Reviews

A FLEET OF KNIVES (Embers of War #2), by Gareth Powell

 

Embers of War, the first volume of Gareth Powell’s space opera saga, brought to my attention a new series that looked more than promising both in narrative scope and in writing quality, but it’s with this second book,  A Fleet of Knives, that I became even more invested in the story as it raised the overall stakes in a major way, turning into a breathless, compelling read that cost me several hours of missed sleep as I kept promising myself “just one more chapter”….

The background: a galaxy still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating war and looking for peace and stability, which are nonetheless hard to find. In Embers of War we met several key players in this scenario: Sal Konstanz, a ship’s captain from the House of Reclamation, a peaceful organization devoted to rescuing endangered spacers; Annelida Deal, former commander of the fleet that put an end to the war by ordering a heinous act of genocide, and hiding under the assumed identity of poet Ona Sudak; and the sentient ship Trouble Dog, once part of that attacking fleet and now working for the House of Reclamation to expiate its sins.  At the end of the first book, Trouble Dog and its crew managed to avoid a rekindling of the old conflict, while waking a million-ships-strong alien fleet from its millennial slumber: the Marble Armada, this is the collective name for these knife-shaped ships – hence the book’s title – had been tasked by its creators to uphold the peace and by rousing it Trouble Dog set in motion the events portrayed in A Fleet of Knives.

Captain Konstanz and her crew are dealing with the traumas sustained in the course of their last mission, especially the captain who feels guilty both for the loss of a valued officer and for the way one of her decisions affected the ship’s newest crewmember: when a request for help comes their way, the interpersonal balance aboard Trouble Dog is a very delicate one indeed.   For her part, Ona Sudak has been tried and convicted for her war crimes and as the day of her execution approaches, a commando frees her from the prison and takes her where the Marble Armada is stationed: the sentient alien fleet is ready to comply with its mandate – prevent any kind of war by taking away the means to do so – and therefore it needs a leader who is prepared to act with dispassionate callousness – and who better than the person who destroyed an entire world?

The third major plot point focuses on a group of new characters: the merchant ship Lucy’s Ghost is maneuvering toward a derelict Nymtoq generation vessel, now abandoned, to reclaim all salvageable items in the hope of shoring up the finances of the crew and its captain, “Lucky” Johnny Schultz: attacked by a trans-dimensional entity, Lucy’s Ghost suffers heavy damage and the survivors are forced to repair to the Nymtoq ship while waiting for help from the House of Reclamation. Their problems go from worrisome to deadly when they must fight for their lives in a vessel swarming with nightmarish creatures coming from the same trans-dimensional fissure that disgorged their attacker.   

If all of the above were not disturbing enough, the Marble Armada, led by Ona Sudak whose guilt feelings and scruples seem to evaporate all too quickly in the wake of her newfound power, launches on a sort of holy “war to end all wars” by destroying everyone who dares to oppose it: the ships’ twisted logic about the application of violence in the present to eradicate it in the future offers a chilling, if enthralling, prospect for the series’ next developments and the terrifying consequences for a humanity driven to remain planet-bound to maintain the peace – a peace enforced at gunpoint….

Where the previous book introduced the main players of this saga and set the background for it, A Fleet of Knives moves to the next level by blending action and characterization in a seamless and gripping way: Trouble Dog and its crew are dealing with various degrees of PTSD and it’s both sad and fascinating to see how they react to it and how they deal with each other while trying to still be effective as a rescue ship, to perform the good, selfless deeds that now more than ever are their main reason to go on. And amid such turmoil, the crewmember who shines the brightest is the alien engineer Nod: I already commented, in my previous review, about how delightful a character he is, but here I looked forward to his chapters and loved his simple, but heartfelt, way of looking at his broken family as something that could – must – be repaired. Because fixing things is Nod’s life and joy and his philosophy does not contemplate the impossibility of mending something in need of repair.

Trouble Dog arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: once it was part of a “pack” of ships whose components included human and canine DNA, so that now it misses that pack and the sense of belonging it offered, until it realizes that it can find it right here, with its crew, the family it needs to keep safe and protected – at any cost.  One of the best details of these novels comes from the ships’ avatars, which manifest as human beings changing their appearance according to the circumstances and therefore expressing a sort of emotional statement from A.I.s who are not devoted to absolute logic: and so we are treated to the many incarnations in which Trouble Dog appears to its crewmates, or the various little-girl manifestations of Lucy’s Ghost, its component brain cells coming from a dying child whose father choose to preserve her as a ship’s interface many years back, and therefore expresses itself as a combination of young innocence and long-standing wisdom.  On this note it’s interesting to note that the interface A.I. from the Marble Armada chooses to appear not as a human being but as a huge bear, and given the fleet’s ultimate goal this is a disturbing consideration indeed…

These interesting characters – even the less savory ones, like Ona Sudak – are complemented by a compelling narrative that’s part mystery, part action and part moral debate on the price of peace and the ways to implement it, opening a completely new chapter in the story as it steers toward the brewing galactic conflict, the eventual resistance to the Armada’s overwhelming advance and the new, terrifying danger represented by the inter-dimensional creatures roaming in space.  To say more would mean spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this series, one whose next book I more than look forward to reading.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: NIGHTINGALE (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If the previous story in this collection, Grafenwalder’s Bestiary, was not exactly a cheery read, Nightingale proved to be a veritable slide into horror: I don’t recall ever feeling such depth of dread with Reynolds’ works before, even when he described the awful transformations visited on flesh and metal by the Melding Plague. Still, it was the kind of story it’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away from, and despite the novella-length of the work I rushed through it in no time at all.

In the aftermath of a bloody war between two factions called Northern Coalition and Southland Militia, the planet of Sky’s edge has found some sort of balance, although the scars from the conflict are not completely healed: one of the items still left unchecked concerns the need to bring to justice the infamous Colonel Jax, whose name is associated with unspeakable atrocities. For some time it’s been believed that Jax had died, but Martinez, an older, wealthy man, has obtained fresh information about the Colonel’s presence aboard a hospital ship that was active during the war, the Nightingale. Gathering a small group of specialists, Martinez enrols them as a strike team to board the powered-down Nightingale and retrieve Jax, presumably lying in suspended animation aboard the ship.

What looks like a fairly simple operation turns quickly into a nightmarish journey through a huge vessel that looks dormant but is not exactly unresponsive – a ship that during the conflict was managed by a high-level AI capable of conducting autonomously many of the tasks required from a human team of medics in a war zone. As the team journeys through the darkened, empty ship, the sense of dread keeps intensifying, not only because of the ever-increasing difficulties the group encounters in opening interconnecting airlocks, but because the Nightingale seems to be waking up in increments, reacting to the intruders’ actions and actively making their progress more difficult and dangerous. Until they find out the ultimate truth about Nightingale’s AI and the effects produced on a sentient, but artificial, mind by witnessing the horrors of war in the flesh, so to speak…

I will leave to you the discovery of the final reveal about the ship’s choice of building a war memorial that would equal the impact of Picasso’s Guernica in the conscience of humankind, and will only tell you to brace yourselves, because you will need it.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: GRAFENWALDER’S BESTIARY (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If it’s possible to feel intense, visceral hate for a fictional character, one that exists only in the pages of a book, then this is what I felt for Grafenwalder, the protagonist of this story. He’s one of the spoiled wealthy individuals belonging to the Circle, a club of collectors of rare animals: in the Circle, status is defined by the number of one-of-a-kind specimens one is able to collect, the members striving to outdo one another not only in the uniqueness of their find, but in the way the hapless creatures are displayed, so that the shock value of each presentation is often achieved at the expense of the captured being.

And I consciously use the word ‘being’ because the prizes Grafenwalder is so proud of are not necessarily animals as such – not that such exhibits would be less monstrous in that case, considering the thoughtless cruelty the man shows toward his captives – but also sentient creatures from different evolutionary paths, or former human beings twisted into nightmarish shapes by surgery or genetic modifications, to the point of not being recognizable as human anymore.

Lately, Grafenwalder found himself in competition with Ursula Goodglass, a recent member of the Circle and therefore, in his eyes, an outsider in need of a lesson in humility: when he learns that the woman acquired a rare amadryad at the same time he did, he bribes the transport’s captain to kill the creature destined to Goodglass, and once the brief satisfaction for this low trick does not yield the expected results he vows to shock her and everyone else with a truly unique specimen.

The genetically engineered beings called Denizens that were showcased in the story A Spy in Europa have now become something of a myth, but through a shady dealer Grafenwalder manages to acquire what might be the very last one, preparing a special glass cage where the conditions of pressure and temperatures found on Jovian satellite can be replicated: here is where the base nature of the man’s spirit is shown in all its disgusting detail, and the cruelty he visits on the poor Denizen made me sick to my stomach. But even the very rich and powerful are not exempt from retribution…

This is not an easy story to read – or at least it was not for me – but I appreciated how Reynolds managed to keep a sort of detachment from what he describes. Still, I’m going to have a few nightmares about this one for a while…

 

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

PARIAH (Donovan #3), by W. Michael Gear

Even before reading Pariah, I was very happy to learn it would not be the last book in the Donovan series, but now that I finished this third installment I’m even more glad that the story will not end here, because this latest novel considerably raised the stakes while still leaving many questions unanswered.

Donovan is so far the only habitable world discovered by humanity and it stands at thirty light-years from Earth: the voyage to reach it is fraught with dangers, mostly because the drive technology – which creates a sort of shortcut between distances – does not always work as intended, so that some ships are lost forever or emerge at destination after decades or centuries, the crews having succumbed to hardship or madness. For this reason the colonists of Donovan have learned to rely only on themselves, and had to do it in a very hostile environment: if the planet’s soil is both fertile and rich in minerals, the place is also filled with aggressive flora and fauna waiting only to prey on unwary humans.

Book 1, Outpost, saw the arrival of the ship Turalon, bringing new colonists and a supervisor from the Corporation – the entity ruling Earth and financing the colony ships: what they found was a reality far removed from their expectations and a society ill-disposed to fall again under the thumb of a far-off organization. Book 2, Abandoned, showed us how the new arrivals tried to integrate in Donovanian society, adapting their outlook and goals to the planet’s unexpected environment – and there was also the added mystery of the ghost ship Freelander and its ominous cargo of bones.

Pariah expands on its predecessors by showing us how the characters we know are progressing in their journey: security Chief Talina Perez is dealing with the “infection” from quetzal DNA – they are the planet’s largest predators, and their ability to mix molecules between species might hold the key to communication and, perhaps, a truce; the changes Talina undergoes range from improved vision and hearing to what look like hallucinations that impair her ability to function. For this reason she chooses to leave Port Authority, Donovan’s main settlement, to deal with these changes without endangering her fellow colonists. Former supervisor Kalico Aguila has long forgotten her corporate ambitions and is turning into a worthy Donovanian, not only because she’s learned to integrate with the rest of the colony, but because she takes to heart its well-being, to the point that she’s very serious about the threats against her new home. Dan Wirth, the escaped criminal who arrived with Turalon, has consolidated his hold on the less savory sides of colonial economy like gambling and prostitution, and is now striving for a patina of respectability by building a school, although no one is willing to trust him as far as they can throw him…

As with previous instances, it’s the unexpected arrival of the ship Vixen that upsets the ever-precarious balance of Port Authority, partly because the Vixen has been considered lost for 50 years – while its crew and passengers’ subjective experience was that of an instantaneous travel from Earth to Donovan – and partly because two of those passengers prove highly disruptive, each in his own way.

Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher is an environmental preservationist who made his name and career with a program for the revival of ancient Earth flora and fauna in protected areas and is determined to safeguard Donovan’s biome at all costs: he’s a haughty and self-centered individual with a high opinion of his own value, untouched by the harsh wake-up call he receives once he learns that the planet has already been colonized and that the “contamination” he loathes has become a reality in the past few decades. Not even the information that his carefully maintained Earth preservations failed, because plants and animals had not built an evolved resistance to the current micro-organisms, can shake him out of his blind faith, nor is Donovan able to make him understand its basic principle, that foolishness means grievous harm, or death. Weisbacher’s obtuse lack of perspective helps to drive home once again Donovan’s most important law, the need to adapt to one’s environment to ensure survival, and the fact that this planet does not forgive recklessness or mistakes.

A lesson that the other new player seems to ignore as well: where Weisbacher is merely an annoyance, in the grand scheme of things, Tamarland Benteen is another matter entirely. Ally and henchmen of a Corporation CEO, he boards Vixen just in time to avoid capture by an opposing faction, and once he realizes there is no return to Earth he decides to build his own empire on Donovan by applying the cut-throat methods that served him so well on Earth. Deadly as a poisonous snake and totally without scruples he proceeds to create a power base in Port Authority but, as the arrogant professor, he fails to understand the true dynamics of the colony and its inhabitants. Where I previously hated Dan Wirth with a passion, Benteen made me see how there are several degrees of evil and that the one held by Wirth is clearly not the worst one…

The power struggle that ensues is one of the driving themes of Pariah, and builds an ever-escalating tension that compelled me to keep turning the pages to see where the author would take the story, and for this reason it made Talina’s battle with her inner demons a somewhat less interesting theme than intended. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a very important subject, made even more fascinating by the journey into the Mayan lore at the roots of Talina’s past, but to me it seemed to take too long and it was somewhat confusing, while all I wanted was to see how the situation in Port Authority ran its course. In the end, all the pieces fit together well (and I’m not using this metaphor at random…) and open the way to a possible change in the relationship between humans and quetzals, but still, seeing Talina helpless in the face of what was happening to her felt so wrong – given the way her personality had been drawn – that I could not wait to get over it all. On the other hand, having the chief security operative out of the way for part of the novel allowed other ‘regulars’ to get more space and to delve deeper into their characters, particularly in the case of Kalico Aguila who is quickly turning into my favorite player. She is still the commanding woman who is used to see things go her way, but she has learned to apply those drives to the common good: Donovan has marked her in more ways than one, but Aguila is one of the finest examples of the maxim “what does not kill us, makes us stronger”.

As a small aside, I would like to add that I was pleased for the confirmation a certain suspicion I had been nurturing from Book 1, about what happened with Cap Taggart: if you read the book you will know what I’m talking about… 😉

With Outpost and Abandoned, the author introduced us to an epic struggle for survival in an unforgiving environment, but it’s with Pariah that he consolidated his vision of this world and its people: I’m beyond curious to see where he will take us next, and what other dangers and mysteries will face the people of Donovan, but I’m certain that it will be a thrilling adventure.

 

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

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: