The Gate of Ivory by Doris Egan
Theodora, an analytical, pragmatic young woman, is stranded on the corrupt and magical world of Ivoran. —aside: The 1980s really loved sci-fi/fantasy mashups, didn’t it?— It’ll take take years of telling fake fortunes in a touristy square in the capital to save up the money for a trip back to her life as a university student, but she’s not the sort to give up. Besides, what other choice does she have?
And when Ran Cormallon, the first of one of Ivoran’s most prestigious houses, offers her a job, she sees both the inherent danger and the shorter timeline of achieving her dreams. After weighing the two against each other, she accepts, and the book is off to the races.
The Gate of Ivory was a delight from beginning to end, and my favorite sort of reading experience: I devoured the book in days not because I felt like I was one page away from unravelling a mystery or putting some sordid plot to bed, but because I enjoyed reading it.
It was fun.
Most of this hinges on Theodora and her first-hand account of events. She’s logical and analytical, but she also doesn’t take herself too seriously, and she’s not above making a fool of herself when the need arises. She’s also loyal and caring, and despite being in a bad situation in which wallowing would be my first choice, she’s resilient as fuck. She’s larger-than-life in a way that still seems attainable. She’s neither a super-hero nor a damsel; she’s a woman. Doris Egan fucking crushed it in Theodora’s characterization.
Even as I loved Theo, I admit I was a little nervous about her employment. There are too many predictable stories about poor young women thrown into an, essentially, aristocratic world. Thankfully everyone—literally everyone—bucks the expected trend.
Ran, Theo’s direct employer, isn’t an abusive twit. He’s a bit standoffish at first, relying on the decorum and manners standard on his world, but he clearly cares for Theo’s comfort and safety.
Kylla, Ran’s sister, isn’t a jealous, snooty bitch. She’s not threatened by the presence of another young woman in the family/company. In fact, she seems to enjoy the camaraderie.
Grandmother, the, uh, grandmother, isn’t scandalized that Ran brought a foreigner into the family/company. Instead, she goes out of her way to treat Theo graciously, and accepts her wholeheartedly.
And Eln, the black-sheep of the family and Ran’s brother, isn’t a misunderstood but gentle misfit with a heart of gold. He’s a person who is shitty at times and nice at other times.
Doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air?
Now imagine the story unfolding around these people, with Doris Egan’s deft writing. The dialogue is fun and smooth. The world is built up just enough to support Theo’s adventure, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader, and even though we don’t delve deep into the world, it’s clearly fleshed out.
(I should add that the story-telling feels more fantasy than sci-fi, and the world really is secondary to the characters and the plot. I think her world-building, though scant, is superb, but it is scant. If you’re wanting a hard sci-fi read, this isn’t going to scratch that itch.)
The pacing is unusual, with starts and stops and unexpected intervals, but each stop leaves us with new characters to meet and more ideas to explore. And though most of The Gate of Ivory is light and refreshing and fun, I vehemently disagree with reviews that refer to it as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ It’s by no means vapid or shallow. There’s a lot to chew on, but since the story is told from the point of view of practical, analytical Theo, the writing itself only digs in so far as she needs to to find comfort or closure. That still leaves plenty for the reader to linger over, though. And in addition to the big moments that I won’t touch on for fear of spoiling anything, there were more than a few revolutionary-feeling small moments, too.
The first is biological. Theo is schlepping about on a quest, and as I was following her I thought “convenient that folks in books never seem to get their periods,” and them *bam* Theo gets her period at an incredibly inconvenient moment. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not even really a plot-point, but it makes her day that much worse. I could feel that disgruntlement, that grumpy feeling of “of fucking course I get my period right now. When else would I get it?”
It was such an honest moment, and a moment that could have easily been excluded, yet it was there. I’m not entirely sure why it made me so happy, but it did.
Another wholly-realistic-but-often-missing-from-fiction moment is when Theo finds herself alone with a man she doesn’t know. The man has done nothing wrong, and there’s no reason to suspect he means her any harm. Regardless, she’s a wee bit wary and curses herself for letting herself be drawn off, alone, with him. I hate that this is so realistic, but it is, and it’s conspicuously absent from a lot of fiction, unless the plot specifically hinges on the danger of this moment.
No, a woman being apprehensive and then the moment passing without incident isn’t a thing you often see in fiction, even though it’s a fairly constant thing in our lives. Women don’t think every man is a murderer or a rapist or a plain-old-creep who would use such an opportunity to hit on you so aggressively it scares you, but, well, it’d be stupid to assume that every man is harmless, too.
This next thing that felt amazing to me might be a spoiler. It doesn’t reveal the ending or give away any big plot points, but it does reveal the attitudes of some people even after shit hits the fan. Fair warning.
Potential Spoiler Start
Women … are nice to each other. They trust each other. They have each other’s backs, and don’t let men turn them against each other. They enjoy each other’s company, they laugh, they confide in each other. There’s no weird tension where Theo hates Kylla because Kylla is beautiful and rich, and Kylla doesn’t hate Theo because she’s more comely and poor. They just click. And grandmother, oh grandmother. Grandmother seems to truly know, deep down to her bones, that women need to stick together. And so she uses her power to see that they do. It’s fucking delightful. There are three strong women in this book, and they use their strength to prop each other up!
(I’m trying to recall the last time I read a book where women helped each other. In all of ForFemFan, I think The Wicked Enchantment might be the only other book. How crazy is that? I have oodles of books of men supporting men. Somehow, when I started this quest, I thought that would be the rare thing.)
Potential Spoiler End
I want to say that The Gate of Ivory is the best book I’ve read for ForFemFan, but I don’t think that’s 100% honest. The Seven Citadels, IMHO, is richer and deeper, and perhaps technically ‘better.’ The Seven Citadels made me sob, though, and I don’t really love subjecting myself to that sort of heart-wrenching realism.
So I think it’s better, and safer, to say that The Gate of Ivory is my favorite book so far, and I’ve read a lot of damn good books. I wish more novels followed this style and tone of story, and now I’m really torn between immediately diving into the next book in the series, or saving that delight for later.
Seriously, though, if you’re going to read any book from ForFemFan, read this one.
Cover art by Richard Hescox: