I never made a mystery of my wariness of romantic plots in the stories I read, so A Civil Campaign should not have been such an entertaining find for me but… well, I can’t be surprised anymore by Lois McMaster Bujold’s skill in turning any theme she picks into a delightful read – and this was no exception. After the serious, dramatic issues presented in Memory and, in lesser measure, in Komarr, this new chapter in Miles’ adventures offers some well-deserved levity – at least for the reader, because poor Miles is way in over his head most of the time here, at least where his love life is concerned…
A few months after the events in Komarr, widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson is now living on Barrayar in the home of her uncle and aunt, and trying to forge a new path in her life. Having fallen in love with Ekaterin, but aware that the aftereffects of her unfortunate marriage still weigh heavily on her, Miles plans to woo the young widow in a circuitous way by offering her a gardening contract for Vorkosigan House, which will give him the chance to see her often and slowly gain her trust. While all Miles’ past military stratagems tended to be successful, the Conquest of Ekaterin Vorsoisson does not go according to plan and what ensues is an entertaining comedy of errors that sees our hero scrambling all over the place trying to correct his blunders.
That’s not all, however: A Civil Campaign is both a story focused on many points of view beside Miles’, and a confluence of narrative threads that go from political maneuvering to family problems to social issues, keeping the pace lively and the entertainment level high, even when dealing with more serious topics. This is one of Bujold’s main talents, indeed, since she can write about critical topics without falling into “preaching mode” and therefore managing to convey her message in a most unobtrusive – but quite effective – manner. Take for example the patriarchal orientation of Barrayan society and women’s general lack of agency in it, which prompts one of the secondary characters toward a very unusual choice to defend her brother’s estate from an unworthy relative’s clutches. Or Ekaterin’s bold stance against her family’s attempts at bringing her back into the fold, masked as concern for her well-being. Or again the Koudelkas’ horrified reaction when they learn of how their daughter Kareen enjoyed the sexual freedom allowed on the more liberal Beta Colony. There is a good measure of humor in the presentation of these dilemmas, but never enough to negate their seriousness or to prevent the reader from more in-depth considerations.
Where the only familiar face in Komarr was Miles’, here everyone – and I mean everyone – makes an appearance, turning this novel into a choral endeavor rather than focusing only on our favorite Vorkosigan, and the point of view switches between various characters like Miles, Ekaterin, Ivan or Mark, making the story more interesting by offering different angles on events and by deepening our understanding of what makes these characters tick. Of course the main focus is on Miles’ campaign of conquest of Ekaterin, and I don’t remember seeing him more agitated than here – which knowing him is saying a LOT – where he goes from heights of hope to pits of depression at the drop of a hat. Despite his physical shortcomings, Miles never lacked feminine company: the women Miles encountered in his adventures were fascinated by him – or rather by his alter ego Admiral Naismith – and actively pursued him, establishing more or less durable liaisons with mutual satisfaction. But none of them – including his first hopeless love Elena Bothari – wanted to relocate on Barrayar, and now that he forever left the Admiral behind to be just Miles Vorkosigan, he needs someone who will accept him for what he is and accept to live on the planet he loves. I believe this is the reason he pursues Ekaterin with something approaching desperation, as if he saw her as the last opportunity to find a woman to share the rest of his life with: the convolute plan he devises, however, is undermined by this frantic eagerness and ultimately clashes with Ekaterin’s desire to become her own woman first, before choosing to be part of a couple again. There is a very enlightening thought that shows with painful clarity the state of her mind on the subject:
When the straps of her vows had been released at last by [her husband’s] death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. I did not know what a prison I was in, till I was freed.
And it also explains her apparently out-of-proportion reaction to Miles’ ill-timed proposal in the course of the infamous dinner party that is the novel’s centerpiece – the one where the equally infamous butterbugs make their public appearance for the first time. Recalling that scene I now smile indulgently, but I remember laughing out loud in the course of that first read…
Apart from Miles and Ekaterin’s sentimental woes, there is much more to capture the interest in A Civil Campaign, and two of the recurring characters gain a better definition here, thanks to some truly delightful scenes. One is emperor Gregor, a man who might be the prisoner of his own role, true, but is able to balance that with the true friendships he enjoys – particularly Miles’: here he somewhat pays all that forward by helping Ekaterin’s distressed child in one of the most touching scenes of the novel, and throughout the story he also shows a brand of gentle humor that managed to enhance my appreciation of his character. The other is Ivan, Miles’ cousin, the one who is always unfairly called “Ivan-you-idiot” and instead hides a fine intellect and a finer soul under the guise of the die-hard womanizer: I’ve become progressively fonder of Ivan through this revisitation, and I deeply feel his unease at being hemmed in by his dragon mother and her other Vor cronies – not to mention that I look forward to reviewing, though this new viewpoint, the novel that will see him as the central character.
A special mention must be reserved for Cordelia and Aral, Miles’ parents, whose steadfastness helps ease the general turmoil – Cordelia through her Betan common sense and barbed wit, Aral through the wisdom he acquired in his many years on the political scene: I always enjoyed them both as characters from the very start, but here I loved both their amused involvement in the whole mess and the way they act in concert, as if sharing a telepathic communication or as if they were, as it’s defined as some point, “living in each other’s skin”. There is a particularly touching moment in which Miles seeks his father’s counsel in respect of some slanderous lies being circulated, and Aral replies with a couple of unforgettable sentences:
“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”
“Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.”
In this choral novel, more than ever, I found a concentration of the elements I enjoy in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series: wonderful, believable characters; thought-provoking situations that still impact today’s social issues; and a mix of drama and humor that always feels very balanced. And if the troubles always get resolved in the best of ways, if good triumphs over evil and the good guys always end up on top – belying what happens in reality – it hardly matters, because the entertainment value in these stories wins over any other consideration.