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[Book review]: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Book 1: Shards of Honor

 

 

 

Cordelia Naismith, commander of a survery ship from Beta Colony, is marooned on an uncharted planet when her vessel is attacked by Barryarans. Naismith is captured by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the infamous Butcher of Komarr, and taken on a gruelling cross-country journey to his base camp. However, Vorkosigan himself is facing a prospective mutiny led by an ambitious junior officer and both Beta and Barrayar are about to find themselves on opposing sides of a bloody war.
 

The Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most famous ongoing works of science fiction in the United States. Comprising (so far) fifteen novels and numerous short stories and novellas, the series has won four Hugos (including three for Best Novel), been nominated for another six and has won an additional two Locus Awards and two Nebulas. The series has sold more than two million copies for Baen Books in the States, but is almost unknown in the UK. Repeated attempts to publish the series here have failed, usually due to low sales and indifferent reviews.

Reading Shards of Honour, I have to reluctantly adopt the traditional British stance of not seeing what all the fuss is about. The book starts off well enough, with an adventure storyline featuring two people (and a severely injured third) abandoned on a planet and having to work together to survive. These sequences, though indifferently written, are interesting enough and Bujold reveals an interesting amount of character through the actions of Cordelia and Aral. Unfortunately, what she doesn't do is provide them with any chemistry. When Cordelia realises she is attracted to Aral, and Aral reciprocates those feelings, it kind of comes out of nowhere. When (spoiler alert!) they are eventually rescued, the book descends into a montage of Cordelia being captured, released, re-captured, escaping, being almost-raped (the lazy go-to jeopardy trope for any female character in peril, naturally) and so on for a good hundred pages or so. Due to the stodgy prose, mechanical dialogue and somewhat stilted character reactions, none of this is particularly exciting.

Things perk up a little bit towards the end, with the revelations of the extent of a supporting character's psychological trauma and a subplot about a bunch of unborn babies in exowombs (the result of war rapes) having to be forcibly supported by the fathers who conceived them both being intriguing, but these are very minor elements that arrive rather late in the day.

Shards of Honour (**) has moments of interest, but overall is stodgily-written and unconvincingly-characterised. Still, it's a first novel and not one of the most well-regarded in the series, so I will press on with the (chronologically) second novel in the series and one of the most critically-acclaimed, Barrayar. Shards of Honour is available now as the past of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus (UK, USA).

 

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The sequel Barrayar is much more interesting and the series really takes off when it becomes centered around Cordelia and Aral's son, Miles. I usually tell people to start with The Warrior's Apprentice, which is the first Miles book. 

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Book 2: Barrayar

 

Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony has married Aral Vorkosigan, the Imperial Regent, and is now living on Barrayar, the homeworld of her former enemies. Cordelia is bewildered by Barrayaran society, which is militaristic, elitist, feudal and unforgiving of physical infirmity or weakness. As she sets out to try to make a fairer life for her family and friends, they are all swept up in political intrigue and civil war when Vorkosigan's regency is challenged.

Barrayar is less the sequel to than the direction continuation of Shards of Honour, the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga. This is understandable, as Bujold wrote them as one one long novel, but broke off before Barrayar was very far underway and ended up writing a whole bunch of other novels before getting back to this one. This sabbatical was for the good, as Barrayar is a significant improvement over the lacklustre Shards of Honour, featuring much more interesting characterisation and a more a gripping plot.

As before, the book is told from the POV of Cordelia and the book is focused heavily on her characterisation as she adjusts to life on a new world. Exploring Barrayar from the outside is a good idea, as Cordelia gets to express the reader's disbelief that such a techno-feudal society could even exist. There are some great moments as well where natives of Barrayar try to 'shock' Cordelia (such as with rumours of a gay affair between two male lords) with scandals only for her to find them bafflingly ordinary and inoffensive. It would be easy for Bujold to make Cordelia arrogant and superior about such things, but she plays fair and on one or two occasions Cordelia has to admit where her own world has gotten things wrong, and where Barrayar may have better ideas (though the reverse situation is much frequent).

In the first novel, Cordelia was stoic to the point of being emotionally inert, but in the sequel she is a much better-nuanced character who reacts more believably to events. Bujold never lets us forget that Cordelia is a trained and professional military officer, so her crisis-management skills and tendency to personally take part in dangerous missions herself are well-founded. The theme of motherhood is also explored, as Cordelia falls pregnant only for her unborn child to suffer injuries in an attempted assassination attempt. Barrayaran tradition would be to have the child aborted, but Cordelia causes a scandal by using imported Betan technology to save his life at the cost of leaving him crippled, to the fury of her father-in-law. The resulting tension may be obvious ('baby in danger' is a bit old-school for an SF trope) but it works quite well.

