I make no mystery of the appeal exerted by Miles’ character on my imagination, to the point that I chose not to read the books in this series that did not deal with him either directly or indirectly. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I greatly enjoyed reading about his cousin Ivan’s adventures in this novel…
What makes the difference here is that reviewing the books in internal chronological order allowed me to glimpse Ivan Vorpatril’s journey of personal growth, and to understand that while he’s certainly not as flashy and over-the-top as his more famous cousin, he’s a delightful character that has been wrongly underestimated. All throughout the series, young Vorpatril has been too often addressed as “Ivan-you-idiot” by people who refused to see his insouciant attitude as camouflage rather than a lack of wits or capabilities, and that the young man understood very early on in his life that having a spotlight focused on oneself also makes said individual a target, and in the Barrayaran political game that can have deadly consequences. That’s the main reason Ivan did his best to stay out of the limelight and never shared Miles’ addiction to adrenaline, preferring a more unobtrusive job as an admiral’s aide and excelling at it – albeit quietly – for his intuitive and organizational abilities.
All of the above somewhat changes, however, once Ivan gets embroiled in one of ImpSec’s schemes handled by By Vorrutyer, one of the organization’s covert operatives: Ivan is tasked with contacting a young woman who has raised ImpSec’s interest because of possible irregularities in her identity, and her equally possible involvement in something dangerous, or suspicious, or both. Things never go as planned, of course, and Ivan finds himself saddled with not one but two fugitives running for their lives: the young woman in question, Tej, and her companion Rish, an exotic bio-engineered humanoid with blue skin. The two were part of a minor House from Jackson Whole that fell under a hostile takeover, and they might be the only survivors of the clan, so that there are both assassins on their heels and Komarran authorities trying to understand what’s going on. To cut a long story short, Ivan ends up hastily marrying Tej to prevent her arrest by Komarran immigration officials and brings her and Rish back home with him to Barrayar.
From here on the novel takes a distinct romantic comedy flavor, whose basic ingredient is the slow falling-in-love of two people who know nothing about each other and are further separated by secrets and unspoken truths. The mix is also complicated by the appearance of Tej’s so far presumed-dead family members, who are the perfect picture of the Relatives From Hell, and by their plot to retrieve some buried wealth that will finance their revenge and reclamation schemes. Add to that a number of old Cetagandan connections and a very bored Simon Illyan, who longs for some of the excitement of his old job, and it’s not difficult to imagine a story filled with the usual mayhem we might expect from one of Miles’ capers, but without Miles – even though he does put in a guest appearance.
If the sequence of events keeps being entertaining, and touches on many interesting details about the Cetagandan occupation of Barrayar or on unknown facts dating back to the Vordarian pretendership – without forgetting the complicated heist concocted by Tej’s family – the real focus is on Ivan and Tej’s characters, showcasing the similarities in attitude and outlook that end up bringing them together and turning the hurried marriage of convenience into the real thing. Both Tej and Ivan are burdened with families that demand much from them and keep reminding them of how disappointing they prove: her veritable tribe of relatives is composed by people with exceptional skills in various fields, and all of them look on Tej as the proverbial black sheep since she always preferred to forge a more average kind of life for herself; Ivan has to shoulder only his formidable mother, but Lady Alys’ requirements for her son – that he be a pillar of Barrayaran society, upholding the family’s reputation and, above all, that he finally marries and settles down – have always felt to him like an ever-constricting noose he did his best to escape. It seems almost inevitable that the two of them acknowledge this common ground – despite the inevitable sequence of misunderstandings and half-truths that plague the relationship – which ends up being the stepping stone from which appreciation, mutual attraction and ultimately love originate.
One of the true delights in this book comes from the realization that Ivan, despite his checkered past (and present…) as a ladies’ man, is basically a very nice, thoughtful person, one who might have flittered from one woman to the next as the proverbial bee from flower to flower, but he never did so callously or with the intent of hurting the other party. There is a moment when he says, with sincere regret,
[…] nobody ever notices that lots and lots of girlfriends entail lots and lots of breakups. Enough to learn all the road signs by heart.
and it’s in that moment we perceive his unspoken loneliness and his desire to find a woman able to complete him: that he finds her by pure chance and following an impulse that seems taken directly from Miles’ book of stratagems is what constitutes the fun of the story and prevents the romantic angle from overshadowing the adventure and humor components of the story.
As far as the average novel in the Vorkosigan Saga goes, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance looks more sedate and drama-free than its brethren: there are no intergalactic wars to be stopped, or evil villains to be overthrown; there is not even any hint of political unrest on Barrayar, where – as we are informed – people have stopped to count time from the latest bloodbath or uprising and now measure it from Gregor’s ascent to the throne. Still, it’s a delightful mix of comedic and adventurous elements that ends being quite satisfying, in pure Lois McMaster Bujold style. And it’s more than enough.