Reviews

AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey

 

Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE INSTITUTE, by Stephen King

 

As a long-time fan of Stephen King’s works I suffered a few disappointments in the past handful of years, at times wondering if he had lost some of the… special powers that made his books so compelling in the past. Something of the old vigor seemed to have returned with the previously published book, The Outsider, although that too fell a little short of the mark, at least for me, but reading his latest creation, The Institute, I realized I was witnessing the long awaited… Return of the King  🙂        The main reason, from my point of view, is that once again Stephen King chose not to delve into supernatural horror, although he does that quite well, but to explore the kind that comes from the darkest corners of the human soul: what we, as humans, are capable of once compassion and empathy are removed, is indeed much more terrifying than any fictional vampire or clown-shaped evil entity.

The Institute starts with one of those themes King does so well, a small town background in which former cop Tim Jamieson lands after leaving his old job and starting an aimless peregrination through the country: the city of DuPray is one of those creations we often encountered – with different names – in many of Stephen King’s stories, a small community where everyone knows everyone else and the interpersonal dynamics are built on equally well-known figures like an older, world-wise sheriff; a shifty motel manager; a possibly crazy old lady who hides unexpected depths; and so on.  Despite this stagnant, somnolent tableau, one can feel the mounting dread, almost like the sound of approaching thunder, and it would be easy to imagine that whatever is going to happen, will happen here, shattering DuPray’s day-by-day sameness.

Instead we are surprised by an abrupt change of perspective (at least for a good portion of the book) as the focus moves toward twelve-year old Luke Ellis, a boy gifted with extraordinary intelligence and such a balanced disposition that he’s not isolated as many geniuses are, but rather knows how to successfully integrate his cleverness with any kind of social situation. But Luke is special in another way: he possesses some telekinetic powers – not much, just enough to move a pizza pan or to ruffle a book’s pages, but evidently enough to catch the attention of a shady governmental agency. One night a team infiltrates Luke’s house, kills both his parents and kidnaps him. When Luke wakes up from his drugged sleep he finds himself in a room that mirrors his own, apart from the missing window and the fact that the door opens on a corridor with many other similar doors and a few motivational posters depicting happy children at play.

The Institute, located in a remote area of Maine, has been in operation since the mid-fifties, acquiring gifted children in the same, merciless way as Luke was: the prisoners’ talents in telepathy or telekinesis are enhanced through injections with often unpredictable after-effects or sheer torture – like the near-drowning in the dreaded tank – and the new arrivals placed in the first section of the compound, called Front Half, are then moved to the Back Half, from which they never return.  Children are told they are serving their country and that once their stint at the Institute is over they will be returned to their families after a mind-wipe that will erase all memories of their experience – and if we readers know what bare-faced lie this is, many of the kids have already learned not to trust these adults who treat them so callously and to doubt anything they are told, despite their desperate need to believe it.

This novel offers a story in which tension builds with each new chapter, leading with page-turning intensity toward a massive showdown, and as such it’s a very satisfying read that to me brought back the excitement I used to find in older King works, but where it truly excels is in the exploration of the human soul in both its brightest and darkest sides.  The former comes from the children, who are forced to grow up very quickly in the face of the situation they find themselves in, creating bonds with each other that go beyond any consideration of gender, race or temperament: they are all victims here, aware that a ruthless machine they have no control over is using them, chewing them up and then discarding whatever remains. Deprived of their freedom and their dignity (at some point one of their captors uses the word property) they try to cling to whatever form of defiance is allowed them, while dealing with the incredible, often terrifying powers that have been wakened in them.  I admired the way Stephen King never resorts to easy sentimentalism when portraying these kids, even when they are faced with heart-wrenching circumstances or unbearable losses, which lends an incredibly powerful intensity to a key moment when one of those children chooses sacrifice for the good of others, the last thought in that young mind being “I loved having friends”.  I am not ashamed to say that the sentence made me cry, such was my connection with these wonderful characters.

On the other side of the equation, the adults managing the Institute are a case in point for what happens to one’s conscience when the perception of a supposedly worthy goal makes them stop caring for collateral damage: the abducted children are seen as a means to an end – preventing the annihilation of the human race – and as such they must be driven to serve, whether they want it or not.  If the people in the top echelon of the Institute are imbued with such blind zealotry and deal with the children with dispassionate practicality, the lower ranks are another matter: many of them actually enjoy hurting their young charges when they don’t obey orders or refuse to submit to painful and dangerous procedures. Even though it’s never expressed openly, the parallel with concentration camps guards is there for everyone to see, the dehumanizing of the victims and the unwillingness to see them as people – there is a painfully lucid reflection from Luke Ellis that paints this divide in no uncertain terms:

Luke realized he wasn’t a child at all to her. She had made some crucial separation in her mind. He was a test subject. You made it do what you wanted, and if it didn’t, you administered what the psychologists called negative reinforcement. And when the tests were over? You went down to the break room for coffee and danish and talked about your own kids (who were real kids) or bitched about politics, sports, whatever.

Once again, King paints children as both victims and heroes, and this time they don’t battle with supernatural evil but with an earthly kind of wickedness that’s even more terrifying because it’s a part of the human mindset, one that might lie dormant but can be all too easily reawakened given the right input.  The Institute is at times a hard book to read, but it’s one that compels you to think, and to think hard about what makes us human and what can rob us of that oh-so-thin veneer of compassion toward our own kind. And it’s also a story that made me delight in the return of the narrative strength I so enjoyed in the past from this author.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BLADE ITSELF (The First Law Trilogy #1), by Joe Abercrombie

 

Joe Abercrombie’s famous trilogy has been languishing on my TBR for a long, long time: I kept promising myself I would read it “one of these days”, but also kept being distracted by other titles – that is, until his new work was announced and I was lucky enough to be able to read A Little Hatred, the first book in a new series set a few decades after the events of the First Law. Far from finding myself lost in the “next generation” setup of the new story, I was so intrigued about the past of this world that I did not waste any more time in finally fulfilling that long-ago promise to myself – and you know what? Reading A Little Hatred did not spoil my enjoyment of this prequel story, but rather enhanced it because having met some of these characters or their offspring, it felt as if I already knew them well, and wanted to know more.

The Blade Itself is both a character study and a way to set the background for what will certainly come in the next two books: on hindsight it almost looks as if nothing much happens, and yet this book turned into a compelling read, made even more extraordinary once I discovered this was Abercrombie’s debut work – not that it feels like one, on the contrary. The main setting is in the Union and its capital city Adua: a place of culture and refinement, but also of political machinations and unrest, especially since the Union is threatened from the expansionist moves of the Gurkish Empire in the South, and from the northern barbarian tribes now united (more or less forcefully) under the self-proclaimed king Bethod. And this just to name the two more powerful opponents…

 

They are jealous of one another, all those people. It may be a union in name, but they fight each other tooth and nail. The lowly squabble over trifles. The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government.

 

In this troubled scenario we meet several characters, defined by ambiguous morals, unclear goals and even uncontrollable violence, which nonetheless manage in a few short chapters to capture the readers’ attention and in some case to make them genuinely care for the outcome of their journey. These characters are indeed where Abercrombie excels, managing to present us with people who might be scary, or unlikable, while at the same time showing some different side to them that makes us question our first judgment, and compels us to learn more.

The first one we meet is Logen Ninefingers – so called because he lost one of them in a battle: a Northern barbarian, once the champion of King Bethod, he’s now on the run from his former ruler and from the savage Shanka who murdered his family. Separated from his band of comrades he now believes dead – and who believe him dead in turn – he moves south trying to leave behind the violence that’s been such a huge part of his life, trying to build himself into a different man and to stay alive as long as possible.

 

To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends.[…] It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.

 

But struggle and strife seem to follow him like a shadow, and even away from his old haunts he must keep fighting, at some point revealing where the moniker “Bloody Nine” comes from, and it has nothing to do with the number of his fingers…

Then there is Bayaz, an ageless mage with an unfathomable agenda: through him the author gives us a peek into this world’s past and its legends (but are they, really?) of godlike beings battling with each other and laying the foundations of the present. This character seems to hover on the dividing line between a fraud and the real thing, just as his temper swings from the jovial to the thunderously dangerous, and while it’s clear he does possess some uncanny powers and has a goal in mind, given that he’s gathering a number of people for some nebulous quest, it remains to be seen what that goal is and where it will take the story.

More down-to-Earth is young, brash captain Jezal dan Luthar, training for the annual combat Contest that should grant him the respect he craves, although he prefers to spend his days drinking, gaming and chasing women. Only the encounter with his comrade Collem West’s sister, Ardee, will prompt him to seriously train and finally make something of himself, although curing his entitled selfishness might take something more than the desire to shine in the girl’s eyes… Jezal is the only one of the main characters I could not truly warm to, and even the few insightful peeks into his personality failed to change my mind, therefore so far he remains the one I love to despise.

Last but by no means least, Sand dan Glokta. Once a proud, valiant warrior, he was captured by the Gurkish and tortured for years, only to be returned to his country broken and crippled. Military career over, he’s now a torturer for the Inquisition – and who better than a man who suffered unspeakable pain to administer it to the King’s enemies? Glokta should have been a loathsome character, and yet he’s the one I ended caring for more than others: a man living in constant pain, moving with extreme difficulty (his thoughts about the daily battle with stairs are darkly and delightfully whimsical) he’s quite resentful of healthy, vigorous people like Jezal, who represent everything he’s lost, but the person he hates most is himself, his helplessness, and that to me is his saving grace, together with the wicked sense of humor he applies indiscriminately to himself and others. Moreover, despite being a skilled torturer, he does not enjoy what he does – yes, he relishes the inevitable results of his work, but not the means with which he obtains them. And there is something of a soft spot in him, which comes to light in a specific circumstance, that speaks of the man’s complexity and layers and makes him very intriguing. Together with Logen, he’s the character I will look for in the next books with heightened interest.

The minor characters are equally compelling, even though their allotted time is shorter, and this is especially true for Logen’s lost companions, some of which – like the Dogman – I’ve come to know in the first book of the new saga, while storywise The Blade Itself achieves the same degree of skilled balance between grimness and humor, drama and amusement that I found so compelling in A Little Hatred: the interactions between characters, the battle scenes, or a breath-taking chase through the streets of Adua, all come across with such a vibrant quality that the story takes life in your mind’s eye with cinematic quality. And leaves you wanting for more…

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: CRYOBURN, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

And here we are at the last chapter of my Vorkosigan revisitation – yes, there are two more stories, The Flowers of Vashnoi and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which were published after I began blogging, so you can follow the links if you are interested – but as far as the older books are concerned, this is it 🙂  and I can’t hide my sadness at the thought I will have once again to say goodbye to the world and characters I enjoy so much.

Cryoburn is not one of my favorite Miles stories, although it’s a nice one that hits all the usual themes (and a few new ones as well) while moving smoothly along: still, like it happened with a couple of its predecessors, I can’t shake the feeling that Bujold has said all she wanted or needed to say about Miles & Co. and that the famous forward momentum, her main character’s defining element, is petering out.

In this novel our energetic Imperial Auditor is on the planet of Kibou-daini to attend a conference on cryonics, the planet’s major industry: here people who are afflicted by conditions for which there is no treatment yet, or simply waiting for a cure against aging, choose to be cryo-preserved while waiting for the solution to their problems. The mega corporations offering such services have come with time to gather considerable political power and are of course seeking to extend it beyond the planetary limits.  Miles’ covert goal is to investigate what looks like a corporate financial takeover aimed at the Barrayaran empire, and at the start of the novel we see him in a bad state, drugged and wandering through the catacombs where frozen people wait to be reawakened.  It’s a chilling and unsettling beginning, one that throws you straight into the middle of things with no knowledge of what has transpired, not unlike disoriented and hallucinating Miles.

