|Lois McMaster Bujold|
Falling FreeBaen Books, PB, © 1988, 307 pp, ISBN #0-671-65398-9
Reviewed February 2000
This book is (at most) a prologue to Bujold's lengthy Miles Vorkosigan series: It takes place 400 years before Miles' birth and does not feature Barrayar or any of the other prominent elements of the Miles series. In it, the interstellar mining corporation GalacTech has genetically engineered 100 humans so have two extra arms and hands in the place of their legs and feet, the better to operate in zero gravity.
Engineer Leo Graf arrives on their space station to train the first batch of the "Quaddies", who are in their early 20s. While there, he discovers that the Quaddies are often treated like lab animals without many human rights. And then, the announcement that artificial gravity generation has been invented endangers the future of the Quaddies altogether; no longer necessary for outer space work, they'll probably be sterilized and consigned to live in a compound on some planet under gravity for the remainder of their lives.
Elements of the plot include a couple of Quaddies whose baby is about to be taken from them by GalacTech to be raised by more "objective" parents, and who resolve to escape from the station to live their lives elsewhere. This ends up underscoring both the naivete of the Quaddies, and the fear that baseline humans have of genetically engineered people.
The main story, of course, involves Graf training the Quaddies both in engineering work, and in how the galaxy works, as they try to find a loophole to free the Quaddies from GalacTech control. Overall it's Bujold's usual exciting adventure yarn. However, it's a pretty sketchy work, as it doesn't really deal with issues like what it means to be this sort of person and to really look forward to - or experience - a life in an independent society. Many of the characters are one-dimensional, either good guys or bad guys (or misguided guys). The book ends rather abruptly and it seems like there's an awful lot of story left to tell to make the novel really satisfying.
It's a quick read, but it's far from Bujold's best book. Nor is it essential reading, since we only meet a Quaddie once in the Vorkosigan novels, in a short story in Borders of Infinity.
Shards of HonorBaen Books, PB, © 1986, 320 pp, ISBN #0-671-72087-2
Reviewed October 1998
Shards of Honor is one of two prequels to Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series focusing on Miles' parents. His mother, Cordelia Naismith, is a captain in the Beta Colony Expeditionary Force, and his father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, is the head of the house Vorkosigan on the planet Barrayar, and a prominent figure in its (imperial) government.
Both of them end up stranded on a planet through treachery among some of Aral's crew. The two of them work together to reach a cache on the planet from which Aral can attempt to regain control of his ship. Although not at war, relations between Barrayar and the nearby worlds (which are linked by wormholes between stars) are strained, due to its conquest of its neighbor Komarr a few years earlier. Vorkosigan gained a nickname in that campaign of "The Butcher of Komarr". However, while on the planet Cordelia finds that this title is undeserved, as Aral is a man of strict honor who tries to save lives whenever possible and treats prisoners well.
Unsurprisingly, the two fall in love, but another attempted mutiny on Vorkosigan's ship allows Cordelia to escape back to Beta.
They next meet over the planet Escobar, which Barrayar has invaded without provocation, and which Beta has allied with. Cordelia leads a mission to smuggle materials through to Escobar, and is subsequently captured by the Barrayarans, where she becomes wrapped up in a web of internal politics, narrowly escaping being raped, and meeting Aral again, who asks her to marry him. After the war ends, though, she chooses to return to Beta, where she first is hailed as a war hero, and then is suspected of having been programmed as a deep-cover agent. This motivates her to leave Beta and travel to Barrayar where she finally marries Aral.
Shards of Honor is a little bit of a love story, but mostly it's about two good, honorable people trying to figure out the right things to do in the middle of an incredibly messy situation. The Escobaran war was largely a pretext for the Barrayaran Emperor to clean house before his death, a laudable long-term goal, but whether it was worth starting an otherwise pointless war over is obviously questionable. Few of the individuals around them on either side of the war have anywhere near the same quality of character as our heroes; their subordinates tend to be trustworthy, having been trained by them and come to respect them, but their equals and superiors are generally not to be trusted.
The book largely focuses on Cordelia's point of view, which in the context of the Miles novels is quite welcome. Barrayar is a strongly male-dominated culture, and Aral's influence on his son is obvious and oft-cited. Cordelia is a more shadowy character in the books, and her influence on Miles is far more subtle. She seems to have instilled in him his instinct for speaking plainly, and also his knack for personally throwing himself into danger rather than sending someone else to do the job. Unlike Aral, Cordelia is not born to greatness, but, rather, has it thrust upon her, and knows when to cut and run when things get too deep.
Shards is also fascinating because Cordelia is thrown into a complicated situation of Barrayaran politics about which she knows nothing. This is doubly intriguing since the events about Escobar are a major piece of the backstory in the Miles novels, and we see their development and resolution only obliquely.
As usual, Bujold's knack for dialogue is arresting, although also as usual the book starts slowly and picks up steam as it goes along. There are moving scenes and delightfully funny scenes. However, neither Aral nor Cordelia is really a strong enough character to carry the book alone, as their son Miles is; this is ironic, since both are near-mythic figures to Miles' contemporaries, people who changed Barrayar almost singlehandedly. But the force of events is as much a factor in that as the two characters are.
Shards of Honor is somewhat sketchily plotted, taking places in three somewhat disparate phases, and it doesn't come together as well as a few of the Miles novels. But it's still an entertaining read, and useful backstory to the Miles books, and in particular I think it is best read after reading The Warrior's Apprentice.
BarrayarBaen Books, PB, © 1991, 400 pp, ISBN #0-671-72083-X
Reviewed October 1998
This book won the 1992 Hugo Award for best novel.
The second ot the two prequels to the Miles Vorkosigan series, Barrayar covers the few years following the death of Emperor Ezar during which Aral Vorkosigan - Miles' father - was regent for the child emperor Gregor. Aral's wife Cordelia becomes pregnant, and civil war breaks out on Barrayar.
