Two-Bit Heroes by Doris Egan
After a few trying books in a row, I needed a win and I wasn’t willing to take any chances. I normally have a few extra-delightful books set aside for such an occasion, and this time I pulled out one I’d been looking forward to for ages: Two-Bit Heroes.
The sequel to The Gate of Ivory, Two-Bit Heroes picks up quite a bit after the first book ended. In real life, it looks like there was a three-year gap between them; I get the feeling Doris Egan didn’t expect to make a trilogy out of it.
At this point, I would like to stress that The Gate of Ivory is one of my top-three favorite books I’ve discovered thanks to my ForFemFan quest. It is delightful. Naturally, any discussion of its sequel will spoil the initial book. If you haven’t read The Gate of Ivory, I suggest you stop reading this review and order a copy. Doris Egan is a national treasure, damnit.
Two-Bit Heroes still features the lovably pragmatic and logical Theodora, back on Ivory. How exactly Ran convinces her to return with him I’ll leave up to the story, but suffice it to say he does. What’s more, they’re engaged.
The initial plot mostly revolves around their relationship and an unusual commission to travel to the wilds of the Northwest Sector to assess whether a family is worth aligning with.
This part of the novel, where the only real hook is the peculiarity of this commission, lasts less than 50 pages. In reading it, though, I could have sworn it was longer—which is a polite way of saying I didn’t particularly like it.
For one, Theodora seems much more self-aware. She actively speaks to the reader and pontificates and tries to be clever in her narration. I don’t remember that from The Gate of Ivory. I actively dislike this form of story-telling*. It’s too easy for a narrator to be clever. (I will, however, admit the fact that this tone feels Ivoran and seems to under her adaptation to Ivory.)
Another issue for me is that there’s no meat in the opening premise. While the request made of Ran is peculiar, it’s not perceived as dangerous or treacherous—simply unusual.
And finally, Ran and Theo don’t have a particularly robust relationship. They’re very different, and Theo waffles about whether or not she should continue their engagement. This is believable, and Ran is Ran—he’s not the worst, he’s just extremely Ivoran—but the self-aware storytelling with a poor hook and most of the reader engagement coming in the form of an uncertain relationship left me feeling a bit blah.
It wasn’t awful, but after the absolute fucking delight that was The Gate of Ivory I think I had too high of hopes/standards.
Everything picks up when Ran and Theo are mistaken for an outlaw leader and his off-worlder wife. Initially imprisoned, they escape only to fall into the hands of the very outlaws they were thought to be.
This is where Doris Egan’s writing that I know and love comes back full swing. Theo is utterly perfect, again, in her relatable yet larger-than-life way. Ran still makes you want to smack him and hug him. Kylla, though a much more tertiary character than in The Gate of Ivory, is still supportive and lovable and the sort of friend you wish you had in real life.
And the new characters, well, they’re just as three-dimensional and realistic. As Ran and Theo spend time around the outlaws that they’re mistaken to be, Doris Egan again plays with the notion of the duality of people and that life is not tidy. Questions go unanswered, people we care about walk off the page never to be seen again. It’s beautiful and sometimes melancholy but Two-Bit Heroes follows in The Gate of Ivory’s footsteps: the tone of the book is anything but bleak.
(At one point something so lovable happened that I beamed like an idiot for the next few pages.)
Throughout this, Ran and Theo’s relationship is further strained. As an off-worlder stranded on Ivory without resources, she had to learn to adapt or die. As a member of a wealthy family, Ran was used to life accommodating his dogmatic outlook. Their reactions to being kidnapped differ wildly which adds another source of tension between them.
I prefer when people are happy. I’ve said before that I’m a romantic and a sap—I want characters to bring out the best in each other and love deeply. That said, this schism between Theo and Ran is extremely well written, utterly believable, and frequently interrupted by other plots and personal developments that give us a breather from their malcontent.
Like cilantro, the ending seems polarizing. Also like cilantro, though, I don’t conform to one side or the other: I thought it was acceptable but not exceptional. It was certainly messier than The Gate of Ivory’s, but then again, it’s actively setting up a sequel. It didn’t have the emotional weight that The Gate of Ivory had, but then again, the source of contention was a case of mistaken identity and a band out outlaws; that’s going to feel less heavy than a case of hardened duplicity at home.
Also, an ending like this one means that the beginning of the next book, Guilt-Edged Ivory, should start off with more of a bang.
All-in-all, I’m very pleased. I need to order Guilt-Edged Ivory, and I’ll probably once-again save it for a day I need a win, but I’m very much looking forward to it.
*Unless it’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe. I’m not sure how it can be so perfect when it’s opposite of my normal reading preferences, but it is.
Cover art by Richard Hescox: