Families, who would therefore be senior to Kylla herself. I didn’t entirely feel like either of these strands resolved in a satisfactory way–that is, I really want another book to wrap them up.
And finally, Theodora realizes just how far she’s come from Pyrene and Athens. Her friend Octavia has entirely different memories of their childhood, and Theodora is forced to confront that. But even more, Egan is showing how Theodora has changed from that in-limbo foreigner (Tymon, as Ran affectionately calls her) to someone who has a place on Ivory. It’s not that she has assimilated to the culture exactly; she still runs up against these major differences in assumption and opinion. But she’s here now, and she knows she can’t go back. I think this is the biggest resolution we get–the way she uses Ivoran custom to fight an Ivoran fight instead of insisting on doing things the Athenian way.
All in all, although I had forgotten how much sadness there is underlying these books, they are also very enjoyable and fairly unique. I love Theodora and her voice, and her story is one I’ll hopefully return to again. (Dear Doris Egan, I would really like a fourth book!)