Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: WINTERFAIR GIFTS, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

Unlike other offerings in the Vorkosigan series, this novella is light fare indeed – more of an interlude than anything else, its main goal to feature Miles’ and Ekaterin’s wedding and, probably, to announce the beginning of a new phase in the life of our energetic main character.

What makes it different from the other stories in the cycle is that it’s narrated entirely from the down-to-Earth point of view of Armsman Roic, the youngest addition to the Vorkosigan security staff, which lends an interesting flavor to the events, even though it’s hardly enough to turn this novella into anything approaching the compelling involvement of the rest of the series.

With Miles’ and Ekaterin’s marriage just two days away, the preparations have reached a fevered stage: old friends are arriving to witness the ceremony, Vorkosigan House is a whirlwind of activity – including the creation of an ice garden on the premises – and Miles is even more frenzied than usual. The last batch of guests includes some of his closest friends: Elena and her husband, together with their baby who has been named Cordelia (a very nice touch, that…); former pilot Arde Mayhew, the very first recruit in Miles’ crazy scheme that gave birth to the Dendarii mercenaries; and Sergeant Taura, the genengineered super-soldier Miles rescued from a Jackson’s Whole laboratory.

To avoid unpleasant incidents between Taura and his fellow Barrayarans, who still bristle at the mere hint of mutation, Miles assigns Armsman Roic as Taura’s escort: daunted at first by the impressive young woman, Roic discovers that under the fearsome appearance there is a delightful person and the two become quite close as they first investigate and then foil an assassination attempt – one I will leave out of this review, so you can discover it on your own…

As I said, Winterfair Gifts feels somewhat flimsy, if compared with its brethren, even the shorter stories like The Mountains of Mourning, but on the other hand it offers a few character insights that more than make up for the plot’s thinness, and the more memorable one comes from Taura herself: we know that her genetic makeup did not provide for a long life since she was tailored as a soldier and her life expectancy was not high to begin with, so her attitude toward life – to live each day to its full potential, and cherish every moment without regrets – is both refreshing and poignant at the same time.  I always liked Taura since her first appearance on stage, but here she becomes a fully-rounded character, and a charming one.

Roic is an interesting person as well, and probably the representative of the “new Barrayarans”, people whose roots are still firmly set into their homeworld’s traditions but who are also ready to accept diverse points of view and to embrace the differences they encounter: to me he looks like the hope for a more open future, the kind of future people like Aral and Cordelia – and Miles – have been striving for all their lives. He’s young and somewhat naïve, but he’s also quite flexible, and it’s a joy to see how his outlook changes in the course of this story.

And last but not least, Ekaterin: to avoid spoiling the little mystery at the core of this story I can’t share the details that lead to her delightful act of defiance against the dangers that might await her as Miles’ wife, but her declaration of courage shows how far she’s come from the disheartened woman we met in Komarr, and how assertive she can be when the situation demands it.

As usual, Lois McMaster Bujold can offer a captivating story even within the confines of a shorter work, and if this one feels a little unsubstantial, it’s still a joy to spend some time with these characters and this world.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

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.

My Rating:

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Sci-Fi Month 2019: KOMARR, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

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.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

Sci-Fi Month 2019: MEMORY, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

There is an interesting phrase about having to deal with one’s past that mentions mistakes which sooner or later come back to bite us in the behind, and that’s what happens to Miles in this novel, one of my favorites in the saga and the consolidation of the story’s more serious tone that started to appear in Mirror Dance, the previous book.

After being mortally wounded, cryo-frozen, misplaced and finally rescued in the course of the latest Dendarii operation, Miles is back in his position as Admiral Naismith with the mercenary outfit, but all is not well with him: an unexpected side effect of  the emergency cryo-freezing left him plagued with seizures which occur at unpredictable intervals, and during one of these episodes he accidentally fires on the person his team rescued, causing a grievous wound and making it clear that the seizures are not a passing phenomenon he can blithely ignore any longer.  Back on Barrayar, Miles doctors his report to intelligence’s chief Illyan to make the accident look like an equipment malfunction, but his lie is discovered and Illyan forces him to resign – on medical terms, to avoid the disgrace that the dishonorable lie would have entailed.

Lost and rudderless, Miles faces a time of bleak despair from which he comes out only when Illyan starts to show worrisome mental symptoms that soon turn out as the result of sabotage to his memory chip: on the emperor’s orders, Miles heads the investigation and applies his unique skills to uncovering the complicated plot, while finding a new channel for his energies and intelligence and a new lease on life – not in the direction he had dreamed of in his youth, but an interesting one nonetheless.

Memory is a book with many themes, and if the more prominent one turns out to be the investigation on Illyan’s mysterious illness, the character development angle – both for Miles and for the other players – offers many fascinating opportunities for thought.

Over the years, Miles has found a way to compensate his physical inadequacies by building himself the persona of Admiral Naismith, the charismatic leader of the Dendarii mercenaries, a fictional creation which allowed him to show the power of mind over matter, that a crippled body does not equate with a crippled mind. The success of the mercenary fleet – secretly enrolled by the Barrayaran government for all sorts of covert operations – has also allowed Miles Vorkosigan to obtain the recognition he craved at home, even though these ventures are classified, because the people who matter to him, like his father, emperor Gregor, and so on, are aware of his exploits. But as the novel opens, Miles is painfully aware that his body might be betraying him, and that losing the Dendarii, losing Naismith, he will be left with very little indeed.

Naismith had all the life. But Naismith was dead now—killed by that needle grenade on Jackson’s Whole after all, though the double-take of realization had required a full year to run its course.

And when Miles, no matter the identity her wears, finds himself in a corner, his first reaction is to change the rules of the game, to try and cheat the odds – only this time the trick backfires and he loses everything. What follows is a very hard segment to read, because we see Miles in such a depth of despair as we never saw him before – not when he failed his first application at the Academy, not when he lost Bothari – and witnessing his stunned withdrawal from everything and everyone was actually painful, the only ray of light in the situation offered by Ivan’s intervention when he bodily drags him out of it (and I’m growing ever fonder of Ivan this time around…)

The real change, however, occurs when  Illyan’s trouble surfaces and Miles launches into the investigation with the usual unstoppable energy and a good dose of empathy and compassion: the damage to the memory chip is plaguing Illyan with both a cascade of recollections from the past and a reset of his awareness every few minutes, in something that sounds painfully close to the manifestations of Alzheimer; Miles knows intimately what it means to find himself alone and lost, with no clues about one’s identity, and the way ImpSec is dealing with its chief’s illness – a way not so dissimilar from the one once employed in mental hospitals – spurs him into angered action.

He remembered the lingering nightmare of his own bout of post-cryo-revival amnesia […] was Illyan experiencing something like that right now? Or something even more grotesque? Miles had been lost among strangers. Illyan seemed lost among what should have been friends.

It’s easy to forget your own problems when you deal with someone else’s, and when the investigation starts in earnest the story moves back into more familiar territory, with Miles running all over the place subverting traditions and disrupting dastardly plans: the mystery section of Memory is so well crafted that even though I know now who the villain was I was able to follow the progression from clue to clue with the same breathless anticipation of the first time, enjoying the way those hints were presented and their careful positioning in the narrative flow.  There is also the delightful bonus of observing the conversations between Miles and a partly recovered Illyan: both of them have experienced the deconstruction of what they used to be, and have to find a way to… reinvent themselves. To see them sharing those thoughts not as superior officer and subordinate, but as equals, is a heart-warming experience that taught me much about them as people, and I am in awe of Bujold’s skills in these wonderfully intimate moments.

Still, the best part of the overall story is the discovery that identity does not make the person, but rather is the product of what that person is, of their values, their moral code. By helping Illyan, Miles ends up helping himself, finally understanding who and what he truly is: there is a moment when he struggles under a temptation so strong that the merest nudge might cause him to fall, since he’s offered back everything he thought lost, but the recent experiences have changed him, he has now transitioned into true adulthood and acknowledged that some prices are too high, no matter the prize one might get in the end.

“The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.”