As in Shards of Honor, the novel is mainly told from Cordelia's point of view, as an outsider from the planet Beta who married the Barrayaran Count Vorkosigan. Cordelia is often shocked by the customs of Barrayar, which is only a century or two removed from barbarism, and its quasi-feudal structure is really just a veneer of civilization. Pregnancy is entirely natural on Barrayar, unlike on Beta where most children are carried to term by technological replicators. And after the Emperor's death, the political landscape is anything but stable.
Barrayar is weighted down considerably by mainly being a straightforward telling of important pieces of backstory related in the Miles novels: An assassination attempt on Aral with a deadly gas results in Miles being contaminated in utero, and eventually being born with dangerously brittle bones. Count Vordarian attempts to overthrow Vorkosigan and Gregor to seize power for himself, in what comes to be known as the "Vordarian Pretendership". None of this is bad, but it's just not very interesting, as told here.
Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has said that it's not so much what happens in a story but how you get there that's intriguing, and that's really why Barrayar falls down: The details of the "how" aren't all that intriguing. Sure, it's not the Soltoxin gas itself that affects Miles' development, but the itself-virulent antidote, but that's such a trivial change one wonder why Bujold bothered. And Vordarian's Pretendership doesn't last years, as I often thought when it was mentioned in the Miles books, but only a few weeks or months. It's not so much a pretendership as a revolt that is fairly swiftly put down. Yes, it's deadly, but it's not nearly as harrowing as the prospect of a novel that stretches over five or ten years with two armed camps bisecting the planet, until one finally wins at great cost.
Indeed, Vorkosigan's forces seem generally on top of the situation, forcing Vordarian's hand before he was ready, and quickly reducing the conflict to only a question of how well Vorkosigan can minimize the loss of life on the way to victory. No small thing, but it's as if every effort is made to keep the stakes low.
The book is primarily saved by two things: The cat-and-mouse game early on where Cordelia is trying to keep young Gregor away from Vordarian's search parties, as she roams deeper into the Dendarii Mountains in Vorkosigan's district. Second, and more importantly, the relationship between Cordelia and Bothari. Bothari is a soldier, and a damaged human being. He's been used and abused by some vicious members of the Barrayaran power structure, and even Aral sees him as little more than a soldier, but Cordelia treats him as something more, and he responds to that, only seeming like a complete human when he's acting in her service, usually as her bodyguard. The relationship is complex, and adds additional depth to his interactions with Miles in The Warrior's Apprentice.
But overall this seemed like a somewhat rote book, lacking the interesting and fragments points of view afforded the viewer of the events in Shards of Honor. I would say that this is the least of the five books in the series that I've read so far.
The Warrior's ApprenticeBaen Books, PB, © 1986, 320 pp, ISBN #0-671-72066-X
Reviewed October 1998
Miles Vorkosigan is the son of Count Aral Vorkosigan, war hero and former regent of the planet Barrayar, and now trusted advisor to the young emperor Gregor. However, an assassination attempt on Aral while Miles was in the womb resulted in his being born with a near-fatally brittle skeleton which led to a stunted and fragile body. As Barrayar's culture includes a strong military component, Miles is expected to enter the military academy, but his body betrays him and he is unable to gain admission, despite his sharp mind and ability to think on his feet.
Miles, age 17, is crushed, as he has a strong sense of honor and duty and wishes to follow in the footsteps of his famous father and grandfather. Moreover, he needs challenges in his life. To get away from his problems, he goes on a trip to his mother's world, Beta Colony. With him go his bodyguard, the taciturn Sgt. Bothari, and Bothari's daughter Elena, whom Miles has a crush on. While on Beta, Miles - who is a good samaritan at heart, and also cannot resist a puzzle and a challenge - stumbles on a man, Arde Mayhew, whose spaceship is about to be repossessed and who is suicidal over the possibility. Miles finagles a way to purchase the ship to help, but in order to pay for this purchase, Miles also takes on a contract to deliver good (weapons) into the middle of a war zone. He, Mayhew, Bothari, Elena, and a deserter from the Barrayaran army, Baz Jesek, head off into the fray.
Upon arriving in the contested system, whose two inhabited worlds are at war, the small ship is promptly boarded by a vessel of the Oserian Mercenary Fleet. Miles and his people overpower the boarding party, and manage to take control of the mercenary ship, the Ariel. However, Miles cannot bring himself to kill the mercenaries, so he invents his own mercenaries, the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, with himself as its commander, under the alias of 'Admiral Miles Naismith', and converts the crew of the Ariel to his side.
Through sheer luck, the Dendarii manage to take over an outpost in an asteroid belt, and hold it against the Oserians. Miles then has to out-think the Oserians, deal with the war between the two sides in the system, figure out what to do with the Dendarii when it's all over, and, finally, handle accusations back home that he's created the Dendarii to attempt a coup to overthrow the Barrayaran emperor.
As you can guess, The Warrior's Apprentice is a wild tale in which Miles gets himself in deeper and deeper, concocting new and more elaborate lies to improve his situation, all the while trying to do his best by the people who have sworn themselves to him. Along the way, Elena learns the truth why her father has never told her the identity of her mother, and find a purpose for her life beyond the male-dominated society on Barrayar. Jesek redeems his honor and falls in love. Mayhew find steady employment and comes back from the brink of suicide. Bothari confronts his personal shame and is ultimately consumed by it. The Oserians' lot is substantially improved from the rather rag-tag fleet they had been before Miles arrived to inspire them.
Miles, meanwhile, seems to be getting nothing but trouble for himself, living a fictional identity, losing the woman he thinks he loves, seeing his bodyguard since childhood be killed, and finally being accused of high treason. But eventually, back on Barrayar, he is able to come clean to the people who truly count, and although he is forced to leave the Dendarii and the fruits of his efforts behind, he is rewarded with what he wanted in the first place: Admission to the Barrayaran military academy.
Although there are a few genuinely moving scenes, The Warrior's Apprentice is essentially a high fantasy story in outer space (or is this the very definition of space opera?). Bujold's characterization can be hilariously wry at times, and Miles is the perfect protagonist: Empathetic, philosophical, and witty. Her ability to turn a phrase overcomes the fairly low "ideas content" of the novel. As a light rite-of-passage story, The Warrior's Apprentice is excellent.
Dreamweaver's DilemmaNESFA Press, TPB, © 1997, 250 pp, ISBN #0-915368-53-6
Reviewed March 2000
Dreamweaver's Dilemma is a collection of Bujold's short stories and essays, and includes the important Miles Vorkosigan short story "The Mountains of Mourning", which occurs just before the novel The Vor Game. As such, it's a hodge-podge of material, some interesting and some not.
There are actually two stories in the book which occur in Miles' universe: The first is the title story, "Dreamweaver's Dilemma", which makes reference to Beta Colony, and clearly takes place even earlier than Falling Free. Anais Ruey is a "feelie-dream composer", basically she creates recordings which can be experienced as actually, sensile dreams by people with the proper implants. She's approached by a mysterious man to compose a very disturbing feelie. Shortly after delivering it, a mishap with her composition equipment makes her suspicious that there's something wrong with the client, and she investigates with the help of her rich friend Chalmys DuBauer. It's a straightforward science fictional mystery, but nothing more than that.
The other such story is "The Mountains of Mourning", which is a Miles adventure occurring just after he graduated from the Imperial Academy. In it we learn about the backwaters of Barrayar: Harra Csurik, a young wife and mother, comes to plead to Count Vorkosigan that her infant daughter has been murdered, because of a slight deformity. During the time of isolation this was not uncommon, since there were rampant mutations which the backwoodsers tried to keep under control through such extreme measures. But now, of course, it's a civilized age. Miles takes pity on Harra and takes her to see the Count when she's not let in by the guards, and his father, in turn, charges Miles with investigating the matter.
Miles, of course, is himself deformed, although not in a genetic sense, which makes him a subject of some concern among the people of Harra's village. They believe he's come to execute Harra's husband Lem, who is the prime suspect. But Miles wants to do the right thing, and teach these people that killing babies is no longer acceptable in a way that they'll acknowledge, which means he must walk a fine line in trying to find the killer. It's essentially a social drama which gives us keen insight into an important part of Miles' personality: His sense of responsibility towards his people. It's one of Bujold's best stories.
The other stories are a hodge-podge. "The Adventure of the Lady on the Embankment" is a Sherlock Holmes yarn, and is fairly good as far as it goes, with Holmes investigating the matter of a lady found by the river with no memory (or clothes!). It promises to be more than it is, although perhaps only for people who have read the Miles stories. "Barter" and "The Hole Truth" are both Twilight Zone-style SF yarns, the latter with a rather confusing ending, while "Garage Sale" must have been written in a fit of frustration with some neighbor.
The remainder of the book consists of essays, about Bujold writing her first novel, about why some people don't read science fiction, about the genealogy of Miles Vorkosigan's family, and a lengthy essay-style interview with Bujold about her own background. Much of it is interesting, but none of it is essential reading.
So "The Mountains of Mourning" is the only essential piece here, and it can be found in the Young Miles collection. Which means that overall this book is for serious fans of Bujold only.
The Vor GameBaen Books, PB, © 1990, 352 pp, ISBN #0-671-72014-7
Reviewed October 1998
This book won the 1989 Hugo Award for best novel.
The Vor Game completes the cycle of Miles Vorkosigan's coming-of-age story arc (especially as collected in the volume Young Miles, along with The Warrior's Apprentice and "The Mountains of Mourning"). Miles has completed his training at the Imperial Academy and is ready for his first assignment as an ensign in the Barrayaran army. However, this assignment proves different from what he expects: He's assigned to a polar base, nicknamed "Camp Permafrost", and is told that he's always had a problem with taking orders. Although he's not actively insubordinate, he has a way of getting people to see and do things his way. So this less-than-cushy assignment is supposed to teach him that lesson.
Of course, Miles has several problems with this assignment: First, he genuinely is smarter and often a more capable leader than those above him. Second, he has practical experience in the role in his guise as Admiral Naismith (in The Warrior's Apprentice). And third, the base commander, General Metzov, turns out to be a genuine psychopath, who was placed at that base because of some of his less-than-savory actions in the regular army some years before. Within weeks, Miles finds himself joining in an act of insubordination against Metzov - justifiably, since Metzov had ordered some of his men to needlessly undertake an extremely hazardous operation - and ends up in the hands of Imperial Security.
And that's just the prologue.
The Vor Game is a rather schizophrenic novel, as it then shifts gears with Miles assigned to ImpSec and assigned as an assistant to a Captain sent to the Hegen Hub to investigate mysterious military buildups at several jump-points there, where one of the sides has recruited Miles' old fighting force, the Dendarii Mercenaries. It seems clear that Bujold was trying to get Miles from "here" - a newly-minted Ensign in the army - to "there" - a special agent in ImpSec, and reunited with the Dendarii - but this seems a rather clumsy way to go about it. Doubly so, since General Metzov turns up later in the Hegen Hub on the wrong side. It would have been a little more satisfying if The Vor Game had actually taken place in two unconnected parts and not been almost-shoehorned into a more conventional novel: Get Miles out of the army and into ImpSec, and then reunite him with the Dendarii.
(It doesn't help that "The Vor Game" is an exceedingly vague title, and not really applicable to the novel. Almost nothing of what occurs in the story involves the Vor aristocracy. A better title might have helped crystallize the overall intent of the story.)