Luckily for him, he meets twelve-year old Jin, a boy whose anti-corporation activist mother was frozen because of alleged health problems: Jin has been living on the roof of a building where many of Kibou-daini’s dispossessed dwell, and he kindly offers Miles a shelter where the Auditor is able to come back to his senses and then launch into a very Milesian campaign against the evil corporations and their goals.

Cryoburn feels somewhat different from the usual Miles caper, and I’ve come to believe that it’s because there is no immediate danger to his world or the people he cares about here, apart from the scam he’s come to break down and that looks more like an inconvenience than anything else. In his previous adventures he was laboring for far higher stakes, like issues close to his heart, to Barrayar’s interests or related to his survival, while here the whole situation has the flavor of a job – a well done job, granted, but nothing so thrilling as what happened in the past, despite a few intriguing goings-on.

The Miles Vorkosigan we meet in Cryoburn is a more sedate person as well, which is unsurprising since he’s now 38 years old, a father of four and well-established in his role as Auditor. Still I do miss the old Miles and his mad antics, even more so when they manage to surface as a mere shadow of the past ones – and if faithful Armsman Roic is always ready to try and keep his liege lord away from trouble, those glimpses feel more like nostalgic echoes of what was, and end up coating this story with a thin layer of regret, at least for me.

On the positive side, this quieter but more assertive Miles is a joy to behold when he deals with young Jin and his sister: it’s clear from those interactions that he had ample practice with his own children and that he’s now able to relate to young people with tact and kindness –  a side of him we had not seen before and which rounds his overall character in a nice, but unsurprising way considering the parenting example he could draw inspiration from…

What makes this book interesting is the underlying theme of life and death, and the impermanence of both in light of cryo-preservation techniques, not to mention the political implications that come from the individuals’ voting power handed down to the corporations while they lie frozen, which sounds quite crazy. There is also a thought-provoking question about the dubious advantage of waking up, decades after one was frozen, to find the world so changed that the returnees are unable to find their place back in it. And all of the above takes a special significance for Miles since he was indeed technically dead in the cryo-chamber where the Dendarii stowed him in Mirror Dance, and he had to walk a long road to a recovery that was far from complete.

As light and fairly amusing as Cryoburn is, it does pack an unexpected punch in the end – a very abrupt end brought on by three words that leave Miles as shell-shocked as the reader. If you read the book you know what I’m talking about…   And both shock and the ensuing grief at those words are compounded by the short drabbles Bujold employs as a sort of coda to that staggering revelation, the event seen through the eyes of some of the characters we have come to know and love: more than Miles’ it was Gregor’s point of view that brought me to tears.  Not something I would usually associate with a Vorkosigan novel….

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

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.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

BLOOD OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #3), by Brian McClellan

 

I received this novel from Orbits Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

And once more it’s time to say goodbye to a series and a world that have grown on me with each new installment, and from what I hear it might be a definitive farewell, unless Mr. McClellan changes his mind and decides to go back to his extremely successful flintlock fantasy creation and the amazing characters peopling it. I for one dearly hope so…

Story-wise, the already high stakes from the previous books, Sins of Empire and Wrath of Empire, have reached their peak here: the Dynize invasion force has settled in Landfall, trying to win the hearts and minds of the Palo by freeing them from the Fatrastan oppression and playing on their distant common origins. Unknown to the many, however, the Dynize leader Ka-Sedial is exploiting them to further his goal of godhood: as he gathers the godstones he will need to perform the ritual, he mercilessly uses the Palo population in the most horrible way.  Michel Bravis, former Blackhat (the Fatrastan secret police) and undercover Palo mole, went into deep hiding after the invasion of Landfall and must now walk on the thin, dangerous line between necessary action and common safety, aided by an unexpected ally – Ichtracia, Ka-Sedial’s granddaughter and also the long-lost sister of Ka-poel.