This acknowledged integrity plays an important role in Miles’ future occupation, one that does not come out of the blue but is presented with almost unobtrusive nonchalance and yet requires the severance of the ties with his past: he says goodbye to Quinn, having accepted that she will never choose to be a planet-bound Lady Vorkosigan; he leaves the Dendarii in her capable hands; and most important he decides to move into his grandfather’s suite of rooms: no longer in awe of the old man, no longer needing to prove something to him, Miles feels ready to forge his own way, not without a spark of his old cheekiness when he tells Aral:

“I am unprecedented.”

And his father replies:

“This is not news, Miles.”

We learned this a long time ago, indeed…   🙂

 

My Rating:

 

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Sci-Fi Month: MIRROR DANCE, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

So far, the books in the Vorkosigan Saga have been a mix of delightful fun, adventure and humor, but with Mirror Dance we step into serious drama and darkness, especially darkness of the soul, which imparts a new direction to the overall saga.  What’s more, this is one of the most engrossing novels of the series and, together with Memory, the next in line, remains my favorite of the whole Vorkosigan arc.

In the previous installment we met Mark, Miles’ clone-brother, created to fulfill a long-standing Komarran plan of vengeance, and at the end of the book the two siblings had parted ways still uncertain about how to deal with each other, although Miles had offered Mark a place on Barrayar as his brother, as part of the family.    In Mirror Dance Mark concocts a plan to save the Bharaputra clones on Jackson’s Whole, some fifty individuals created to offer a new body to various Jacksonian potentates: through a difficult procedure, the old brains would be implanted in the new bodies, offering the… wearers a new lease on life, while the clones’ brains are destined to be discarded as so much trash.

Having been cloned himself, and subjected to ruthless conditioning to impersonate Miles, Mark feels strongly about these innocents, so he poses as his progenitor and manages to depart for Jackson’s Whole with a Dendarii ship and crew for a rescue mission.  Back from a short vacation, Miles rejoins the fleet just in time to discover the scam and run in pursuit of his wayward ‘brother’.  Both missions encounter unexpected difficulties and in the course of a heated battle Miles is grievously wounded and put in cryo-stasis, only for the Dendarii to lose his cryo-pod during the hasty retreat. The frantic search for the missing Miles becomes then a convoluted dance of mirrors and deceptions while the situation becomes even more complicated by the intervention of other Jacksonian crime lords intent on exacting their revenge on Miles for his previous exploits.

The intricate, harrowing plot of Mirror Dance is a breathless succession of events where tension rarely lets up, laced as it is with uncertainties and mind-bending twists, and as such it would be an engrossing adventure read, but its real value lies in the issue of identity: for Mark as he tries to discover who he really is on his own, and for Miles as he struggles to regain the memories he’s temporarily lost after the cryo stasis.

(Mark)

I wanted to be Lord Mark. I just wanted to be Lord Mark. […] I just wanted to be human.

(Miles)

“I was a smart-ass little bastard who could think rings around the opposition, and prove it time after time. Without the brains . . .” Without the brains I’m nothing.

There is a segment – a long, excruciating segment – in which the reader doesn’t know what happened to Miles, if he’s still alive, and it’s no spoiler to confirm that he truly is, since the saga continues to feature him, but still not seeing him for that long stretch of pages, knowing nothing about his fate in such a dangerous place, is a very troubling experience and one that shows us how fond we have grown of this almost-crazy, hyperactive individual in the course of the previous books.

Yet Miles’ absence is what helps showcasing Mark’s struggle for acceptance, recognition and individuality, and his journey from tool to person. It’s not an easy road, of course, and it’s paved with a lot of pain, even physical pain as he’s subjected to horrific torture at the hands of Baron Ryoval, in one of the darkest and most disturbing narrative segments of the series. Here is where Bujold displays her skills by not focusing morbidly on the actual details but showing their effects on Mark’s psyche, and the remarkable, heart-wrenching way he finds to cope with them.  At that point I had already developed some sympathy for him, forgiving him for the foolish inciting event that caused Miles’ plight, because his desperate will to do something, to correct his mistakes, had turned him from an imperfect copy of the original into a worthy individual. But that part of the story made me feel for him with the same intensity that until now I had reserved only for Miles, and probably that process started during Mark’s sojourn on Barrayar where Cordelia and Aral’s acceptance of the young man as their other son managed to melt part of Mark’s defensive barriers – and mine towards him as well.

