For the first time in this series, the narrative perspective does not belong uniquely to Miles, because he shares it – in alternating chapters – with a new character whose point of view on Miles allows us readers to see him in a somewhat different, if equally intriguing, light.
It’s been a few months since the events shown in Memory, and the newly-minted Lord Auditor Vorkosigan departs for Komarr together with senior Auditor Vorthys to investigate an accident that partially destroyed the planet’s soletta array, the orbiting mirror assembly that supplies the planet with the light and warmth its meager sun cannot provide. While the older man is tasked with the inspection of the mechanics of the accident, which claimed several lives, Miles, thanks to his former ImpSec training, researches the possibilities of human mischief, since it’s not yet clear if what happened originated from mere fatality or planned sabotage.
During their stay on-planet the two Auditors are guests of Vorthys’ niece Ekaterin Vorsoisson, and it does not take long for Miles to detect the tense undercurrents between the woman and her husband Etienne, the administrator of the Komarran terraforming project. Etienne, an intractable, overbearing individual, has been diagnosed with a genetic degenerative disorder, but being a Barrayaran through and through he’s not only loath to admit openly to the mutation, but keeps delaying the cure that would solve his problem and also safeguard his and Ekaterin’s son Nikki from the same fate. As we meet her, Ekaterin has all but buried her personality and desires under the double weight of fear for her family’s future and Etienne’s mood swings: love for her husband has long gone, but she keeps faith to her marriage vows out of a firm belief in her duty as a Vor.
Love was long gone, in her. She got by on a starvation diet of loyalty these days.
In the course of the investigation it becomes clear that there is much more than accident or sabotage at play and as the scattered pieces of the puzzle slowly come together into an ominous picture, some unpalatable truths come to the fore, giving Ekaterin the strength to take back control of her life and to show her true mettle, the spirit she has suppressed for so long. And of course Miles finds himself powerfully attracted to this woman who seems so different from the warrior type represented by Elena Bothari, Elli Quinn or Taura, but possesses her own kind of fighting spirit he cannot fail to respond to.
The mystery at the center of this novel is certainly an intriguing one, and it’s also quite different from the usual “dastardly plot” Miles faces in all his adventures because it touches on the theme of freedom from oppression (either actual or simply perceived) and paints the antagonists in shades of gray rather than in starker, less hazy tones. Still, the best part of Komarr comes from the characterization, something Bujold knows how to exploit for the best: for once Miles shares the spotlight with another equally intriguing character, and it would not be wrong to say that this novel concerns more Ekaterin’s journey than Miles’, even though here we see him in a new, different light – a more sedate, more thoughtful person who is learning to balance the power of his Auditor’s role with his inner sense of fairness.
Ekaterin Vorsoisson is, at the beginning, a woman trapped into an abusive marriage – not in the physical sense, but rather in the psychological one: her husband, in perfect old-Vor fashion, is the supreme ruler of the household, and the kind of person who likes to exert at home the kind of iron control he lacks in his public life. Yet Ekaterin is not a victim because the choice of staying with Etienne is based on personal honor, on duty perceived not as a burden but as a responsibility, so that what might look like meekness requires instead a great inner strength, the same strength she is able to draw on once she discovers that honor and duty were flowing in one direction only. That’s when the real Ekaterin, the one that was subsumed by the ever-compliant wife, takes back control of her existence and takes action: at first only where her personal life is concerned, and later when though decisions are required of her. If I had not already admired her at that point, I would have come around seeing how she was able to save herself instead of waiting for the proverbial knight to come to her rescue.
As for Miles, now that he has dismissed the role of Admiral Naismith and can be only himself, Lord Vorkosigan, he looks less hyperactive, more at ease in his own skin: Auditor duties still require the application of his keen intelligence, and the mystery of the partially destroyed array is the kind of challenge he enjoys, although he looks far more grounded than in his days with the Dendarii – days he still recalls with fondness but with no apparent lingering nostalgia, understanding they were only a part of the path that brought him where he is now.
“I’ve made a lot of grievous mistakes in my life, getting here, but . . . I wouldn’t trade my journey now. I’d be afraid of making myself smaller.”
Something is still missing in this picture, though, a woman willing to share his love for Barrayar and the life he intends to forge there for himself: Elena wanted only to fly from her culture’s restrictions, and Elli would never accept a planet-bound life, so that when Miles senses Ekaterin’s basic loneliness resonate with his own, it seems unavoidable that he would be attracted to this seemingly unattainable woman. For someone like me who tends to look with wariness on romantic entanglements, the slowly growing attachment between Ekaterin and Miles is a joy to behold, because it comes in small, tentative increments and still holds a great deal of uncertainty from both of them: the way Bujold develops this new path in Miles’ life feels very natural, and totally believable, especially since it stems from the acknowledgement of a kindred soul in need of support. I like to think that Miles responds not to any perceived weakness on Ekaterin’s part, but instead to the hidden well of strength he knows is there.
You have just experienced destruction; I know survival. Let me help.
Once again Lois McMaster Bujold has achieved a charming blend of a sci-fi environment with human interest angles and masterful characterizations that turn this new direction in Miles’ life into an adventure as intriguing as any of his previous escapades.