Bujold's books always seem to start slow, and with two disparate plots, The Vor Game starts slow, comes to a climax, and then starts slow again, picking up steam as Captain Ungari and Miles check out the situation in the Hegen Hub. After some inconclusive investigating, Miles is ordered to return to Barrayar, but one of the local governments instead arrests him. While in a detention area, Miles encounters the Barrayaran Emperor Gregor - only a few years his senior - who has fled Barrayar in an attempt to escape the virtual prison of being the Imperial person, and has instead ended up a contract slave laborer. Some quick thinking enables Miles to join Gregor, and they both end up among the Dendarii fleet, which has been reclaimed by its original commander, Admiral Oser.
Miles ends up in a sticky dilemma: His first responsibility is to Gregor, especially since if Gregor is killed, then Miles could be charged with assassinating him to advance in the line of succession. If Gregor is recognized, then he could be captured and ransomed. But some of the Dendarii are Miles' friends, a few of whom are liege-sworn to him, and as such he has responsibility for them, too. But Oser is decidedly hostile to Miles, and sticking around is not such a great idea, and fomenting an open rebellion is chancy, at best.
Miles' decision in this situation is not one of his best moments, which is of course the point: Miles reasons that his main responsibility to get Gregor home safely, and that it's his superiors' responsibility to handle the larger matters in the Hegen Hub. After all, they'd said he had problems with the chain of command... But of course there are issues larger than the chain of command, and Miles is eventually allowed the opportunity to resolve all his responsibilities to everyone around him, and solve the fundamental question of, "What's happening in the Hegen Hub?", as well.
One of Bujold's best skills in writing Miles is putting him in an untenable situation and having him think his way out of it, which he does with his quick wits, his charismatic personality, and his ability to exploit the foibles and failings of his adversaries. The Vor Game gets a bit tedious at the points where Miles is being steered around to get him where she needs him to be, but the last quarter or so of the novel is much more entertaining, ending in the necessary dramatic space battle.
The Vor Game is also worthwhile in that it further expands the array of characters around Miles: His relationship with his legendary father Aral Vorkosigan, Simon Illyan, the acerbic and dry chief of Imperial Security, and the insecure and unhappy Emperor Gregor. In that way, The Vor Game is about Miles' relationships to the power structure around him in the same way that The Warrior's Apprentice is about Miles' relationships to his closest friends and the people who depend on him.
The Vor Game reads mainly as a bridging and establishing novel. It's not great, but it serves its purposes.
CetagandaBaen Books, PB, © 1996, 302 pp, ISBN #0-671-87744-5
Reviewed November 1998
Before he was born, Miles Vorkosigan's homeworld of Barrayar was occupied for several decades by the expansionist Cetagandan Empire, before Miles' grandfather and his compatriots were finally able to liberate their world. So relations between Barrayar and Cetaganda are naturally strained, but the present Emperor Gregor is interested in normalizing relations in due time. So when the Empress of Cetaganda dies, Gregor sends Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril to attend the funeral.
But as they arrive at Eta Ceta IV - the Cetagandan seat of power - their shuttle is led to dock at the wrong gate, and a man enters the capsule, apparently going for a weapon. Miles, Ivan and the pilot overpower him and he runs, but in the meantime they manage to get hold of his disruptor, and a strange rod he was carrying. Eventually, they are re-routed to the correct gate where they are met by the Barrayaran ambassador.
Who was the man? What was the rod that Miles captured? Are they being set up, and if so, by who, and why? Miles plays it cool for a while, letting no one else in on what happened, but things take a turn for the worse when strange pranks - apparently staged by a low-level Cetagandan noble - attempt to injure or kill Miles, and when - during the dress rehearsal for the funeral - the body of the man who attacked them is found dead at the base of the Empress' resting place.
Cetaganda is written as a mystery, and employs conventional mystery-telling techniques. Bujold carefully avoids the story becoming a fast-moving adventure like earlier Miles stories. Instead, Miles works through the mystery fairly methodically, and the main sources of tension come from further attempts to kill him, and from the fact that Miles hasn't let his superiors in on what's happening, knowing that if he did the case would be taken away from him.
But the really interesting thing about Cetaganda is that the mystery is based on the nature of the Cetagandan power structure, and in particular their efforts at genetically manipulating the evolution of their highest class of nobles. This makes the book a rare and delightful thing: A science fiction mystery in which the science fictional issues are integral to the mystery - not to mention that Cetagandan society is perhaps the most interesting society that Bujold has constructed. If the book is shorter on the trademark mayhem and humor that has followed Miles around in earlier stories, that's quite forgiveable.
Overall, I would say that Cetaganda is, along with Mirror Dance, the best of the novels in the Vorkosigan series.
Ethan of AthosBaen Books, PB, © 1986, 237 pp, ISBN #0-671-65604-X
Reviewed November 1998
The planet Athos is an interesting place: It's populated entirely by men, and keeps itself as isolated as possible from the rest of the galaxy. Naturally, there are no women around to bear children, so children are conceived using eggs generated by "ovarian cultures" brought when the planet was founded centuries ago, and fetuses come to term in uterine replicators (of the sort in which Miles Vorkosigan gestated after his mother was poisoned). However, after hundreds of years, the ovarian cultures are starting to break down and become nonviable.
Dr. Ethan Urquhart is one of Athos' foremost reproductive specialists, and is excited when a shipment of new ovaries arrives from galactic space. His excitement turns to dismay when he finds that they've apparently been ripped off: The ovaries are diseased, damaged, and sometimes not even human. Needing a quick, decisive response, the ruling council sends Ethan himself to Kline Station to procure a good set, using whatever means necessary.
As soon as he arrives on the station, Ethan encounters his first woman: Elli Quinn, a member of Miles Vorkosigan's Dendarii Free Mercenaries, who has been sent to Kline Station on her own mission. Their paths soon intersect again when Ethan is captured by Cetagandan soldiers who believe the ovarian shipment sent to Athos was stolen from one of their top-secret research projects. Quinn saves him from being killed, and despite Ethan's misgivings - women being taboo for Athosians, after all - they ally. Quinn reveals that she's been sent to learn what the Cetagandans are up to, and to stop them if possible.