The Barrayar section of the story is both a much-needed interlude after the stress of the botched clone rescue operation, and the welcome return of Cordelia and Aral in person. They have always lurked in the background before, as the source components of Miles’ character, but here we finally reconnect with them while learning more about who they are through the way they deal with the possibility of having lost Miles while gaining another son. I love the conversations between them that show the differences in personality and outlook in respect of this fully-grown, unexpected son: Cordelia, in full Betan mode, is as always open to the possibilities in front of them, while Aral is more reserved and it’s easy to see how he might unconsciously believe that opening his heart to Mark could be a betrayal of Miles; it’s only when Cordelia urges him to get to know him better that he relents and gives himself permission to accept this strange… gift.

And they are not the only ones, so that this growing “circle of acceptance” seems to bolster Mark’s faith in himself as an individual – not just Miles’ copy – and ultimately compels him to lead the so-far-fruitless search for his brother, not so much as atonement for his own mistakes but because he’s starting to learn what having a family means, and he understands that this family will not be complete without Miles.   It’s a very emotional moment in a story where there are many others – real emotions wrought by a very skilled hand, like Mark’s discovery of a drunken, crying Ivan who realizes how much he misses his cousin, or the warmly sedated acceptance by Emperor Gregor, a man who knows what it means being alone among others.  Or again, Miles’ reaction as memory comes crashing back and his first thought goes to dead Sergeant Bothari: I confess my throat constricted then, as my admiration for Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing went up another notch.

It would not be far-fetched to say that in Mirror Dance both brothers face a trial by fire that leaves them profoundly changed, closer to each other and ready to establish mutual trust, and at the same time separates them as individuals, not just in physical appearance but where it most counts, in the mind.  As Mark muses at some point:

Miles would, demonstrably, lay down his life for his brother, but he did have a notable tendency to try to subsume the people around him into extensions of his own personality. I am not your annex. I am your brother. Yes. Mark rather fancied they were both going to be able to keep track of that, now.

They are truly brothers now, similar but different, and that’s the reason Mark can finally think about going home as they start their journey back to Barrayar.

Outstanding.

 

My Rating:

 

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Sci-Fi Month 2019: BROTHERS IN ARMS, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

In the trend that has characterized the last few books in the series, this novel is again set on a different planet and this time it’s none other than Old Mother Earth: after the successful rescue mission on Dagoola IV, Miles and the Dendarii have suffered heavy casualties and serious damage from the enraged Cetagandans, who are hell-bent on taking revenge on Admiral Naismith for the recent defeat.  Seeking a safe harbor and a well-stocked repair dock, Miles lands on Earth – now far enough away from the more travelled space-lanes as to offer a relatively more secure hideout. And what’s even more important, the Barrayaran embassy in London should be able to release the much-needed funds required for ship repairs and medical expenses.

There is a double surprise waiting for Miles at the embassy, however: Captain Duv Galeni, the local head of Security, is a Komarran national – one of the new generation of officers that should serve as a bridge between the troubled past and the future for both Komarr and Barrayar – and he is suspicious of Miles’ double role and the real nature of the mercenary army at his command; and Ivan Vorpatril, Miles’ handsome womanizing cousin has been stationed on Earth under Galeni’s command.  A series of misunderstandings, coupled with a strange and worrisome silence from Barrayar on the matter of the money needed for repairs and the troops’ back pay, sees Miles running every which way even more frantically than usual (and we all know what usual entails for our beloved hero…), while he has to juggle his two personas – Lord Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith – without the customary distance he’s able to enjoy, to the point that the resemblance between them is noticed and commented on, causing him a great deal of panic where his cover identity is concerned.

Intrigue and complications seem to follow Miles like a shadow, and there is a great deal of both here: his ambiguous status as Lieutenant Vorkosigan, low in rank but supported by family affiliation, always made navigating the chain of command a subtle balancing act, while now the presence of Galeni as a superior officer adds a factor of uncertainty because of the edgy relationship between Barrayar and conquered Komarr and Miles’ doubts about Galeni’s trustworthiness – doubts that the delayed funds do little to dissipate.  And things get even more complicated once one of Miles’ bright ideas to explain the physical resemblance between himself and Admiral Naismith turns against him in one of the most surprising twists of the story….

