Reviews

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

 

With this novella about one of Miles’ adventures as “Admiral Naismith” of the Dendarii mercenaries, Lois McMaster Bujold takes us to another planet in the Galactic Nexus, Jackson’s Whole, where everything is for sale, literally everything as long as the price is right.  Think of a pirate den of old, but imbued with any kind of evil imaginable, and you will have a pale idea of what this place is: weapon sales, money laundering, genetic manipulation and creation of slaves “tailored” to one’s needs, no matter how base.

Miles’s mission consists in meeting with a geneticist who wants to leave his current employment and has been secretly recruited by Barrayar: under the cover of an arms sale, the Dendarii will spirit the scientist away and no one the wiser.  Would it be surprising to learn that the operation does not work exactly to plan? After following a few of Miles’ capers, surprise need not apply any more…

First, the captain of Miles’ ship, the Betan hermaphrodite Bel Thorne, discovers that a Quaddie musician is being sold from one of the ruling Houses to another as if she were a piece of furniture: Quaddies are creatures engineered to live in microgravity environments and possess two sets of arms instead of arms and legs, and Nicol, the musician, strikes some deep chord in the Betan captain who wants to rescue her.  Then Dr. Canaba, the fleeing geneticist, informs Miles that some of his precious research – stored for safety in the flesh of one of his creatures – must be recovered, and the subject, a failed experiment in the creation of super-soldiers, has been sold by Canaba’s former employers so that he refuses to leave without first retrieving what has been hidden in the “monster”.

Faced with a double rescue operation, and having to deal with the cut-throat barons of Jackson’s Whole, Miles end up as a prisoner of House Ryoval and thrown in the cellar where the super-soldier, werewolf-like creature turns out to be a young girl – two and a half meters tall, granted, and sporting vicious talons and fangs – but still a girl, lonely, hungry and forlorn.  Quickly reassessing his plans, and feeling a great deal of kinship for the girl, Miles enlists her help for an escape plan and offers her a place with the Dendarii.   Something else happens, but I will leave you to discover it on your own: suffice it to say that Taura – this is the name Miles gives her, instead of the old designation “Nine” used by the lab where she was created – and Miles make for an interesting team, and the juxtaposition between his craftiness and her bruised innocence is a delight to see.

Once again Ms. Bujold presents us with the dilemma of the consequences of genetic manipulation and here they are pushed to the limits when we are faced with literal trafficking of sentient beings: the decadent and corrupted mindset of Jackson’s Whole makes the Cetagandans’ biological tinkering look like child’s play, and their concept that everything can be sold, everything can be turned into profit, is beyond chilling. The request from Baron Ryoval for tissue samples from Bel Thorne, the Quaddie Nicol and even Miles shows how they are always looking to improve their sordid offer to a jaded public – and on this subject I must point out that the interest for Miles’ genetic material stood out for me in consideration of some future developments in the series.

Another angle is that of the extreme loneliness of these beings that were created for a necessity (the Quaddies, so they could operate in free fall), for a misplaced sense of freedom (the Betan hermaphrodites), or for warlike purposes (Taura and her now-deceased mates): no one could understand them better than Miles, whose disabilities have always kept him apart from others, so that his reaction to Nicol’s plea for help or Taura’s tale of woe is so strong and brings him to an act of retaliation that might be highly satisfying now but might come to bite him in the behind in the near future…

Labyrinth brings us a Miles Vorkosigan in splendid form and it’s a story where he has the opportunity to show not only his keen mind, but the depths of his heart, which is a great combination indeed.

 

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

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

 

When I first read Cetaganda, several years ago, I was slightly disappointed with it for some reason, probably because it’s less “adventurous” than other Miles Vorkosigan capers, at least on the surface. Thinking about the overall plot now, though, I was able to better appreciate it and to catch several nuances that I missed before, like the unusual opportunity to visit a new planet in this region of space besides Barrayar or the few swift glimpses of Beta Colony.

The Cetagandan empress died recently, and the massive state funeral is attended by dignitaries of all neighboring systems, including the old adversary Barrayar, whose emperor sent Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril as part of the delegation that will represent him, together with the Barrayaran ambassador on Cetaganda. What might have simply been an interesting, if somewhat boring, assignment turns out to be anything but when the two cousins’ shuttle is met by a strange individual who seems bent on assaulting the young men and then just as quickly disappears, not before leaving a strange object in Miles’ hands.  The item turns out to be a very important key to Cetaganda’s Star Creche, the repository in which the DNA lines are archived – the very core of the Empire’s structure. Unsurprisingly, Miles finds himself enmeshed in what turns out to be a planned coup and understanding that Barrayar has been targeted as the public scapegoat, and that war might ensue, he launches into uncovering the whole plot, often risking life and limb in his usual reckless way.