In the latter part of the novel, when open civil war erupts, Bujold's decision to stick with Cordelia as the POV character pays dividends. Normally in a big SF novel, the author would adopt a multi-POV approach, or stick with the characters in the thick of the action. Instead, Cordelia is cut off from the outside world and has to lie low in the countryside without a clue as to how things are progressing or where her husband is. This approach is purposefully frustrating, as we share Cordelia's annoyance at not knowing what's happening and it works quite well.

On the negative side of things, the focus on Cordelia compromises the characterisation of secondary characters. Aral Vorkosigan himself remains a fairly distant figure and Cordelia's staff get mixed treatment. Bothari is a sympathetic-but-tragic character with an edge of unpleasantness to him, making him a fairly complex and interesting character for the 'badass big arse-kicker' trope. Droushnakovi and Koudelka are likable characters but their inability to progress their relationship and their comedy of manners of constantly misunderstanding what the other person is doing briefly made me think I'd picked up one of the weaker Wheel of Time novels. Cordelia serving as counsellor and den-mother to her staff is an interesting idea, but it slows down the pacing at critical junctures. There's also the bigger problem that Barrayar is not really convincing as an SF society and is rather unpleasant. Though this gives us empathy with Cordelia, it also means that the intricacies and court politics of Barrayaran society come across as being rather flat. And probably the less said about the cliched villain, the better.

Barryar (****) is a huge improvement over its forebear, featuring a far more interesting storyline, some accomplished worldbuilding (although of an unpleasant and unlikable world) and better characterisation of the protagonist, despite some more mixed results for the secondary cast. Barrayar is available now as part of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus, along with its forebear Shards of Honour (UK, USA).

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Book 3: The Warrior's Apprentice

 

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of one of the most powerful men on Barrayar, but is also a cripple, cursed with fragile bones and occasional hubris. When his pride overrides his good sense and leaves him too injured to take part in entrance examinations to the Barrayaran academy, Miles is washed up and left without a future. Intrigued by a mystery involving his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles decides to take an offworld trip...but nothing goes to plan and before long Miles's fast-talking has earned him the command of a fleet of starships, thousands of mercenaries and involvement in a civil war which is none of his business. Miles has some explaining to do.

Whilst chronologically The Warrior's Apprentice is the third volume in The Vorkosigan Saga, for most people it's where the series really begins. This is the book where the main character of the series, Miles, debuts as an adult character and it also represents a notable tonal shift from the previous two volumes, Shards of Honour and Barrayar. Whilst those two books were fairly serious (aside from brief comedy-of-manners episodes), The Warrior's Apprentice is more rambunctious. It's a bit of a romp, actually, with Miles' fast-talking mouth and off-the-cuff inventiveness (i.e. lying his head off) getting him in and out of trouble so quickly readers may experience whiplash trying to keep up with it.

It's a novel which can be firmly filed under 'fun', although there is a tragic core to the novel involving the character of Bothrai. Bujold writes this mystery so it works from two angles: if you've read Shards of Honour and Barrayar, you know what's going on long before Miles does and Bujold milks the tension effectively as Miles investigates the matter. If you haven't read those books and are as much in the dark as Miles, it works just as well. The tragic interlude (and the finale, which involves a brief dash of political intrigue) are a bit out-of-keeping with the book's overall tone, but Bujold shows impressive mastery of pacing in allowing the narrative to organically shift to integrate them before moving back to a less serious feel.

The result is a novel that is often quite funny, but also reflects the central character very well. Miles is a ball of energy that tends to drag people along behind him into various crazy schemes they'd never normally want to be a part of, but his momentum somehow keeps everything afloat. The novel works this way as well, with the plot taking increasingly ludicrous turns but it not mattering because Bujold infuses the novel with so much energy and verve you just want to read along and find out what happens next. Bujold's skills with characterisation also help define the book's setting much more clearly, with even briefly-appearing secondary characters getting fleshed out into three-dimensional people within just a few paragraphs.

Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn't an out-and-out comedy. The concluding section on Barrayar is also perhaps a little too neat and tidy, and there seems to be a narrative disconnect between Cordelia's treatment by her own people on Beta Colony in the first two books (where she was treated as a criminal) and her well-regarded position here. But there are fairly minor issues.

The Warrior's Apprentice (****) isn't high art or hard SF, but it is entertaining, fast-paced and well-characterised, with just enough pathos and tragedy to add some depth to it. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with the novella The Mountains of Mourning and the novel The Vor Game.

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Novella 1: The Mountains of Mourning

 

 

 

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village...only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.

The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosgian universe. It's a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles's investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It's a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior's Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst cliches of the 'high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do' trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning (****) is a fine novella, but it's not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior's Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles omnibus, available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 4: The Vor Game

 

Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Imperial Academy on Barrayar and is immediately assigned as a weather specialist on a remote arctic base. Given that he knows nothing about weather science and was expecting a space posting, Miles is unhappy with his assignment. However, what starts off as a minor job soon has Miles travelling to distant worlds, hooking up with some old friends (and enemies) and getting embroiled in a major interstellar incident. In other words, it's business as usual.

The Vor Game is the fourth novel (by chronology) in The Vorkosigan Saga and the second to feature its signature character of Miles. The novel picks up after the events of The Warrior's Apprentice with Miles now graduated from the Academy and ready to start his life of military service. As previously, Miles's physical weaknesses (he suffers from brittle bones and is stunted due to a poison gas attack on his then-pregnant mother) both hinder his ability to get involved in the action and also act as an easy means for his enemies (and friends he's trying to avoid) to identify him. Once again, Miles has to use his wits and intelligence to overcome obstacles and emerge on top.

This time around the obstacles include a psychotic military base commander, almost dying of exposure, being captured, being enslaved, almost being shot and being pursued by a lunatic femme fatale with delusions of becoming Empress of Barrayar. As with The Warrior's Apprentice, the book starts simply enough and then snowballs, accumulating plot points, characters and complications with almost frenzied energy.

As with its forebear, the book is a highly readable, page-turning experience. Bujold knows how to pace even a complicated story (and between the bluffs and double-bluffs, this book has become fairly complex by the time it ends) well and combine it with action as well as character-building material. A key theme in this novel is that Miles has problems with subordination, which is a bit of a problem in a military hierarchy, and his way of dealing with the crisis in this novel provides an idea on how Barrayar can use him to further its goals despite his limitations.

As usual, Bujold mixes out-and-out moments of high comedy (though The Vor Game isn't as much of a comedic romp as The Warrior's Apprentice) with darker moments. Despite starting in a completely different place, it's also very much a continuation of The Warrior's Apprentice, with some character arcs continuing between the two novels. If The Vor Game has a major problem, it's that it's slightly too reminiscent of its forebear. This is very much The Further Adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and if you enjoyed the previous book, you'll like this one too. Bujold knows how to tell a ripping yarn and keep the pages flying, but this novel lacks originality and it lacks the previous novel's ability to spin on a dime between tragedy, comedy and drama. I was rather surprised to learn that The Vor Game is a Hugo Award-winning novel, both because it wasn't as good as the competition (The Fall of Hyperion was a better novel in the same year, probably Earth as well) and it's not quite as good as The Warrior's Apprentice.

Still, The Vor Game (****) is a fine, entertaining SF novel. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with The Warrior's Apprentice and the novella The Mountains of Mourning.

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Book 5: Cetaganda

 

 

 

Miles Vorkosigan visits Eta Ceta, the homeworld and capital of the empire that formerly ruled his own planet, as a diplomatic envoy. What starts off as a fairly routine job - representing his world at a state funeral - escalates into a clandestine battle of wits between Miles and an unknown Cetagandan enemy who is trying to frame Barrayar for a crime and reignite hostilities between their two empires. Miles has to find and defeat this foe without offending his hosts or shaming his own world.

Cetaganda is the fifth novel (by chronology) in The Vorkosigan Saga and the shortest to date, clocking in at only around 250 pages. It's a slight story, and feels more like an expanded short story than a fully-fleshed out novel.

On the successful side of things, Bujold brings her trademark wit and readability to the story. To use a lazy reviewing tactic, if you liked the previous books in this series, you'll probably like this one as well. However, Bujold is arguably unsuccessful in really making the Cetagandans (here making their first on-page appearance after many frequent mentions) an impressive, convincing society. The Cetagandan Empire is ruled under a bewildering array of rules relating to male/female relations, genetic engineering and social function, which is all fine until you realise it would be too easy to topple the whole thing if enough people decided they didn't want to play along (as indeed almost happens in this novel).

More damaging is the fact that Bujold does not complicate Miles's story enough. Every time something bad happens, Miles immediately shifts it to his advantage, and he is never on the back foot for more than a paragraph or two. With a long series based around one character you have to constantly be on the look-out for that character becoming too infallible or invulnerable, and that nearly happens to Miles here.

Still, even a sub-par Vorkosigan novel remains a fun, if lightweight, read. Cetaganda (***½) is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.

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Book 6: Ethan of Athos

 

 

 

Ethan Urquhart is a doctor on the all-male planet of Athos, which is reliant on important genetic cultures in order to increase their population. When the latest culture shipment is contaminated and destroyed, Ethan is dispatched by his government to the transfer point at Kline Station to investigate. Almost immediately after his arrival, Ethan is drawn into a web of intrigue and conspiracies featuring agents from the Cetagandan Empire and the unnerving (for Ethan) presence of a female intelligence agent from the Dendarii mercenaries.

Ethan of Athos is, chronologically, the sixth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, although it was the third to be written. Even more confusingly, it is often omitted from counts of the series due to the total non-appearance of the series' main character, Miles Vorkosigan. However, Ellie Quinn, who appeared briefly in The Warrior's Apprentice and goes on to make more important appearances alongside Miles later on, plays a major role and this book establishes a fair bit of her character and backstory. So my recommendation is to accept it as part of the saga and move on.

I enjoyed Ethan of Athos a lot. It's what Bujold does best, a comedy-of-manners romp taking in scheming, intrigue, wheels-within-wheels, deceptions and double-bluffs, and a thin layering of real science (a more thorough exploration of the uterine replicator technology mentioned in previous books) and social commentary on top. There's some nice character scenes and moments of humour, and Bujold writers her typical wit.

However, the book feels like a somewhat missed opportunity. There are a few SF novels which take a look at societies where either women are put in charge or are dominant (such as David Brin's Glory Season), or where the normal genders don't exist as we know them (obviously, The Left Hand of Darkness), but surprisingly few about the idea of a planet where only men exist. The early and closing chapters set on Athos show that Bujold has put a lot of thought into this idea and how it works, and the resulting commentary it offers up on male gender roles is facinating. But as a concept it only bookends the novel, the bulk of which is a more basic - if still fun - SF thriller.

Ethan of Athos (***½) is a solid, enjoyable SF novel, but one that feels like it could have been a lot more than that if the story had remained on Athos for its duration. Otherwise, this is a reasonable addition to the Vorkosigan series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.

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Novella 2: Labyrinth

 

 

 

In his disguise as commander of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, Miles Vorkosigan is dispatched by Barrayaran intelligence to rendezvous with a defector on the anarchic world of Jackson's Whole. However, it isn't long before Miles is up to his neck in political intrigue between three feuding houses, with the defector, a mutant and a werewolf to worry about...

Labyrinth is a short novella featuring Lois McMaster Bujold's signature character of Miles Vorkosigan, once again up to his neck in trouble after a simple mission goes wrong (as they usually do). It's a fun little piece, featuring lots of Miles getting captured, smart-talking his way through interrogations and then escaping whilst throwing an entire world into turmoil but retaining deniability for Barrayar.

Whilst it's good, it's slight. There's some interesting stuff about genetic engineering, not to mention the first appearance in the Miles timeline of the quaddies, people who have had their legs replaced with arms to better cope with life in zero-gee. Between the quaddie, the werewolf (actually a genetically-altered super-soldier), the dwarf (Miles) and the hermaphrodite (recurring character Bel Thorne), the novella can be said to be about people who are outcast from some societies due to unthinking prejudice. Unfortunately, the novella's short length prevents Bujold from exploring any of the issues in any real great depth, especially as the fascinating sociological stuff is put on hold for most of the story as we instead follow Miles trying to break out of a prison.

That said, Labyrinth (***) is a fun read which cracks along fairly smartly and packs a fair amount of character development and action into a short page count. It's just a shame that Bujold didn't flesh the story out into a full novel, as it feels like the characters and issues being explored could have warranted it. Without that exploration, the novella ultimately feels too slight and disposable. The novella is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. Oddly, it is also reprinted in the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus as well.

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Novella 3: Borders of Infinity

 

 

 

Miles Vorkosigan, in his guise as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, has been captured by the Cetagandans and imprisoned on a remote moon, along with thousands of other POWs. Vorkosigan finds a camp in the grip of chaos, with different groups of prisoners fighting amongst themselves and the strong preying on the weak. He has to somehow unite the prisoners before any breakout can be attempted...which is difficult to do when you have bones that shatter easily and no incentives to use.

Borders of Infinity is another short novella featuring the character of Miles Vorkosigan, this time back with the Dendarii (after a break of several stories and books, in chronological order anyway) before being imprisoned by the Cetagandans. It's a fairly straightforward and entertaining story, basically involving Miles trying to set up a prison break but being confronted by problems with asserting his authority and making enemies who want to kill him, even if it means they never escape.

The story's slightness works against it, as does a muddled tone. Funny scenes - Miles being forced to walk around naked and working with a crazy religious nut to try to win over the soldiers - are contrasted against some of the darker and more brutal scenes that Bujold has written to date. Making such a juxtaposition work is possible, but Bujold fails to achieve it here.

There's also the problem of the story being bigger than its word count. The story could easily have been twice as long, but just as it's getting started it abruptly ends, and in a rather straightforward manner as well (although the fallout does at least get novel-length coverage, in Brothers in Arms).

Borders of Infinity (***) is readable and passes the time, but is again a fairly short and slight story that feels like it's a novel that's been truncated almost to the point of non-existence. A story that's more important for what it does (setting up Brothers in Arms) than what it is, then. It can be found in the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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Book 7: Brothers in Arms

 

 

 

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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Book 8: Mirror Dance

 

 

 

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst  the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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Book 9: Memory

 

 

 

A horrendous error of judgement sees Miles Vorkosigan summoned back to Barrayar to face disciplinary measures from his superior, head of Imperial Security Simon Illyan. As Miles contemplates a future outside of the military, he becomes aware of a growing crisis in ImpSec. Things are going wrong and the cause may be to horrible to contemplate...

Memory is, chronologically, the tenth out of fourteen books* in The Vorkosigan Saga and marks an important turning point in the series. For the previous eight volumes Miles Vorkosigan as been masquerading as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, carrying out missions for the Barrayan military with total deniability. In Memory that abruptly comes to an end after Miles - suffering the after-effects of his death, cryo-freeze and revival in Mirror Dance - inadvertently slices the legs off a fellow agent he is supposed to be rescuing and then covers it up. The result is the most game-changing novel in the series. Such long-running series tend to do well out of stasis, maintaining the status quo and bringing readers back each time to enjoy the same cast of characters and the same format. Whisking that away can be creatively liberating for the author, but dangerous if the change does not go down well with fans.

In this case the change is well-judged, although it takes a while to execute. At a bit less than 500 pages Memory joins Mirror Dance as one of the longest novels in the series, but it's also a lot less active a book than its forebear. Mirror Dance had multiple POV characters, clandestine infiltrations, full-scale combat missions and a huge amount of character development packed into its pages. Memory, fitting its title, is more relaxed and reflective a novel. It gives Miles a chance to dwell on everything that's happened to him and what he is going to do with his life now his default position has been snatched away.

This reflective mode works well for a while, but it starts to bog down the book. As amusing as seeing Miles tackling getting a pet cat, hiring a new cook or going fishing is, it goes on for a bit too long. When the mystery kicks in and Miles is granted extraordinary powers by the Emperor to sort things out, it's a relief and soon the mystery is unfolding nicely. However, the longueurs at the start of the book lead to the investigation and resolution taking place quite rapidly and a little too neatly. There also isn't much personal jeopardy for Miles. This may be the point, as the book is more about Miles's growth and maturing as a character, but there is the feeling that this story could have been told a little more effectively as a novella. That said, it does bring about some dramatic changes in the set-up of the series and is among the best-written books in the series.

Memory (****) opens slow but finishes strong and succeeds in its task of resetting the series and giving Miles a new job to do. It is available now in the UK and USA.

 

* If you count Falling Free, which is set in the same universe centuries earlier but isn't part of the core saga.

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Book 10: Komarr

 

 

 

Komarr, second world of the Barrayaran Empire, is slowly being terraformed over the course of centuries. Key to the terraforming effort is an orbiting soletta, a massive mirror which increases the amount of sunlight being directed onto the surface. When the soletta is damaged by a spacecraft collision, the future viability of the planet is put in jeopardy. Newly-anointed Imperial Adjudicator Miles Vorkosigan is sent to investigate whether this was an accident or deliberate sabotage.

