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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

 

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com
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:

 

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com