Until now, the Cetagandans had been only mentioned as the old enemies who tried to conquer and annex Barrayar at the time in which Miles’ grandfather was a young man, and when the elder Vorkosigan made his name as a cunning strategist who greatly contributed to the invaders’ defeat. Here we are finally allowed to see the Cetagandan culture in all its splendor, and splendor it is, indeed: these people value beauty and artistry above all else, as testified by their magnificent cities and luscious gardens, but mainly by that same creativity as applied to genetic manipulation. Cetagandan society is divided between the haut, the ruling class created and perfected through centuries of selective breeding, and the ghem, the military who enforce the haut’s power.  The whole setup always made me think of the old Japanese Empire, what with the complicated social structure, rigid customs and heavy accent on the exquisite beauty of one’s surroundings.

That beauty, however, hides cut-throat politics and subtle currents of shifting alliances that often look much too deadly even for Miles’ stubborn resiliency, and here is where cousin Ivan starts to come into his own, both as a character and as the foil for his relative’s foolish stunts: up until now, Ivan has been depicted as the feather-brained young Vor living only for wine, women and song (and he is that, granted, but not only), while in this novel we start to see how the insouciant attitude is only a cover for his desire to live as uncomplicated a life as possible. From some not-so-fond reminiscences we learn how the too-energetic Miles used to be, even in childhood, the bossy creature he grew up into, and how it always fell to Ivan, and Elena Bothari, to bear the brunt and the eventual punishment for Miles’ harebrained schemes.  So it’s understandable if poor Ivan now wants a quieter life, and why he keeps trying – sadly, without much success – to advise his cousin for more caution, and to stop acting outside the chain of command.

Not that hapless Ivan has any chance of being successful, of course: Miles is driven by the burning need to prove himself, to prove that being disabled in body does not impair his keen mind and intuitive powers, and it’s possible that here, on Cetaganda, where he’s confronted with beauty and physical perfection taken to the extreme, he might feel that desire become even more compelling. There are no space battles in this novel, no galaxy-spanning conflicts, but still the challenge posed to Miles’ intellect is no less complicated – or deadly – and here he’s motivated by another reason besides political expediency: the deep infatuation for a beautiful haut woman, the exact opposite of what he is and yet a goal he somehow needs to reach for.  This younger Miles, although not a virgin, is still painfully shy where women are concerned, which is understandable considering his problems, and despite everything he went through in his adventures he’s still a young, insecure youth dreaming of love – and he also seems determined to set himself unattainable targets, either to prove himself that he can, or unconsciously reaching for what he knows is impossible.  Once I understood this, I could not avoid cringing in sympathy every time Miles makes some self-disparaging remark: it’s not pity I feel for him, but rather the realization that he embodies all the insecurities and, yes, hurts we all felt in the difficult years of our adolescence – and that’s one of the reasons he’s such an easy character to understand and love.

One of the facets I was able to appreciate more, this time around, was the ethical angle that comes to the fore every time we are presented with some Cetagandan genetic “wonder”: these people did not limit themselves to perfecting their genome, they extended those studies to their entire environment, selectively breeding animals and plants and sometimes crossing them in new and – to them – spectacular ways. When Ivan is angered out of his usual bonhomie at the sight of a plant whose “flowers” are mewling kittens, we ask the same question about moral boundaries and whether the search for perfection might not be tainted by the loss of our humanity, as flawed as that might be.

In many ways, Cetaganda is a more restrained, more thoughtful story, and that’s the reason I did not fully appreciate it in the past, but now that I’m following these books’  temporal sequence I realize how there is a natural progression that follows Miles’ journey as a person: here he starts to leave his early life behind, moving toward a more responsible maturity (well, up to a point, since this is Miles Vorkosigan we’re talking about…) and infusing some seriousness in his chaotic adventures. I know that this seriousness will become more evident in the future, and I look forward to retracing his steps in that direction.