As is to be expected from any novel featuring Miles Vorkosigan, Brothers in Arms quickly turns into a breakneck adventure where devious plots, daring escapades and political expediency blend seamlessly into a sequence of events that might look unbelievable even for this genre if it were not for Bujold’s admirable control of pacing and timing and her unfailing balance between comedy and more serious issues.  The latter are taking up more space of late and adding more facets and depth to the characters, especially that of Miles: as Admiral Naismith, he acknowledges the weight of responsibility for the people working under his command, and he wants the best for them – be it timely pay or the medical attention some of them badly need. He has come a long way from the swashbuckling youth who landed by accident into a mercenary outfit and took command of it with bare-faced boldness and deceit, and he feels the burden of every life lost, of every grievous wound incurred, especially after what happened on Dagoola, where he witnessed the bloody consequences of war without the safe distance allowed by giving orders from a ship’s bridge.

As Miles Vorkosigan, he still feels the need to prove himself but it’s less pressing than before: he has demonstrated his value, either as himself or as Naismith, and knows that the people who matter are aware of his accomplishments – just as they are aware he’s a loose cannon, but that’s another matter entirely… Yet he still wants – needs – desperately to belong in Barrayaran society, to offer his contribution as a Vor, and to that end he asks Elli Quinn, his executive officer, to marry him: Elli is a wonderful character, strong, capable, determined, and above all able to appreciate Miles for his keen mind and generous soul rather than for his not-so-athletic body, and while she finally represents the love interest he so far lacked, she is certainly not Vor-lady material.  I was not surprised Miles proposed: Elli shares many traits with his mother Cordelia and it’s easy to see how he might have thought that if a Betan Survey captain could mold herself into the role of a Vor countess, Elli could follow on the same path – but Quinn has other goals and priorities and above all the clarity of mind to understand that she could never adapt to Barrayaran society.

“And so you want to maroon me for the rest of my life on a, sorry, backwater dirtball that’s just barely climbed out of feudalism, that treats women like chattel—or cattle—that would deny me the use of every military skill I’ve learned in the past twelve years from shuttle docking to interrogation chemistry . . . I’m sorry. I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a saint, and I’m not crazy.”

For the second time in his life Miles has fallen for a woman who rejects everything Barrayar stands for, and as it happened with Elena Bothari it is Barrayar that rises as a barrier between them.  Cordelia was right in saying that it’s a planet that eats its children, in that it requires many sacrifices of them, and here this harsh truth becomes even more plain when Miles reveals the reason his parents choose not to have other children, because cruel Barrayar would have forced them to reject Miles as the imperfect one, unworthy of one day becoming Count Vorkosigan, in favor of an able-bodied, untainted sibling.   This parental choice certainly increased Miles’ chances for his future role, but also enhanced his essential loneliness, a trait that often surfaces in his most maudlin moments and is expressed in the sentence “I wanted a brother” he utters at some point – which presents some intriguing possibilities given the huge surprise at the core of this book, one that will certainly have fascinating repercussions in the future.

Miles’ adventures would not be the same without the presence of his long-suffering cousin Ivan, and it’s only right to focus on him for a while, because like other characters he reaches better definition here in Brothers in Arms, not only as Miles’ unwilling partner in crime, but as someone who only plays at being foolish, to shift attention away from himself – and in Barrayaran society that might very well be a survival trait.  There are several instances in which Ivan replies with pointed quips which reveal his sharp intelligence under the fatuous façade, but the more interesting moments are those in which he recalls the outlandish childhood escapades in which Miles was the mastermind, while Ivan and Elena unfailingly ended up in trouble – if anyone wondered how Miles came by his present outrageous schemes, they need look no farther than that shared childhood….

With this novel, Bujold takes us into the more complicated, more profound part of her saga, where serious issues take precedence over happy-go-lucky adventures, and while the entertainment factor of the story remains the same, the complexities of plot and characterization become more fascinating, and I truly look forward to revisiting the next books.

