1989’s The Gate of Ivory is the first volume in Doris Egan’s cozy science fantasy, the Gate of Ivory trilogy. Rather unexpectedly, the trilogy consists of exactly three books.
The human inhabitants of the planet Ivory are famous for their amusing delusion that magic works on Ivory. The chance to visit exotic Ivory was too enticing for cultural anthropologist Theodora (Theo) to pass up … although Theo might have been better off if she had turned it down.
Having been rolled by a cunning Ivoran, Theo missed her ship off Ivory. The Athenan ambassador declined to help an ID-less Theo. Having no other option, Theo has spent the two years since her failed flight making a meagre living reading Tarot cards. She is saving her pennies in the hope that one day she will be able to afford the small fortune required to return to Athena and her academic life.
Ivory aristocrat Ran Cormallon has a use for a woman without friends, family, or wealth.
Unlike Theo, Ran believes in magic. Not because he’s a superstitious rustic from a backwater world whose high technology is imported, but because he is a sorcerer. Foolish words as a boy earned his grandmother’s curse, one that denies Ran the personal use of a specific school of magic: card-based prophecy. The curse has a loophole — women can read Ran’s cards for him — which is where Theo comes in.
While Theo is a skeptic, she is also rational. She cannot deny that the cards Ran supplies her are doing something. Clearly there are forces at work she does not understand. Here’s a field to which she can devote her prodigious intellect while being well paid to do so. Yay? Well … every occupation has its drawbacks.
For example, Theo would be well advised to wonder if Ran would allow the very useful Theo to leave. Perhaps he might arrange for the precious ticket to be forever just out of reach. Theo would be even more well advised to consider the fate of her predecessor, burned alive in a conflagration that might have been accidental, but wasn’t.
Like all men of his station, Ran has enemies. On Ivory, murder, sorcerous or otherwise, is an acceptable way to signal displeasure. The player on the other side wants to hurt Ran; valuable servants are fair game. By agreeing to work for Ran, magic-ignorant, functionally defenseless Theo has made herself a legitimate target.
Complaints up here where people will forget them by the end of the review: the inevitable romance between Ran and Theo is, to put it nicely, unconvincing.
Readers may wonder why magic works on Ivory and nowhere else. There is a simple, logical explanation: nobody knows. It seems unlikely that the laws of physics are different on Ivory. Perhaps the difference is in the humans of Ivory themselves1. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of technique. Another field to which Theo can apply her prodigious intellect.
Is it just me or were there a bunch of novels from this period that focused on women from technologically advanced worlds becoming entangled with men from backwater worlds? Jaran, Shards of Honor, and this novel all come to mind. Were there others?
Not that Ran would agree that he is a rustic. He is a cultured aristocrat and a sorcerer to boot! As far as he is concerned, Ivory, with its ancient culture, sorcery, aristocracy, conveniently corrupt government2, and so on, is the very definition of civilization and it is the admittedly useful but culturally ignorant off-worlders who are the barbarians.
Although Theo would seem to be at a disadvantage playing heroine, being comparatively diminutive, ignorant of many important things, poor, and decidedly non-athletic (of particular note when she and Ran have to speed march across a good chunk of a continent), these are but the impediments provided to show that she can, when necessary, overcome them. Any well-muscled Conan can bisect their opponent but it takes ingenuity for a petite scholar to overcome the same challenges3.
Gate of Ivory is written in the manner of series SFF of the era: the volume is stand-alone, while leaving room for a sequel. The characters are endearing, the plot moves along nicely, and the volume in hand is not overlong. If you enjoyed this novel, be happy that there are two more. If you really enjoyed it, you will doubtless be sad to learn that Egan only wrote four SFF novels before leaving prose novels for the more lucrative field of screenwriting.
Although … perhaps there’s hope for fans of Egan’s novels.
While The Complete Ivory omnibus is listed here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), and here (Amazon UK), it isn’t listed on Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, Chapters-Indigo or on DAW’s own website. I suspect The Gate of Ivory is out of print in all formats. Used bookstores are your friend.
[i] Said humans having been experimented on while being transported to Ivory by the same aliens who gave humans primitive star drives. This occurs in what is to Theo antiquity and to us the near future.
[ii] Not that Athena’s representative is any better. Late in the novel we learn that he has been quietly sitting on a large sum that rightfully belongs to Theo.
[iii] In addition to ingenuity, Theo can also use technology not available on Ivory. This tech deals with certain practical issues that Theo’s male companions have never had to consider.