My Rating:

 

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Reviews

Sci-Fi Month 2019: THE VOR GAME, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

When we left Miles at the end of The Warrior Apprentice, he had been finally granted admission to the Imperial Academy, a goal that had previously eluded him because of his physical impairments: now, three years later, he just graduated with brilliant results and is looking forward to his first posting, hoping for a commission in space.  What he gets instead is the assignment to a remote arctic weather station on the freezing Kyril Island – otherwise known as Camp Permafrost.  The reason for such a lackluster post is the need to teach him some humility and how to obey and respect the chain of command, two qualities that are sorely lacking in the young ensign Vorkosigan.

Disappointed, but determined to show he can work within the system, Miles reaches the lonely compound and sets himself to learning all he can about weather patterns, certain that after the 6-months stint of this unsavory assignment he will get the career he hopes for.  The universe being what it is, and Miles being who he is, things don’t go exactly that way and he’s soon forcibly returned to the capital, once again back to square one – but not for long. A series of complicated events, including young emperor Gregor’s attempted escape from his pressing duties, force Miles to revive the old Admiral Naismith persona and to launch into a series of breakneck events which include a hostile takeover of the Dendarii mercenaries, an attempted Cetagandan invasion and several dastardly schemes from various players.

The Vor Game is the typical kind of Miles Vorkosigan adventure we can expect from the early incarnation of this character: a whirlwind chain of circumstances that seems like the direct continuation of what we saw in The Warrior Apprentice, with Miles at the center of it all like a master puppeteer holding each and every string, and as such it might look both impossible and absurd – and in some measure it is, because it defies reason that a single individual, and one so young, would be able to influence galaxy-spanning events simply through sharp wits and improvisation, always landing in the right place at the right time and always able to do that on his feet.  At times, I’m reminded of those initial scenes from the 007 movies, when we see Bond parachute from an airplane, land on a snowboard headed down a frozen slope and execute a perfect stop in front of some glitzy palace he enters wearing the spotless tuxedo that was hidden under the snow suit. But unlike those preposterous Bond scenes, Miles’ antics – implausible as they sound – hold up to scrutiny because of Lois McMaster’s Bujold excellent control of the narrative balance, the sheer impetus she can impart to her stories, and her main character, so that we are taken in the very center of things, not as simple spectators but entranced participants, and it all makes sense.  Or at least to me it does, most probably because I already know how Miles’ journey progresses and that the insouciant freedom he’s enjoying now will not last long when more pressing – if not dramatic – concerns will change both his outlook and the course of the overall story.  If this represents his “age of innocence”, it’s not going to go on forever…

Moreover, there is a subtle difference here: despite the happy-go-lucky attitude he’s still displaying, Miles is showing the first signs of maturity, of becoming more attuned to what it means to be a Vor, which does not only entail privileges, but above all responsibilities, as he demonstrates with his actions on Kyril Island, where he risks his life in the name of non-negotiable principles. It’s something whose seeds were planted in The Mountains of Mourning, and here we see them starting to grow and infuse Miles with some necessary doubts and uncertainties which act as a vital balance to his innate recklessness.  Another fascinating side of his nature comes from his ease in switching between the various characters he’s called to portray: the lowly ensign Vorkosigan and the young Vor lord; Admiral Naismith the commander of the Dendarii Mercenaries and the bogus gun smuggler he plays for a while. Apart from the entertainment value of these kaleidoscopic changes, there is a very serious question about his personality and which one of those he wears is actually true, or if all of them reflect a side of his being: there is a scene here in which he plays the part of the evil schemer, only to have his childhood friend Elena wonder (and worry) if there is not some crumble of truth in that portrayal.

What becomes blatantly clear in this novel is that Miles is not someone who can fit any given mold, that his drive and energy cannot be channeled too tightly and rather need a different outlet according to the circumstances – he’s a loose cannon, granted, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous, so that the solution finally devised by his superiors is not to try and confine him into rigid schemes, but to use this flexibility, this ability to think outside normal parameters, to their advantage. There is one of the antagonists he faces in this novel, a crafty “dark lady” who looks like Miles’ mirror image, someone with his same skill at lateral thinking but devoid of any moral standards: the fascination she exerts on the young Vor is an intriguing element, because we can easily imagine him thinking, as he observes her, that the tiniest shift in circumstances might have turned him into the kind of person she became.