The latter is assisting Mad Ben Styke and his Lancers in their mission to enter the heart of the Dynize empire and destroy the godstone set in the center of its capital: it sounds like a suicide mission indeed – the kind Ben seems to prefer – and it encounters many unforeseen obstacles and changes in plans, but it’s also a way to bring the readers to the very core of Dynize civilization and to learn more about this seemingly unstoppable force of conquest, and about what makes its people tick.

Last but not in any measure least, Vlora Flint: after the bloody battle at the end of Wrath of Empire she’s recovering from her grievous wounds and must also deal with the loss of her powder sorcery, which no one knows whether it’s temporary or permanent. That, and the rift with her second in command and lover Olem, leaves her unbalanced and riddled with doubt, but there is no time to dwell on personal troubles, because her army must advance toward Landfall to bring Ka-Sedial’s plans to ruin.

These are, in short, the main narrative threads of this final novel in the trilogy, and as much as they are engaging and often breath-stopping in their development – and as much as the skillful interweaving of these three threads keeps the story-flow at a relentless pace – what really drives Blood of Empire are the characters and their compelling journey.  Michel Bravis is the one who changed my perspective the most: for the greater part of the first book in the series I did not like him – all that the author showed us on the surface of this character was his ambition to scale the ranks of the Blackhats, and to hell with any collateral damage. Then, little by little, his real nature came to the surface and I saw the initial misdirection for what it truly was, but it’s here that I came to truly care for Michel and for the strangest of reasons: here we see how leading the life of a double agent, of an individual who needs to wear different masks at a moment’s notice, has undermined his sense of self, his core identity, and he feels weakened by the realization that he’s not sure about who he really is anymore. It was this very weakness, this very human failing that ended up endearing him to me as it had never happened before.

As far as weakness goes, poor Vlora is indeed in a bad place: the wounds she suffered and which took her almost to the brink of death are not healing as quickly as she wishes, and the loss of her powder magic turns her into the equivalent of a person who lost a limb. Yet she discovers that she can still be a strong person, a solid commander, because she has not lost her cunning and experience: Vlora is the true heir of Tamas’ military teachings, and in this situation we see how they were ingrained in her experiences as a soldier first and then as a leader, helping her in devising the necessary strategies to defeat her enemies. One of the lessons Vlora learns from her impairment is that she can – and must – delegate, and lean on trusted advisers when necessary: in this the presence of Privileged Borbador, another former ward of Tamas, proves invaluable, not just for his powers but for the advice he can offer in the form or offhand comments that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Bo deserves a special mention, because he’s a very atypical Privileged: every single one of them we encountered in the course of both trilogies was clearly corrupted by the power they possessed, turning them into callous creatures with delusions of godhood – not so for Bo, who has retained his humanity and even though he indulges in the licentiousness that’s part and parcel of Privileged life, he never falls into depravity and is always able to apply some self-effacing humor to himself. I like to think that it was Tamas’ example that kept Bo from turning into the kind of Privileged the Field Marshal wanted to eradicate.

Mad Ben Styke: it might seem strange to feel such sympathy for a character who gained his moniker through an insane penchant for bloody fighting, for reckless carnage. A person who acts first, in the most violent manner, and thinks later, if ever. And yet Ben Styke is the kind of person that gets under your skin and gains your affection because he’s very honest about himself and his faults – and because under the coarse skin of the berserker warrior there is a man of deep loyalty and deeper feelings, which come out in his caring for the men under his command and for the young orphan Celine, whom he has taken as a daughter. And it’s through Celine (a very skillful depiction of a child who had to grow quickly through adversity, while still able to walk the difficult line between childish ebullience and hard-earned wisdom) that we see the true Ben Styke come to the surface, and what I see in those moments is what makes me like him very much.

Blood of Empire brings this trilogy to a very satisfactory conclusion, blending adventure and politics, warfare and character growth with a skill that has been constantly improving since the first book of the Powder Mage series. My only complaint is that it’s the end – at least for now – of this magnificent saga: there are some elements in the final chapter that might be turned into a continuation of the overall story, and there lies my hope that this might be only a temporary ending. In any case, it’s been an amazing journey….

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Vorkosigan Saga: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY, by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

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.

 

 

My Rating: