Jun 13 2011 1:42pm

I refuse to die wearing provincial trousers: Doris Egan’s Ivory books

Doris Egans Ivory trilogyIt’s hard to explain what makes Doris Egan’s Ivory trilogy such fun. There are serious books and there are frivolous books, and these are definitely in the latter category, but they are none the worse for that. They’re delightful rather than deep, and the world needs more delightful books. There’s not much beneath the surface, but the surface sparkles. It’s funny how we categorise books like this in terms of guilty pleasures, foam baths and chocolates—female guilty pleasures, please note. Nobody says reading W.E.B. Griffin is like knocking back a couple of six-packs in the locker room.

The dialogue in these books is a thing of joy, and Egan even makes the romance plot work. The first book, Gate of Ivory, is the best, and it stands alone sufficiently that it doesn’t really need sequels—but it has sequels, Two Bit Heroes and Guilt-Edged Ivory, and they’re lovely. I refuse to feel guilty for finding them utterly enjoyable. Sometimes that’s all the justification you need. These are books with a very high “I want to read it” quotient, they’re hard to put down, they have great characters, and they’re a ton of fun.

These are science fantasy, in the same kind of genre as Doyle and Macdonald’s Mageworlds books. And there are investigations in all the books, which makes them kind of mysteries. There’s also a romance, but they’re a long way from being genre romance. There are adventures and hairsbreadth escapes and sorcery and spaceships. It’s still hard to pin down what makes me like them so much.

No spoilers beyond what might be on the back of the first book.

It’s partly the voice—Theodora of Pyrene’s first person retelling of the adventures she never wanted to have. She’s charming and funny and loyal and she keeps on going. She’s an adorable person to spend three books with. The voice grabs you from the first moment.

It’s partly the world. Worlds, that is. There are four planets in the sector. Theodora was born on collectivist Pyrene and grew up on scholarly Athena, she got stranded on Ivory, and although we only really see Ivory the other planets are really important—even Tellys, the world Theodora never sees, the world with higher tech than the others and a stranglehold on sharing it. Ivory is the only world where magic works, though it’s very complicated magic of a kind more likely to get you into more trouble than out of it. Egan has clearly thought through the magic and the economics and the culture and politics and the way they intersect. Theodora is on Ivory but she’s not of Ivory, she’s frequently horrified by the Ivory way of doing things—but she’s also being assimilated. She’s even falling in love. And that’s the other ingredient that makes these books delightful, the sorceror Ran Cormallen, the laugh aloud repartee, and the romance plot.

Theodora of Pyrene, robbed and abandoned on Ivory, is determind to cling to her Athenan ideals and earn enough money to get back home. She’s faking reading cards in the market place when Ran Cormallen offers her a job reading cards for him. The job has strings he doesn’t explain, of course, involving his family, a curse, and a feud. That’s just the beginning—and Theodora goes straight forward through the plot, she knows she’s a barbarian in a world where family and etiquette are everything. What she wants to do is study comparative folklore... but when people call her “tymon” which means “unmannerly barbarian” she adopts it as a nickname. And she studies whatever comes along, with intelligence and determination.

One of the more unusual things Egan gets right is the physical learning—Theodora learns an exercise called “the river” and a form of massage called “tinaje,” and the description of learning them and the physicality of them is really notably good. (I’m not saying she isn’t good at writing highwaymen and sorcerous duels, but they are things one finds done well in fiction more often.) There’s also a wonderful grandmother in the first book, and Egan seems to be aware of the existence of people of all ages and genders and sexual orientations. She’s good on small villages and large cities and how they are different from each other within the broader culture.

In any case, I highly recommend these books. They’re fun and absorbing and I think you’ll find them thoroughly enjoyable. There should be more books like this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
Okay, these sound lovely, and I must read them. (And I do count W.E.B. Griffin as a guilty pleasure.)
James Hogan
2. Sonofthunder
Mm, sounds delightful!

(And while I'm not female...books like this(substance? meh, as long as it's a pure delight to read!) and chocolate are both very much "guilty pleasures" of mine.
Beth Friedman
3. carbonel
I have little interest in beer and locker rooms, but I enjoy WEB Griffin -- just finished listening to the Brotherhood of War series as audiobooks.

You probably know this, but Doris Egan is on LJ as tightropegirl.
Tony Zbaraschuk
4. tonyz
They are very, very good. Light-hearted but not totally light; clever and witty but not twee; unabashedly recommended to everyone who likes fun stuff.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Pam, Beth: I count Griffin as a guilty pleasure too, it just occurred to me that the way guilty pleasures tend to be described is very feminine and not in a good way.
Christopher Johnstone
6. CPJ
Not much to add. Another lovely review that adds more book(s) to my to-read list.

Interesting point about the feminine/guilty pleasure thing. I wonder if it is because there's some sort of unconcious pinning of guilt to the feminine in our society generally.

I was trying to think of (more) characteristically male guilty pleasures (?? playing a computer game when you should be getting work done, buying expesnive and somewhat useless vinyl records/beers at the pub ??) but none of them seem either entirely male or entirely guilty. I kept thinking, yeah, but most blokey blokes wouldn't actually give a fig about that.

I can't unravel what's going on there. Interesting point.

Also, I'm enjoying your Hugo round-ups but aren't posting as the comments are already long enough without me throwing in some fraction of a cent extra.

7. Ellynne
Ah, the Ivory books. I still find myself wondering how Theodora was going to deal with the big problem left at the end of third book. It was a beautiful, fascinating world (although I admit to an ongoing gripe about Ivory's rules on assassination and murder games. It seemed like it would make social stability impossible. But, in Theodora's story, it underlined the fact that a strange looking girl with no family to protect her had a very precarious life indeed).
8. zeugma
I've loved Gate of Ivory for ages and it was an exciting moment when I found the trilogy edition and realised there were three of them. Egan has also written "City of Diamond" as Jane Emerson. This is a prompt for me to re-read that as I haven't read it for a while but my memory says it was good but not as good, maybe because of the missing voice of Theodora as you say.
9. Ingrid
I love those books. Don't see the guilt angle, though. I also like the short story about the private detective in love with the vampire.
I'm sorry she turned to screenwriting, but it probably pays a lot better, so who could blame her.
10. CarlosSkullsplitter
Nobody says reading W.E.B. Griffin is like knocking back a couple of six-packs in the locker room.

Locker rooms are male markers? (Six-packs are male markers? well, okay, I guess they are.) Reading Griffin is like grilling hamburgers during a John Wayne movie marathon -- the cheesy ones -- but you'd get a case of beer and invite friends over and make a party of it, which you can't really do with Griffin. Thus the beer is clearly superior.

Has Egan (I think of her as the good Egan) ever gone into more detail on what Chinese models she used for her trilogy?
11. the zedmeister
@Ellynne - back in 2007, Doris Egan wrote on her blog that there are currently no plans for a fourth Ivory book, but she gave away some spoilers for what would hypothetically happen in it, if it was ever written. The subject of Theo's problem at the end of the third book is touched upon. If you're curious , the post is here (the relevant part is the second half of the fourth paragraph).
Pamela Adams
12. PamAdams
I just started Gate of Ivory- I love the narrator's voice.
13. sixpenny
I've wished for a 4th Ivory book for years. It is one of the books on the comfort rereading shelf. I'm just afraid that the paperbacks will fall apart.
I really admire how the economy of the planet - and the interplanetary economy work... and the social classes, and the non-society classes.
Love Grandmother.
Ish na'telleth.
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
Well, that was fun. Thanks, Jo, for yet another book that I probably wouldn't have found without you. (So many books, so little time....)

Off to try the sequels now.
Estara Swanberg
16. Estara
I was hoping you'd review this series, too - and I agree with your view on it except for calling it a "guilty" pleasure.

I thought it was a pure pleasure and had quite some interesting deeper underpinnings about family and what makes family and how you deal with family - in all three books.

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