Komarr is the first novel in the series to focus on Miles Vorkosigan in his new role as an Imperial Adjudicator. Bujold wanted to freshen things up by taking Miles away from his support network of thousands of loyal soldiers and a fleet of powerful starships and it's a move that could have been mishandled. The loss of most of Miles's supporting cast from the Dendarii Mercenaries (who only warrant cameo appearances and the occasional mention from now on) is a blow and it was initially unclear if Miles as a (mostly) solo investigator is a compelling enough idea to replace the military SF feel of the earlier novels.

Komarr lays those fears to rest. This a well-written, crisply-paced and masterfully characterised novel. Bujold develops a new POV character in the form of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a young woman and mother married to a difficult husband involved in the terraforming project. Komarr has the reputation of being a "romance novel", with Ekaterin brought in as a serious love interest for Miles, whose relationships up until now have mostly been more like casual flings and friends-with-benefits arrangements. However, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Komarr as a light or frivolous book because of this.

Instead, Komarr is a serious book about adult relationships, motivations and fulfilment, and it layers those themes into a thriller storyline involving betrayal, murder and intrigue. Bujold has said she enjoys writing about "grown-ups", and the romance in the novel is between two adults who have been through the wars (literally and figuratively) and find something in each other they like and respect, but have to overcome personal issues before they can turn that mutual attraction into something more tangible. It's an approach rooted in character that works effectively without overshadowing the SF thriller storyline, which has all the required twists and turns of a solid mystery before Miles and Ekaterin can resolve the problem.

Komarr (****) is a solid entry in The Vorkosigan Saga which sets the books on a new course and does so effectively. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

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Book 11: A Civil Campaign

 

 

 

Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, is due to wed Laisa, an heiress from the (reluctant) Imperial client-world of Komarr. For the Emperor's diminutive cousin Miles Vorkosigan, the great social event provides the perfect cover for his courtship of the Lady Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, events are complicated by the complicated love life of Miles's clone-brother Mark, two landmark legal disputes in the Barrayaran Court...and a whole ton of butter-producing bugs.

A Civil Campaign (subtitled A Comedy of Biology and Manners) was originally conceived by Lois McMaster Bujold as the second half of Komarr. However, she separated the two books out for reasons of length (A Civil Campaign is the longest novel in the series by itself) and also for tone. Komarr is a serious book but A Civil Campaign is a romantic comedy that at times descends into flat-out farce.

It's hard enough to carry off romance or comedy or science fiction by themselves, so for Bujold to tackle all three genres in the same novel suggests either cast-iron confidence or outright insanity. After completing the book, the key to its success seems to be a bit of both. A Civil Campaign is flat-out crazy, a dramatic change in tone from the rest of the series to date. For starters, the novel has five POV characters, which is unusual given that most books in the series have just one, Miles himself. This novel adds Mark, Ivan, Kareen Koudelka (Mark's own romantic interest) and Ekaterin to the mix. This makes for a busier and more tonally varied novel than any of the preceding ones. Even more interesting is how Bujold mixes up the POV storylines: the normally frivolous Ivan gets the serious, political stuff to deal with whilst the emotionally-scarred, PTSD-suffering Mark gets the farcical butter-bug storyline to handle. Expectations are subverted throughout with great skill.

Most intriguingly, this is a novel about adults, relationships and how damaged people can help (or hurt, if they are not careful) one another or choose their own paths through life. Through comedy, tragedy, horror and humour, Bujold builds up each of her POV characters (and numerous supporting ones) and deconstructs them in a manner that is impressive and enjoyable to read.

That said, a key subplot revolves around a disputed succession between a dead lord's daughter and nephew, with Barrayar's laws of male inheritance favouring his nephew...until his daughter gets a sex-change. The resulting legal maelstrom is the result of a collision between fantasy cliche and common sense (and Barrayar has always felt it had more in common with Westeros than an SF setting) and signals an impending transformation in the planet's social order. It's also - arguably - the novel's sole misstep, with Bujold uncharacteristically more interested in the legal and political ramifications rather than the character-based ones. That isn't to say that Donna/Dono isn't a fascinating character, but it feels like Bujold did not engage with the issues raised by the gender reassignment with as much as depth as she might have done.

There is some action in the book (a single shoot-out, which feels a bit incongruous given the tone of the novel, and a more farcical, Bugsy Malone-esque battle sequence involving tubs of bug-butter) but primarily A Civil Campaign (****½) is a comedy of manners, a grown-up romance and a great big coming-together of almost every major subplot and character in The Vorkosigan Saga to date. It's a terrific read and is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

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Novella 4: Winterfair Gifts

 

Winterfair on Barrayar and the unthinkable is happening: Miles Vorkosigan is getting married. For his family this is a time of great happiness and joy. For Armsman Roic, one of Miles's long-suffering security officers, it's a time of paranoia, vigilance and stress. When things start to go wrong, Roic joins forces with one of Miles's old Dendarii comrades to ensure that the wedding goes off without a hitch.

Winterfair Gifts is a short novella set after the events of A Civil Campaign. It centres on Roic, a minor supporting character most notable at this point for engaging in combat with overzealous offworld security officers whilst half-naked and covered in butter (produced by insectoids from another planet, but that's another story). The novella actually feels a bit like an apology from Bujold to her character, giving him a chance to shine in his own story.

It's an enjoyable piece, with some laughs, some drama and some pathos in the relationship between Roic and Taura, the genetically-engineered soldier Miles rescued from Jackson's Whole. The drama part of the novel - including an assassination attempt and a dramatic arrest - feels almost tacked on, with much of the pivotal action happening off-page. Bujold's focus is on the two main characters, their development and their unexpected relationship, which is effective and touching.

A minor interlude in the overall Vorkosigan Saga, then, but one that is enjoyable and worth reading. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

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I love this series..mainly because of the writing and the way it plays against type..The hero wins because of his wits and he's no even close to the classic "Heroic" mold (Why do all heroes have to be  6'0 or better..Even in the WOT, only Mat is shorter than that and he's still tall at 5'11'). I think that my favorite is still Captain Vorpatril's alliance (I still chuckle over the courtroom scene where Ivan's cousin refuses to allow him to divorce. That whole scene cracked me up.*G*. The saddest to me was Cryoburn (The end scene was perfect..."He's carried me all of my life. It's time I returned th favor").

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Book 12: Diplomatic Immunity

 

Miles Vorkosigan is enjoying his honeymoon...right up to the point that he is diverted to Graf Station in Quaddiespace to sort out a diplomatic mess involving Barrayaran warships, Komarran transports and some missing personnel. What initially appears to be a straightforward mission rapidly escalates into a major incident that threatens to break out into full-scale war.

After several novels in a row concerned primarily with Miles Vorkosigan's character development, Diplomatic Immunity sees Lois McMaster Bujold returning to something of a more "normal" approach for the series. She sets up a series of interconnecting mysteries built around some interesting SF ideas and then sets Miles loose to investigate and resolve the situation with a (relative) minimum of fuss. This time around Miles is accompanied by his wife, Ekaterin, and reunited with one of his old Dendarii compatriots, but for the most part it's Miles doing what Miles does best: fast-talking, quick-thinking and having a lot of fun in the process.

The novel is also a bit of a sequel to one of Bujold's earlier novels, Falling Free, which is set in the Vorkosigan universe but is not part of the core series. That book explored the development of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered to best exploit freefall by being given an extra pair of arms and hands instead of legs. Diplomatic Immunity also catches up with the quaddies and reveals what has become of their society in the  intervening two centuries (Falling Free accompanies Diplomatic Immunity in the omnibus edition).

The book is standard fare for Bujold and Miles: well-written, with some clever ideas, some unexpected twists (the escalation of the situation from a minor drama to a massive diplomatic incident is sudden but convincing) and some nice work in terms of both characterisation and plot. It's a smart novel, although it is a little too reliant on coincidences. We are told repeatedly how obscure, bizarre and off the beaten track Graf Station is, so Miles running into two people he's met in previous adventures purely by chance is a little hard to swallow. Once you move past that, it becomes a more interesting story combining mystery, action and politics.

If Diplomatic Immunity does have a major flaw, it's that it feels a little slight in terms of Miles's own character development in the wake of Mirror Dance, Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign. But after a whole series of traumas, it is also kind of fun to see Miels not being put through the emotional or physical wringer so much and just getting on with his job.

Diplomatic Immunity (****) is a fun, enjoyable addition to The Vorkosigan Saga. It is available now as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus (UK, USA).