Ethan of Athos, as you can see, is a tangent of the Vorkosigan series, and it's mainly interesting for Ethan's outlook and the nature of the culture of Athos, which is presented in a very straightforward and objective manner - which is interesting inasmuch as out of necessity everyone on Athos is homosexual. The sexual tension between Ethan and Quinn is kept very low-key, fortunately; it would have been too easy to have milked it for cheap melodrama.
Other than that, the book is a short and fun adventure story, pitting out heroes against the schemes of the Cetagandans, and adding another character to the mix when the Cetagandan genetic project is finally revealed. Quinn is perhaps a little too generic as a character, but Ethan makes up for that. Overall, this is an enjoyable novel which is well worth reading.
Borders of InfinityBaen Books, PB, © 1989, 311 pp, ISBN #0-671-72093-7
Reviewed January 1999
Borders of Infinity is a collection of three short stories about Miles Vorkosigan's early years. When I bought this book, I wasn't sure whether to read this one first, or read Brothers in Arms first. Although the framing sequence in Borders occurs after Brothers, that sequence is quite thin, so Borders turns out to be the one to read first. (Of course, I read them in the other order!)
The first story, "The Mountains of Mourning", occurs just after Miles graduated from the Barrayaran military academy, and occurs between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game. It's an excellent story in which Miles is charged with his father to investigate the murder of an infant in the Vorkosigan back country. Miles must deal with the locals' mistrust of him - in large part because of his birth defects - and their conviction that deformed infants should not be left to live. Much of Barrayar is still living in relative dark ages, and the Vorkosigans have traditionally led the way out; still, even once the case is solved, it's up to Miles to find a punishment that will sit well with everyone.
The cornerstone of "Mountains" is that it explores why Miles is what he is, and why he does what he does, the sense of responsibility and obligation that his position in his society gives him. Along with The Warrior's Apprentice, this is the most important story for understanding Miles' character.
"Labyrinth" sees Miles and the Dendarii travel to the planet of Jackson's Whole, where high-tech solutions to nearly any problem are made available for the right price - concerns of morality are happily set aside to turn a buck. This is a fairly routine Dendarii story: They're there to smuggle a highly-placed scientist off the planet, but things go awry, Miles has to improvise to retrieve one of the scientist's earlier genetic experiments, and ends up making some enemies along the way. "Labyrinth" is mainly important as backstory to the later novel Mirror Dance.
The final story provides the title of the book: "The Borders of Infinity". It's one of Bujold's most satisfying stories from a science fictional perspective. Miles becomes a prisoner of war under the Cetagandans, and is inserted into a POW camp. The camp is interesting because it's simply a large, impenetrable energy dome; prisoners are pushed into the dome and left there. Food is delivered periodically, and the dome is brightly lit from the inside. While technically meeting the requirements for treating prisoners, the dome provides its own form of torture; the prisoners can receive no news from the outside, and fights for food and the few resources (clothing, sleeping mats) the prisoners bring in with them divide the camp into groups, with no risk to the Cetagandans. Miles' mission: Bring order to the camp, improve living conditions, and prepare for a break-out. The story's only flaw is that it over-plays Miles' charismatic personality; it's a little too implausible that Miles wins over the allegiance of some of the prisoners so easily. But other than that, it's an enjoyable adventure, which leads directly into Brothers in Arms.
Brothers in ArmsBaen Books, PB, © 1989, 338 pp, ISBN #0-671-69799-4
Reviewed February 1999
After the POW break-out in the final story of Borders of Infinity, Miles Vorkosigan and his Dendarii Mercenaries head to Earth for rest and repairs. Miles checks in with the Barrayaran embassy there, and meets the local Imperial Security representative, Captain Duv Galeni, who was born on Komarr, the planet whose conquest earned Miles' father such infamy.
Brother in Arms is in a sense the ultimate "how deep can Miles sink into the mud before he can claw his way out?" novel: In short order, Miles discovers that the Dendarii payment for their mission is missing, and the lack of funds leads to problems keeping some of the troops in line. Reporters investigate the link between Miles Vorkosigan and his false identity of Miles Naismith, and Miles invents a story that Naismith is a clone of Vorkosigan - possibly created by the Cetagandans - and that they don't like each other. The fiction turns out to be all too real when it turns out that Miles does have a clone, who captures replaces him and who plans to assassinate the Barrayaran emperor.
Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite work either coming or going: It takes too long for the real plot to get moving - it seems like Miles is being nibbled to death by ducks, and that just doesn't work for 120+ pages. Second, it turns out that Miles gets in so deep that he can't get out by himself - he has to be rescued, which after the extreme nature of some of his early adventures just doesn't ring true.
The real appeal of Brothers is that it's the first time we really see the Dendarii in action in their full glory: Miles isn't just the mysterious guy who put the troupe together, he's Admiral Naismith, and he has a relationship to everyone around him - especially Elli Quinn, who loves Naismith, but who doesn't care for the Barrayar-tied Vorkosigan identity. Also, we're introduced to Miles' clone-brother Mark, who has his own identity in his own way, and who begins to find it here.
Ultimately, though, despite being written five years earlier, Brothers is Arms is mainly not a lot more than a prologue to Mirror Dance, which explores most of the same themes in much greater depth. It's important to read as set-up for the later novel, but doesn't stand on its own all that well.
Mirror DanceBaen Books, PB, © 1994, 560 pp, ISBN #0-671-87646-5
Reviewed February 1999
This book won the 1995 Hugo Award for best novel.
WARNING: The plot of Mirror Dance revolves around a startling development very early in the novel. Since it's impossible to discuss the book without revealing this development, you might want to skip this review if you know you want to read the book.
Mirror Dance is the longest of the Miles Vorkosigan novels published so far, and along with the very-different Cetaganda, it's the best of them. It begins with Miles Vorkosigan's clone-brother Mark (from Brothers in Arms) once again impersonating Miles, this time to appropriate some Dendarii Mercenary ships to raid the clone factory on the planet Jackson's Whole on which he was born. Miles learns of the deception too soon to stop it ("Some people have an evil twin. I am not so lucky. What I have is an idiot twin."), and arrives just in time to save the day when Mark's plan goes wrong.
Unfortunately, even Miles can't get Mark out of this one unscathed: Mark is rescued, but in the process Miles is shot in the chest. Cryogenically frozen, Miles' chamber is lost before the Dendarii pull out, and the Dendarii are forced to return to Barrayar to report to Miles' father and friends without knowing the fate of Miles' body. And Mark is finally forced to confront what are in a sense the roots he's never known.
Mirror Dance is primarily the story of Mark Vorkosigan's coming of age, and his redemption for his mistakes, and it's a much grittier process than what Miles goes through in The Warrior's Apprentice. The Dendarii don't trust him, Mark has a very low opinion of himself, he's terrified of Miles' parents, and he feels entirely out-of-place on semi-feudal Barrayar.
The meat of the book involves Mark getting to know his genetic parents and learning about his role as Lord Mark Vorkosigan, and who he is as distinct from who Miles is. We also gain further insight into how Miles has been shaped by his parents, and the magic of Bujold's writing is that through the behavior of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan we really believe that they feel that Mark is their son, even though he was born a clone. And Bujold doesn't just ram through a mechanical sequence where Mark becomes a whole human being; we're treated to two hundred pages of Mark coming to terms with himself and the people around him, and we can believe that maybe Mark can be a good guy, and not just a judgment-impaired schmuck.
Ultimately, though, Mark has to redeem himself: He has to return to Jackson's Whole to rescue Miles, who has been revived by parties unknown (well, for a while, anyway). As with the hard-hitting beginning of the book, Mark's return also goes awry, and this time the victim is Mark himself. This time, though, Mark possesses the seeds of his own redemption, and there's no question by the end that he's paid (and more than paid) for his past deeds. The end of the book is harrowing and dramatic and moving, and ultimately successful (I read the climactic moment three times).
As I said, Cetaganda is my other favorite Miles book, mainly because it's a stylish and sophisticated science fiction mystery. But Mirror Dance is a very powerful psychological drama which I highly recommend reading.
MemoryBaen Books, PB, © 1996, 462 pp, ISBN #0-671-87743-7
Reviewed July 1997
This book was nominated for the 1997 Hugo Award for best novel.
This is the first of Bujold's series of novels about Miles Vorkosigan that I've read. Although it is a solid and entertaining novel, I felt it fell somewhat short of being exciting and thoughtful enough to motivate me to read the previous eight (or so) in the near future. (Note: Three years later, I've read nearly everything Bujold has written, and this statement seems rather silly in retrospect!)
Briefly, Miles Vorkosigan is the heir of Count Aral Vorkosigan of the Barrayaran Empire. Due to an assassination attempt on his parents when he was gestating, Miles was born a small man with brittle bones - quite a handicap on a world that values the ability to serve in the military. Instead, Miles has developed his intellect and cleverness. Along the way, he somehow gained a dual identity, his other self being Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenary Fleet. As a secret representative of Barrayar Imperial Security (ImpSec), Miles has commanded the Dendarii on various missions for his homeworld.
Memory opens not long after Miles had nearly been killed, and the process of his survival has resulted in his suffering from occasional seizures, one of which nearly costs the life of a man he and the Dendarii try to rescue. He's kept this from his superiors, thinking he can handle it himself. However, his boss, Simon Illyan, head of ImpSec, eventually finds out, brings Miles home, and fires him. Suddenly, Miles is faced with the prospect of being merely "Lord Vorkosigan", without any hope of the adventures and excitement that Admiral Naismith was privy to.
Not long after, however, Miles learns of a problem in ImpSec: Illyan had once had implanted in his head an eidetic memory chip, with which he had perfect photographic and auditory memory. The chip has begun to malfunction, and eventually has to be removed. Miles forces his way back into ImpSec, and there learns that Illyan's chip was sabotaged. Memory, therefore, is in part a mystery: Who "attacked" Illyan, why did they do it, and how? It's tricky because Illyan had relatively few personal enemies; his enemies were generally the enemies of ImpSec-in-total, so the number of suspects are small and questionable.
Despite this, Memory is very short on science fictional hooks: The basic background is one of simple space opera: Spaceships, a quasi-feudal structure (in which, curiously, women seem to be distinctly second-class citizens), and some nifty but (science fictionally) unremarkable computer technology. Illyan's chip and its breakdown are well-described, but still perhaps somewhat pedestrian.
Given that, of course, Memory's success depends largely on its characters and storytelling. The latter is fine, although I sometimes felt like I was reading a comic book - not a bad thing, as I enjoy comic books, but it's unusual to see similar plotting and scripting styles in prose SF novels.
The characterization is what makes the novel: Miles' grappling with the loss of his Admiral Naismith self is well-presented (although his fall into self-pity perhaps goes on too long). As Miles is turning 30 in this novel, it is rightly treated as a story of Miles' maturation, moving from one stage of his life to another (in a sense, the next major step for a protagonist after a coming-of-age story). In the middle of the Illyan crisis, Miles finds a new role for himself in his world, a way to get the challenges he craves even as he moves beyond the reckless adventurism of youth, as he becomes one of a handful of imperial auditors - essentially trouble-shooters and detectives - for Emperor Gregor.
