Gate of Ivory opens up on the only known world in the galaxy that has magic. Science can’t explain it, and there’s no reason for it. It Just Is. Super rational anthropology student Theadora from Pyrene is stranded on Ivory, earning money telling fortunes with her deck of cards.
Thea is a gem. She’s pragmatic. She’ll take stories as payment for work done. She has faults. She is not athletic. She counts money like a miser, totaling paid transactions down to how she can save for her passage home. She also has a very organized scientific mind and is very smart. She’s possibly the most charming protagonist of any SF/F book I’ve ever read.
Thea goes from well-ordered life in the bazaar in the main city of Ivory, using her perplexing (to her) exoticism to her advantage, to chaotic and endangered when Ran Cormallan hires her to read his future in his cards. Ran is one of Ivory’s more powerful wizards from a powerful family, but he’s also unassumingly arrogant in the way that people with privilege are because they don’t think about it. He tends to rush head long into situations and not tell her what’s going on. Along the way, Thea meets Grandmother, the matriarch of the Cormallans and the controller of the family’s huge holdings, and Ran’s sister Kylla, who uses the men’s machismo in her own way, knowing that she will inherit Cormallon from their Grandmother and be trapped in the same role.
Doris Egan makes everyone in the book equally interesting. She deals with culture shock, Thea’s Othering and how she deals with it and how the Ivorians deal with her, and the beaurocracy of Pyrene-and oh, so many other things that many other writers usually skim over. And it has a fun plot, too!
It’s a true gem and for me, it’s right up there with Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (in a lighter vein, yes) and The Earthsea Trilogy themes.
I can’t recommend this book enough.