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http://thewertzone.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/captain-vorpatrils-alliance-by-lois.html'>Book 13: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

 

 

Ivan Vorpatril is one of Barrayar's most eligible bachelors and notorious rakes, but now in his mid-thirties he is finding his life of chasing women and partying is no longer as satisfying as it once was. On assignment to Komarr, his path crosses of that of two fugitives from a coup on Jackson's Whole and his attempts to help only make things worse...and change his life forever.

The most interesting thing about the Vorkosigan Saga has been Lois McMaster Bujold's willingness to experiment, switch protagonists and POVs and generally not sit still and bash out a load of action-adventure novels. Her willingness to put the series on hold for years at a time until she has a good idea for a new book has also helped it retain a high level of quality.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is one of the lighter novels in the series. It is a romantic farce with an underlying adventure story and also dwells on the notion of ageing, growing up and maturing, a theme of Bujold's that she returns to repeatedly in the later books in the series. Using Ivan, Miles's womanising cousin with no interest in settling down, to explore this theme is extremely effective. It would have been easy to have done a "growing and learning" story in which Ivan suddenly mans up and accepts responsibility, but this would not have been true to the character. Instead Bujold develops Ivan's character (and, we realise, how she's been developing it subtly in the background all along) naturally and much more convincingly, by having him fall for a woman who seems to be right up his street (superficial and pretty) but whose hidden depths and complex background make her a lot more interesting.

These elements of growth and change are accompanied by some quite uproariously hilarious scenes, some nice catching-up moments with old characters who we haven't seen for a while (most notably Simon Illyan) and some more musings on the changing nature of Barryaran society, which are all handled quite well.

On the downside, the novel is a bit too long (over 500 pages) to support a slight premise and the lack of some well-motivated villains (we never even meet the bad guys who set the whole story in motion) and there are a few too many scenes of Tej's family scheming or Ivan feeling overwhelmed. A bit more of a serious editing pass to streamline the book would not have gone amiss.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (****) is not one of the best books in the series and could be a bit better paced, but it remains well-written with a refreshing focus on the characters and how they have evolved over the years, with some nice SF flourishes and very funny moments. It is available now in the UK and USA.
Edited by Werthead

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Book 14: Cryoburn

 

 

Kibou-daini is an obscure planet in a remote corner of the wormhole nexus, but one with a specialisation in cryogenic freezing and revival as a means of cheating death. With the planet planning to expand to Komarr, the Barrayaran Empire decides to take a closer look. This means sending in Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan. Unfortunately things go wrong almost as soon as Miles arrives. Left lost and injured in a maze of cryo-tombs that extends for kilometres, Miles needs to call upon every ounce of his resourcefulness to survive.

Cryoburn is the most recent Vorkosigan Saga novel to focus on the series' erstwhile central figure of Miles Vorkosigan. The two more recent books (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, published later although set earlier than Cryoburn, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen) have focused on other characters with Miles playing a much-reduced role. So this is the last ride, maybe for a while, we get to have with Miles encountering a problem and sorting it out in his own, inimitable style.

Cryoburn is satisfying on that level, but it also sees Bujold flexing her writing skills. A lot of the book is told from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old boy, Jin, whom Miles encounters on his travels. Given the labyrinth plotting, conspiracies and feints of the average Vorkosigan book, having it filtered through the understanding of a child is challenging but Bujold pulls it off to deliver something fresh, giving us a new perspective on Miles and his world (and makes me think that a YA-focused Vorkosigan novel could actually be a very interesting read). However, the book also give us something more evolutionary and adult as well. This book is set seven years after Miles's previous adventure in Diplomatic Immunity and he is now approaching forty. He has matured a lot in that time, becoming a father several times over and is now less manic, less prone to blundering straight into situations and is more thoughtful and analytical. This is all relative to his former self, of course, and he remains the same character, but an older, more seasoned and more wary one.

Indeed, Cryoburn feels like a musing on the passing of generations, with Jin representing a new generation of children growing up in a more peaceful period of nexus history and Miles spending chunks of the book analysing his father's and grandfather's lives and what they went through. The book's musings on death, mortality and legacy also feed into this, but Bujold expertly avoids making this a maudlin or depressing book. Quite the reverse, the notion of mortality and the precious commodities of life and time are joyously celebrated...right up to the final, startling moments of the novel, which may rank among Bujold's finest-ever pieces of writing.

Cryoburn, an upbeat and uplifting book about death, is one of the stranger but stronger books in the series (****½). It is available now in the UK and USA.

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