Bujold deftly handles the necessary challenge of giving Miles the opportunity to get back all that he had and lost, but to her great credit he's not allowed to get it - because, after all, it's not right; he committed a grievous error and must be seen to pay for it. However, he does find another way out, which is perfectly acceptable.
Oh, and I should note that the book seemed perfectly accessible to me, despite coming in after eight or so novels about Miles and his world. The necessary backstory is provided without any fuss.
Despite the fact that this particular novel is largely set on a planet, Memory reads like space opera, and it is a fairly light piece of work in its tone and ambitions. Although it carries off what it sets out to do and is, as I said, entertaining, I don't think it reaches high enough to be a great novel. But hey, that's fine with me.
KomarrBaen Books, PB, © 1998, 366 pp, ISBN #0-671-57808-1
Reviewed October 1999
In his first office assignment as Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to the planet Komarr to investigate a collision which damaged to solar mirror being used to terraform that planet. Komarr is the planet in the star system which Barrayar must have access to in order to get through the wormhole nexus to the rest of the galaxy, and generations ago the Komarrans allowed the Cetagandans to go through and conquer Barrayar. Once independent, Barrayar returned the favor and conquered Komarr, and one of the key figures in that conquest was Aral Vorkosigan, Miles' father, who is sometimes known as a result as "The Butcher of Komarr". Therefore, Komarr is not necessarily a hospitable place for Aral's son.
Miles discovers that there's something going on on Komarr, and that the collision with the solar mirror is part of it, but what "it" is isn't entirely clear. While there, Miles stays with a young Vor couple, Tien and Ekaterin Vorsoisson. It eventually becomes clear that Tien is wrapped up in "it", though not to what extent, and meanwhile Miles finds himself falling in love with Ekaterin.
Tien and Ekaterin do not have a good marriage; Tien is cold and very honor-bound, wrapped up in a genetic illness that he carries with him and refuses to talk about, despite the danger that their son, Nicki, also has it. For various reasons, Tien is a good man with his back to the wall, and Ekaterin is stuck in a miserable marriage, all of which puts Miles in a very uncomfortable position - until he uncovers the people behind the plot and things take a turn for the worse.
The main purpose of Komarr, as far as I can tell, is to let Miles flex his Imperial Auditor muscles, and to introduce the character of Ekaterin, who will obviously play a romantic role in Miles' life for the foreseeable future. (But wait, isn't she already married? Well, yes...) Other than that, it's a fairly routine adventure. Komarr is presented as a fairly normal society which happens to be ruled from Barrayar, but it's not shown to be substantially different culturally. The main plot is not as interesting as that of Cetaganda, but lacks the cultural overtones which made that book so intriguing.
Overall, I find this book to be disappointing, not even up to the level of Memory (which I felt was itself one of the lesser entries in the series). Hopefully things will start really happening in the series in the next book.
A Civil CampaignBaen Books, HC, © 1999, 405 pp, ISBN #0-671-57827-8
Reviewed February 2000
A Civil Campaign feels like the end of a trilogy within the Miles Vorkosigan series: Memory sees Miles discharged from Imperial Security, the job he held throughout his 20s, and be appointed to a new position as an Imperial Auditor. Komarr has Miles embark on his first official mission as an Auditor, where he meets and falls deeply in love with the widow Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Now this latest novel sees Miles pursuing (or, in a twisted way, not pursuing) Ekaterin's affections, which of course he sees in essentially strategic terms, hence the title.
The disappointment here is that none of these novels is really outstanding, especially compared to their predecessors, Cetaganda and Mirror Dance; none is bad, but except for a few scenes, all of them have the feel of being almost "routine" Miles novels, quite remarkable considering the major shifts in Miles' life which they depict.
A Civil Campaign also sees characters from far and wide in Miles' life arrive for another momentous event: Barrayaran King Gregor, Miles' foster-brother, is getting married from a Komarran, to cement the ties between the two worlds. Miles' clone-brother Mark arrives, hoping himself to win the hand of his lover Kareen Koudelka. And Miles' cousin Ivan is up against the dearth of women on Barrayar due to gender selection introduced during their generation, when male children were overwhelmingly favored; he feels rather left out in the midst of all this romance in the air.
Mark - a budding businessman - has also brought along a collection of "butter bugs", insects whose excretions turn out to be quite nutritious - if bland - and since they eat nearly anything, he hopes that they can feed on Barrayaran plants and change them into human-edible food. However, he's up against the fact of what the food actually is (which turns Miles' stomach), the wacky personality of the young scientist he's brought along to research the project, and the grotesque appearance of the bugs themselves. (And if you see a plot thread involving a bunch of butter bugs escaping into the wild, well, then you're thinking the same thing I was when they first appeared.)
The other plot thread involves Barrayaran intrigue: Ivan decides to romance an old flame of his, Donna, who's gotten divorced for the third time, only to find that she's had a sex-change and aspires to occupy her father's seat on the Council of Counts - an issue of no small controversy on the not-entirely-forward-thinking Council. Miles, who is lately filling his own father's prestigious seat on the Council, must deal directly with the possible backlash of this action, vs. the now-Lord Dono's stated commitment to supporting the progressive party to which the Vorkosigans belong.
The first half of the book is basically set-up for all of this, culminating in a fantastically disastrous dinner party which Miles throws, hoping to impress Ekaterin, all the while trying not to look too much like he's trying to romance her, due to the fact that she's been recently widowed. With Miles, Ivan, Dono, the Koudelkas, and a variety of other notables from the series sitting in, the build-up is exquisite: Small things go wrong early, but none of it matters a whit compared to the stunning blow which occurs part-way through dinner, wrecking all of the careful plans of the first half of the book, and setting up everything which has to be resolved in the second half.
As usual, it's an entertaining book, but it never quite seems to have the pressure cooker in which the characters get thrown in the best novels of the series, like The Warrior's Apprentice and Mirror Dance. It does seem to neatly close off issues raised in the previous two books, leaving you wondering what comes next in Miles' life, and it is better than Komarr, especially that dinner party scene. But it's not a high point of the series; very well crafted, but a little too tame.
Diplomatic ImmunityBaen Books, HC, © 2002, 307 pp, ISBN #0-7434-3533-8
Reviewed July 2002
This is the shortest installment in Miles Vorkosigan's life in several years (since Cetaganda, in fact). A year and a half since their wedding, Miles and Ekaterin have finally gone on a honeymoon - to Earth, in fact. The story opens with them returning to Barrayar, where they're diverted to Graf Station, where a trading fleet is being held in the wake of an attack by the escorting Barrayaran fleet on the station. Miles task: To free the fleet without bankrupting the planet.
Graf Station is owned by the Quaddies, the zero-gee-designed humans first introduced in Falling Free, and one of whom was encountered by Miles in a story in Borders of Infinity. It turns out that when regular servicing took longer than expected, and then a security officer from one of the fleet's ships disappeared - leaving behind only a pool of blood - the Barrayaran escorts recalled all their people to their ships. Confusing involving a younger officer led to a raid to bring him back, which led to the raiding party being captured, and then a further raid on the station's security hold. Naturally, this doesn't endear Barrayarans to Quaddies, which is yet another obstacle Miles has to work through.
Miles attacks the problem from the standpoint of the missing security officer, which turns out to be a thread which unravels all kinds of intrigue involving dubious cargo and misunderstood motives.
I was very glad to see the "transitional trilogy" of Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign come to an end, and have Miles embark on his new life in earnest. I was also happy to see that Ekaterin's role in the story was minimized; it's not that I dislike her exactly, but I don't find her a compelling character, and frankly I have a hard time seeing what Miles sees in her.
We're also reintroduced to Miles' old comrade from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, Bel Thorne, last seen in Mirror Dance. Bel's acerbic sense of humor is a welcome presence here, although as with most folks he can barely keep up with Miles.
Diplomatic Immunity is fundamentally a mystery - what happened to the missing officer, and were the events that followed happenstance, or part of a plot? - but it also deals in some depth with culture clash. Barrayarans disdain any genetic modification - considering it a deformity - which hampers their ability to deal with the gengeneered Quaddies, of course. The Quaddies are fully integrated into galactic culture, but distrustful of others to some degree. And there are other races in the book whose cultures have a profound impact on the storyline. Cultural differences have become an essential part of Miles' story and the series is often at its best when tackling them.
Ultimately, Diplomatic Immunity falls well short of being one of the best entries in the series - there isn't enough "there" there, as it were - but it feels like a freer, more natural novel than the previous three (especially Komarr, perhaps the weakest entry in the series), more adventurous, and without the need to try to make Miles' life "go somewhere". I hope it's a harbinger of even better novels yet to come.
The Spirit RingBaen Books, PB, © 1993, 367 pp, ISBN #0-671-57870-7
Reviewed November 2000
This is a very rare Bujold novel in that it doesn't take place in the universe of Miles Vorkosigan. Indeed, it's a fantasy set in medieval Italy!
Prospero Beneforte is a wealthy artisan and magician in the city of Montefoglia. His daughter Fiametta, half-African by his late wife, aids him in his work while aspiring to become a wizard herself. Fiametta is hopelessly in love with Duke Sandrino's captain, Swissman Uri Ochs. Uri sends for his brother, Thur, a miner, to come to Montefoglia to apprentice to Prospero. Before he arrives, however, the neighboring Duke Ferrante arrives to become betrothed to Sandrino's daughter. During the engagement party, Sandrino learns of some black news regarding Ferrante, and in a rage Ferrante kills the Duke and takes power in Montefoglia for himself.
Unfortunately for him, Sandrino's child heir escapes to the nearby monastery overseen by Abbot Monreale, himself a wizard of some skill. And Prospero briefly engages Ferrante and finds that Ferrante has a spirit ring - the spirit of a young girl bound to a ring giving Ferrante great power. Prospero frees the spirit at some cost to himself, and as he and Fiametta flee into the countryside, they are tracked down, and Prospero is slain. Ferrante's men capture his body and it soon becomes clear that Ferrante and his own wizard, Vitielli, mean to create a new spirit ring with the powerful force of Prospero's shade to power it.
Meeting with Thur on the road, Fiametta discovers from a magic ring that he's supposedly her true love. They find that they share a common goal of defeating Ferrante, and they embark on a mission of infiltration and wizardry to try to bring him down.
The Spirit Ring is, well, an okay book. It lacks the strong characterizations and frenetic pacing of the Miles stories, not to mention the tight and clever plotting. It's a little bit love story, a little bit dark adventure, and a little bit setting. What it isn't is a lot of anything in particular. The setting doesn't reveal hitherto unknown and wonderful things about Italy. The plot has a few twists and turns that sometimes work and sometimes don't. And despite some of the gruesome carnage which takes place, the whole thing feels a little too adolescent to take entirely seriously.
It's the characterizations which really hurt, though: Thur is a big, friendly lug, portrayed as being the guy who's nice to have around but who doesn't have a whole lot of smarts. And it's not clear that he does have a whole lot of smarts, though he does have some practical skills. He spends much of the book wrestling with his conscience, wondering if he could have done more, but that wrestling never really comes to a head. There's no catharsis for Thur.
Fiametta grows a little bit into her father's shoes, but the effect is largely for the adventurous climax of the novel, and it's clear she has a long way to grow to truly grow up. She's very self-conscious about the fact that many people perceive her as a child, but even from the beginning it's quite clear that she's mature enough, so her ultimate growth in that way seems undercut.
As an adventure it's good enough, but not nearly as strong as many of the Miles adventures. Overall I can't see just what Bujold was shooting for here, but I don't think she hits the mark. It's not necessary reading.
hits since 13 August 2000.
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