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com
Reviews

Sci-Fi Month 2019: THE BORDERS OF INFINITY, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

This is the more serious story in the series so far, one where even the trademark Miles Vorkosigan wit fizzles down in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.

As the novella opens, Miles, together with a small group of people, is being herded by Cetagandan guards into a prison camp: the other inmates are all Marilacan troops, captured in the course of the war between the two planetary governments, and for a while one might wonder what Miles is doing here, and how he was captured – but since Marilac and Barrayar are allies and our favorite Vor heads a mercenary fleet, it’s easy to form an idea about the how and why…

Dagoola IV is a barely habitable planet chosen by the Cetagandans for their POW camp, one where no guards or constant patrols are needed because the inmates are held under a transparent dome where light shines constantly and there are no privacy or means of escape. What Miles finds is an extremely deteriorated situation: the strongest prisoners have banded together to prey on the weakest, and the appalling living conditions have caused most of them to regress to a more primitive, more animalistic state.  Miles, due to his very unprepossessing appearance, is immediately targeted by the worst local bullies, and finds himself literally naked, having been robbed of the few items allowed to each prisoner – clothes, sleeping mat and drinking cup – and savagely beaten.  Having made contact with an inmate who seems slightly deranged, the only one willing to talk to him, Miles starts with him on what turns out to be a recruiting operation of sorts, that will ultimately bring his plan to fruition – because of course he has a plan 🙂

As foolishly over the top as this adventure goes, in pure Miles Vorkosigan style, there is a definite darker side to the story, a pall of despair and hopelessness that is not completely lifted even in the end, when success smiles on the seemingly impossible enterprise despite the inevitable price to be paid.  The darkness comes from understanding how easy human nature can be debased when the conditions are right – or rather wrong – and from the realization that what is happening on Dagoola might very well be a sort of Cetagandan experiment, one that this time does not focus on gene engineering but rather on psychological manipulation.  The same exquisite care we saw the Cetagandans apply to the creation of their perfect gardens with singing frogs and artfully arranged flowers can be seen here in its more twisted, more blood-chilling expression: a transparent cage in which the captives are used more or less like rats in a maze, with a few calibrated stimuli applied to elicit the desired responses.  It’s worth relaying Miles’ musings about the whole setup:

Subtle torture . . . Miles reviewed the Interstellar Judiciary Commission’s rules for the treatment of POW’s, to which Cetaganda was a signatory. So many square meters of space per person, yes, they were certainly supplied with that. No prisoner to be solitarily confined for a period exceeding twenty-four hours—right, no solitude in here except by withdrawal into madness. No dark periods longer than twelve hours, that was easy, no dark periods at all, the perpetual glare of noon instead. No beatings—indeed, the guards could say with truth that they never laid a hand on their prisoners. They just watched, while the prisoners beat each other up instead. Rapes, even more strictly forbidden, doubtless handled the same way.

In a similar situation, it’s not so strange to see how even Miles falls prey to pessimism and despair, and there is a brief moment when it might seem as if he’s headed in the same direction as other inmates who have lost all hope and given up on survival – or escape. Not the kind of attitude we saw in him before, even in the worst circumstances, and that, more than anything else, can give us the measure of what the prisoners endured in that camp.

If we need some suspension of disbelief to accept the fact that a lone person – a small, naked, defenseless individual – would be able to rouse a few thousand disheartened prisoners and turn them into a cohesive force able to assist in their rescue, what is far easier to accept is that Miles possesses the kind of personality that brings other people to trust him: the strength of his convictions, founded on the sense of honor and responsibility he inherited from both parents, makes people listen to him, trust and believe him.  And this time around I found myself thinking that it’s a good thing for Barrayar – or for the whole galaxy, at that – that he has no ambition to rule, otherwise he might just as easily turn into the kind of tyrant whose power extends over vast populations just on the strength of his word.

Once again, Lois McMaster Bujold offers us much food for thought under the guise of adventure, and the seriousness of the situation adds some new facets to Miles’ personality, balancing out his usual posturing with some very welcome depth.

 

My Rating:

 

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