The Vor Game is not only about Miles, however: there is some considerable space given to young emperor Gregor Vorbarra, a few years Miles’ senior and a longtime friend and companion. Gregor is the opposite of Miles: thoughtful, somewhat introverted and very lonely in the gilded cage where he holds great power but enjoys little freedom.  Some of the best dialogues in this novel come from their exchanges, where Gregor admits to feeling trapped in his role and to his envy of the younger friend’s freedom – these exchanges serve both as a way for Miles to see his own life and limitations in a different perspective, and as a means to show he’s capable of his own brand of introspection and even wisdom, when he’s able to offer consolation and a way of looking at things with some of his hard-earned optimism.

On hindsight, this novel marks the end of Miles’ carefree youth (in the omnibus version of the series, The Warrior Apprentice and The Vor Game, together with the novella The Mountains of Mourning, are appropriately collected under the title Young Miles), and as fun as these have been, both in my first reading and in revisiting them, I can only look forward to the more serious stories, where the usual fun will still be present, but more pressing issues will put this wonderful character to the test.

 

My Rating:

 

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Sci-Fi Month 2019: THE WARRIOR APPRENTICE, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

The Warrior Apprentice is the first book in this series featuring Miles Vorkosigan as a main character, although he appears briefly as a child – a very active child – in the epilogue of Barrayar. By the way, this was also my first Bujold book, the one through which I fell in love with this universe and characters and was prompted to backtrack to the origins of the story before moving forward once again: it’s indeed not necessary to read Shards of Honor and Barrayar before The Warrior Apprentice, since the author does a wonderful, info-dump-free work of summarizing previous events, and in truth the latter of the two ‘prequels’ was published after this one, but this revisitation is teaching me that following the internal chronological order of this series adds further layers to the overall background and enhances the reading experience.

As the book starts, Miles is seventeen and in the final stages of the admission course for the Barrayaran Imperial Academy: while he breezed through the written tests thanks to his keen intelligence, the real hurdle for him comes in the form of the obstacle trail all prospective cadets must run – the damage he sustained as a result of the assassination attempts on his parents left him with brittle bones, besides a short stature and a somewhat bent spine, and he’s painfully aware of such shortcomings.  Not surprisingly, he ends up with both legs broken and the burning failure of his dreams: to lift his spirits, his father suggests a trip to Beta Colony – Miles’ mother’s planet of origin – and the young Vorkosigan leaves home accompanied by the bodyguard Sergeant Bothari and the man’s daughter Elena, Miles’ longtime friend.

A chance conversation overheard in a public place leads Miles to acquire an obsolete cargo ship, which requires him to accept a delivery of weapons in a war zone, which in turn brings him to take over a small mercenary outfit and so on and on in what looks like a growing avalanche of circumstances that keep reaching ever-dizzying heights.  If this brief summary of the events in The Warrior Apprentice sounds somewhat over the top, well… yes, it does, but believe me when I say that Lois McMaster Bujold’s control of both narrative and characterization will keep you so totally enthralled that any kind of logical objection will evaporate like fog under the sun. Characters are indeed this author’s strong suit and Miles’ evolution here is so compelling that it’s quite easy to overlook the more demanding requirements in your suspension of disbelief: there is a phrase that is used often in this story, forward momentum, and that’s what carries it – and Miles’ journey – all the way to the end.  As one character tells him at some point:

“Your forward momentum is going to lead all your followers over a cliff someday […] On the way down, you’ll convince ’em all they can fly.” He stuck his fists in his armpits, and waggled his elbows. “Lead on, my lord. I’m flapping as hard as I can.”

And this sums up quite nicely the impact that Miles and his adventures can have on the readers, even on a revisitation, where there should be no more surprising discoveries…

Miles Vorkosigan is an irresistible character, not in spite of, but because of his disabilities: granted, here he shows an uncanny aptitude in thinking on his feet, overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles, gaining allies on the sheer strength of his personality and always coming up on top – and with someone else it would be easy to tag him as the proverbial Gary Stu, but the face he presents to the universe – the bold, brazen dealer and shaker – is balanced by his private insecurities and a fragility of the soul that’s even worse than the one of his bones.  Miles is painfully aware that he’s a… sub-standard human being – at least by Barrayaran canon – and he’s the first to acknowledge that everything he’s accomplishing here is based on a fraud, but he knows that once in motion he cannot stop, that if he arrests that forward momentum, everything is going to come crashing down, and he drives forward not with courage but in fear, in sheer terror of what would happen if he stopped.  His desire to prove himself, to demonstrate his worth, is what always propels him, and it’s impossible not to feel for him and to cheer him on, no matter how preposterous the course he takes.  And once he confesses that he’s striving to show his worth to his father, despite knowing the man loves him without reservations, it’s a poignant moment in which we see clearly behind the mask of recklessness, and our heart bleeds for him:

When I couldn’t serve Barrayar, I wanted—I wanted to serve something. To—” he raised his eyes to his father’s, driven to a painful honesty, “to make my life an offering fit to lay at his feet.” He shrugged. “Screwed up again.”

“Clay, boy.” Count Vorkosigan’s voice was hoarse but clear. “Only clay. Not fit to receive so golden a sacrifice.” His voice cracked.

Miles’ need for recognition mirrors Elena Bothari’s equally strong need for independence and agency: as a woman on Barrayar, she must bow under the social pressures that relegate women in an ancillary position – wives, mothers – and the further pressure of her father’s strict adherence to those rules.  It’s clear she chafes under that double pressure, so that working alongside Miles with the mercenaries finally allows her to tap all the suppressed talents she could not employ in Barrayar’s backward society: at some point Miles muses about the waste of such potential, and being the great guy he is rejoices in seeing Elena blossom into her true self.  There is a fascinating dichotomy here between these two characters, since Miles wants to excel for acceptance in his own society, while Elena realizes that to do so, to be allowed to do so, she must cut her ties to her home planet – and on that path lies some heartache…

This would not be a complete review if I did not mention Sergeant Bothari: he’s been present since the beginning of this saga, but it’s here that the many layers of his troubled personality take on a more substantial shape and present one of the most dramatic, most heart-wrenching aspects of this story, the dark counterpart to Miles’ crazy adventures.  A man deeply wounded in spirit and mind, Bothari keeps hold of his sanity by strict observance of the rules: his personal story is one that elicits both horror and compassion, and I appreciate how Bujold does not pass judgment on him despite his terrible sins, but shows his light and darkness with the same equanimity, allowing him a sort of… redemption that felt right and painfully emotional at the same time.

The Warrior Apprentice can be viewed as a coming-of-age tale and it’s certainly the start of Miles’ adventures, but this time around I perceived a… seriousness I had missed before, the realization that this series gains a great deal when returning to it, revealing many hidden “treasures” I missed before: this discovery of new depths in a beloved story is what makes me look forward to what still lies ahead of me.

 

My Rating:

 

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

 

If revisiting old favorite stories can sometimes make you realize how much you have changed as a reader, and how different your tastes are at present, I fully avoided this pitfall in my return to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga: on the contrary I’m discovering that not only I still enjoy these books as much as I did some twenty years ago when I first read them, but that the knowledge of the overall story arc helps me appreciate those early installments even more than at first sight.

This is particularly the case with Barrayar, the second book (in chronological, not publication, order) of the series and the continuation of the story on the heels of the events we followed in Shards of Honor: where the internal timeline puts the beginning of Barrayar just days after its predecessor, the narrative focus and characterization have improved greatly since the author published a few more books in the sequence before returning to Cordelia and Aral and portraying the events leading to the birth of their son Miles, the true protagonist of the series, and it shows.

As the title suggests, the story develops on Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan’s home planet where Cordelia came to live after marrying him: to Cordelia’s Betan sensibilities the place is backwards and unrefined – both in attitude and technology – and the feudal system put in place during the Time of Isolation, when the planet was cut off from the rest of the galaxy due to the closing of its wormhole, relies on a rigid caste division and the separation of roles according to gender.  To further complicate things, the couple’s projects of a quiet retirement oriented toward building a family are obstructed by Aral’s appointment as Regent for the young Emperor, which embroils them further into Barrayaran poisonous politics, a bloody civil war and an assassination attempt whose major consequence will be the as-yet-unborn Miles’ grievous physical damage that will shape his future.

