After the whirlwind/almost disaster courtship we witnessed in A Civil Campaign and the frantic days before the actual marriage ceremony portrayed in Winterfair Gifts, Miles and Ekaterin – now Lord and Lady Vorkosigan – are enjoying a belated honeymoon as their first two children are gestating inside uterine replicators back on Barrayar. The time is drawing close to the babies being decanted and the couple is eager to complete the last leg of the journey and go back home for the much-awaited event. Does anything ever go according to plan wherever Miles is concerned? Of course not.
An urgent message from emperor Gregor alerts Miles that his skills as Imperial Auditor are required: a Komarran merchant convoy, with its Barrayaran escort, has been detained on Graf Station due to a confused chain of events, and Miles will need to sort things out as diplomatically as possible and negotiate the ships’ release. Graf Station is the central core of Quaddiespace, the area colonized by genetically engineered Quaddies – humans created with the ability to work in microgravity and therefore sporting four arms instead of two arms and two legs. Introduced in the prequel novel Falling Free, Quaddies appeared in the novella Labyrinth, where Quaddie musician Nicol asked for the Dendarii’s help in escaping from her Jacksonian masters, and she returns here in Diplomatic Immunity, together with another old acquaintance, Bel Thorne, the Betan hermaphrodite discharged from the mercenary fleet after the events of Mirror Dance and now employed as the Graf Station portmaster.
Despite Bel’s help and Nicol’s attempts at facilitation, the situation is far from an easy one for Miles: it all started with the disappearance of a Barrayaran officer of Komarran origins, whose blood was later discovered on the floor of an airlock, followed by the apparent desertion of another officer infatuated with a Quaddie artist. In the latter case, a retrieval squad was sent from the Barrayaran flagship, but partly because of a series of misunderstandings, and partly because of the soldiers’ attitude toward the Quaddies – viewed as abhorred mutants and therefore unworthy of respect or consideration – the operation turned into a huge brawl that forced the local authorities to arrest the Barrayarans and impound every ship in the convoy as collateral for reparations.
What appears at first like an ordinary – if far from easy – diplomatic endeavor and only a slight deviation from their plans, soon becomes a complicated and deadly affair: an assassination attempt in a public place turns Miles’ mission into a much more dangerous task, especially since it’s not apparent who the real target was – Miles himself, Bel Thorne or another Betan hermaphrodite whose precious, perishable cargo might be irretrievably lost if the carrier ship will not get underway soon. And from there, the situation keeps going from bad to worse…
That’s as much as I feel comfortable in sharing about the plot of Diplomatic Immunity, because the story moves through a series of twists and turns and surprising revelations that change the initial light quality of the narrative into a darker, increasingly grim chain of events whose outcome is far from predictable, and where the survival of some characters is quite uncertain. It’s a surprising variation on the usual trend of Miles’ adventures, but it fits quite well – in my opinion – with his new responsibilities as Imperial Auditor and in respect of his more settled existence as a husband and future father. This does not mean that he’s skirting danger or has stopped to rush in where angels fear to tread, but this older Miles Vorkosigan has finally become acquainted with his own mortality and the consequences of his actions, and has stopped behaving like an irresponsible teenager. Much as I enjoyed his old capers, this is a very grown-up Miles, one who has learned to think before acting and to employ his hard-earned wiles in a most effective way.
Which does not mean he has completely shelved the old persona of Admiral Naismith – on the contrary Miles resorts often to the tricks he acquired on the field as a mercenary commander, blending them with the newfound diplomatic skills he’s learning as Auditor with quite effective results. It’s a joy to see how the two halves of his life have come together to give us this more grounded person who is however still capable of great leaps of intuition and amazing, on-the-fly organizational skills.
Story-wise, this novel is both a murder mystery and a slowly unfolding political plot, its narrative pace even tighter than Memory’s, which remains my favorite Vorkosigan novel still. The way Miles has to balance politics, investigative work and – last but certainly not least – survival, makes for some truly breath-stopping moments that keep the reader on the proverbial seat’s edge until the very end. Which is the place where my enthusiasm flagged somewhat because the huge buildup was resolved with Miles out of the loop and being later told the details by Ekaterin: if their points of view had been alternated, as it was the case with Komarr – it would not have been such a disappointment, but this story is narrated from Miles’ p.o.v., and having him out cold at the very end feels like a huge letdown. Just as frustrating as having Ekaterin, who we know for a steadfast, courageous woman, despite her reserved attitude, move on the sidelines and not take a more active role as Miles’ trusted partner. I hoped to see her face whatever adventures awaited them at Miles’ side, but sadly she was given only a supporting role here, even though the single time in which she takes charge of a situation she truly shines and shows her mettle:
[…] you don’t have time to indulge in angst right now. You’re the man who used to rescue hostages for a living. You are not allowed to not get out of this one. So stop worrying about me and start paying attention to what you are doing. Are you listening to me, Miles Vorkosigan? Don’t you dare die! I won’t have it!
On the positive side there is the intriguing depiction of Quaddie society, of the way it evolved and how it interacts with the rest of the galaxy. Equally interesting is the clash with a closed mindset, like that of the Barrayarans, who are still prone to automatically seeing the Quaddies as foes because they are different – even the highly educated admiral in charge of the Barrayaran escort does not hesitate to call them mutants and to look at them with open scorn. Still, there is hope, as is the case of the young officer ready to desert in the name of love, a hope reiterated in Miles’ own words:
We’ve changed. We can change some more. Not instantly, no. But if all the decent folks quit and only the idiots are left to run the show, it won’t be good for the future of Barrayar. About which I do care.
This sentence jumped at me from the page, because it reflects quite keenly on our own times, showing how these novels are much more than simple entertainment and gifting them with an almost timeless quality.