Where this book deepens our knowledge of the main characters and introduces a few new ones that will also be part of Miles’ future, its main attraction to me is the depiction of Barrayaran society, which we see through Cordelia’s more sophisticated, and often sarcastic, eye: the accent on physical and military prowess, the open scorn visited on those who suffer disabilities, all sound much more ominous than they did in the past, because looking at them with hindsight I can see how the author was paving the way, so to speak, for Miles’ upward struggle toward acceptance.  In Shards of Honor there was a first inkling of this attitude, when Aral did not understand Cordelia’s determination to carry her severely injured comrade along their arduous trek, and he suggested a mercy killing, pointing out how on his world that would be the required, accepted norm. Here in Barrayar we see how young officer Koudelka, whose encounter with a nerve disruptor left him motor-impaired, is the object of contemptuous pity and worse; or again how Sergeant Bothari, whose unstable mind was compromised by the callous misuse from his previous master, is seen as a monster to be caged rather than a lost soul to be cured.

Cordelia often remarks on the cruelty of Barrayar, comparing it to a ravenous parent who devours its own children, and even while she tries to partly conform to its less archaic rules to gain acceptance, she attempts to change them from the inside, to bring a veneer of galactic modernity to this place so firmly set in its past. Because Barrayar is on the cusp of a major change as forces for a more enlightened outlook battle with the old guard, still set in its ways and afraid of losing its privileges: Aral Vorkosigan tries to be the man to usher this transformation, as he straddles the uneasy border between the old and the new seeking a viable balance, and his willingness to be a… Renaissance man, supported by Cordelia, will see them accepting this difficult role and paying its high price with the future life of their son.  A failed attempt on Aral’s life through a poison grenade exposes them both to soltoxin, whose antidote would prove fatal for Cordelia’s baby’s bone growth: again, the Barrayaran solution would be to abort the child who’s destined to be a “monster” by planetary standards, but Cordelia stubbornly refuses to give up and attempts an untested procedure that will allow the baby the possibility of an almost normal life.  “Almost” being the operative word here, because we know that Miles will be born with fragile bones and a too-short, partly twisted body that does not meet the Barrayaran norm.

It’s through Cordelia’s battle that we see the unmasked nature of the planet she chose as her new home, one that wears the face of Count Piotr, Aral’s father, the man we first encountered toward the end of Shards of Honor, who welcomed the woman who was to marry his son and who later treated her as a precious creature once he knew she was carrying his grandson, his lease on the future of House Vorkosigan. That face turns so very rapidly from avuncular kindness to obstinate ruthlessness as he first insists on the abortion because he’s not ready to accept a less-than-perfect heir, and then tries to kill the fetus as it’s receiving medical care in the uterine replicator where it’s been placed.  Piotr is indeed the incarnation of much which is wrong on Barrayar, of the desire of the few to be in total control and their terror in seeing this control slip from their fingers: he’s not much different from those of the old guard who are afraid of Aral’s more modern ideas and of how these will change the status quo – once Piotr understand that Cordelia, with Aral’s backing, will not budge from her course, he lashes out with a viciousness that’s even more disturbing than the actions of the rebels, because it’s turned against family, and it sounds utterly wrong.

Once again we are witnesses to Cordelia’s determination and strength of character, here enhanced by the powerful will of a mother to protect her child, not only from a merciless grandfather but from those who would use the baby as a tool in their games: this woman who knows how to exert compassion also knows how to turn into a ruthless killer when circumstances require it, and the ferociousness with which she defends her unborn child is only equal to the pain in realizing that she had to sacrifice some of her principles to adapt – for Miles’ sake – to the unforgiving environment where they will live, and that he will have to do the same.

“Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history.  […] Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. […] Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.”

These words touched me deeply, because I know what awaits Miles down the road, I know they are a peek into that difficult future in which he will have to fight an uphill battle but, on the other hand, I know he will take to heart his mother’s advice to live, and that following his path will be both exciting and inspirational.   I will miss a little the presence of Cordelia and Aral, since from here on the focus will be mainly on Miles, and yet I can better see them now as the roots on which his amazing personality rests: getting to retrace his steps is going to be a fun journey, one I’m eagerly anticipating.

 

My Rating:

 

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Sci-Fi Month 2019: SHARDS OF HONOR, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

The main character of Bujold’s body of work is Miles Vorkosigan, born with a crippled body in a militaristic society where physical prowess is paramount, and clawing his way to recognition through the best assets he possesses – his keen mind and his ingenuity.  Miles’ story, however, starts even before his birth with the meeting of his parents and then with the events leading to his… appearance on the scene, so here is where I will begin.

Shards of Honor is not only the start of the overall saga, but also Lois McMaster Bujold’s very first novel, and considering it again now, several years after my first encounter, I perceived some of its imperfections, while I also discovered a few of the elements at the root of future events, and appreciated their foreshadowing value – whether it was intentional or not at the time.

The universe depicted by Bujold is set in the far future, one where a good portion of space has been explored and colonized thanks to the discovery of a kind of shortcut called “jump nexus” which allows to breach vast distances in less time – provided you have access to a nexus, of course, so that proximity to one of these shortcuts can make or break the fate of any given planet, or subject it to the threat of invasion by less fortunate neighbors.

Cordelia Naismith is a commander in the Betan Survey: while she and her scientific team are exploring a new, uninhabited world, they are attacked by a party from Barrayar, a planet notorious for its aggressive stance, and Cordelia is captured by their commander, Aral Vorkosigan.  Things are not as they seem, however, and more than her captor and enemy Vorkosigan turns out to be the victim of a mutiny prompted by his political adversaries, and an honorable man as well, contrary to the popular opinion about Barrayarans in general and Vorkosigan in particular, given his unearned moniker of “butcher of Komarr”.

While the two of them brave the dangers of an uncharted world, trying to reach the Barrayaran camp where Vorkosigan needs to reconnect with his loyalists, he and Cordelia get to know each other, and move from an uneasy alliance to a mutual respect that slowly morphs into reciprocal attraction. The vagaries of politics and war will separate and then bring them together again, and if the ultimate ending of such relationship looks somewhat telegraphed, their story feels real and solid – to the point that even my usual aversion to romance falls to the wayside, given the high believability of the way the relationship evolves and the maturity, in age and behavior, of Cordelia and Aral, which is a refreshing change from the usual fictional patterns.

Cordelia has always been one of my favorite Bujold characters, and here she shines on her own, and not just as Miles’ mother – albeit a very formidable one.  The Betan commander is a practical, no-nonsense woman who can also exhibit a great deal of compassion; a shrewd observer with a keen mind both for science and politics; a fierce fighter when circumstances require it and a person with a quirky sense of humor. It’s easy now, with hindsight, to see where Miles gets his cleverness from, and there is a scene here in Shards of Honor where Cordelia resolves a problematic situation by being so verbally inventive that I found myself smiling because it felt like listening to one of her son’s most daring scams.

By comparison, Aral looks somewhat wooden and less defined, but on one hand this novel is very much Cordelia’s story and on the other we see a few glimpses of his past – with its own horrors and tragedies – and can understand why he’s less revealing of himself.  Aral is the kind of character that grows on you, once you start to see behind the mask, although I wonder how much of it stems, now, from the knowledge I garnered in the course of the saga.  The fact that both he and Cordelia are not young people – she’s in her early thirties and he’s in his mid-forties – adds to the feeling of solidness of these characters and the ease with which I grew attached to them.

Thinking back to Shards of Honor now, however, brought to light some elements that might have caused me to stop reading the series there and then if this had been my first Vor Saga book: luckily for me, I began with book 3 in the internal chronological order and got to know Miles first, so that going back later to learn about his parents “armed” me with the ability to overlook the flaws inherent in this story.  The most annoying one comes from the depiction of the Necessary Bad Guy, a perverted sadist who enjoys torturing his victims – namely young and beautiful women – and tries to subject Cordelia  to the same fate: first, the scene of a tied and helpless woman at the mercy of the evil antagonist, who delights in talking a great deal about the horrors he’s going to visit on her, reeks too much of a bad B-movie for my tastes. And second, putting the heroine in such a situation, only to be saved in extremis from the proverbial fate worse than death, is something of a tired trope, and it seems to contradict all that we learned about Cordelia up to that point – i.e. that she can save herself quite efficiently, thank you very much.

The use of the trope can be probably ascribed to the times (the book was first published in 1986) and to the fact it was a debut novel, which also must account for some uneven pacing and a few over-the-top developments (like Cordelia’s escape from Beta Colony when everyone believes her the victim of Stockholm’s Syndrome). Again, hindsight allows me to know that the author’s skills improved greatly over time, and to overlook the flaws common to debut authors.

In the end, reconnecting with Shards of Honor felt like time well spent, re-acquainting myself with this world and these characters and appreciating the complexity of Barrayaran politics that will take center stage in the next novel, Barrayar, which I remember as one of my favorites in the overall saga.

 

My Rating:

 

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