SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition

I've read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I've really enjoyed them, and now I've read five more books in the series.

At this point, it's hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I'll try to keep at a minimum (if you're sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there's lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral's Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.

That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior's Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears "mutants" like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn't give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn't one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what's going on in his head, and he's always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior's Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar's secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)
  • The Vor Game - The novel opens with Miles Vorkosigan graduation, followed by his assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of an arctic outpost (i.e. not a very desirable position). It turns out that the commander there (General Metzov) is rather insane, and a confrontation leads to a career wrecking scandal for Miles. His only option at that point is to work for Barrayaran intelligence, but of course, his first mission there goes belly up as well, forcing him to take command of the Dendarii Mercenaries (again) in order to help save his Emperor. Oh, and there's a Cetagandan invasion fleet on its way to Barrayar too. Yes, it's difficult to describe this plot, but it's an excellent novel, and Bujold deftly maneuvers around various pitfalls and tropes.

    Bujold does a particularly good job with the initial confrontation with the mad General Metzov. Miles has been ordered to participate in a massacre that is most probably illegal. However, disobeying orders isn't exactly a good option either. Miles isn't just a newly minted soldier. He's a Vor Lord, a member of the military caste, son of the Prime Minister (and former Regent) and cousin of the current Emperor. And he's faced with an impossible choice here. Participate in an atrocity, or potentially ruin his life, maybe even taking his father with him and soiling the family name. What do you do when all the available options are bad? It's a recurring theme in these books - and Miles can't just make decisions for himself, he has to constantly consider the political, social and cultural ramifications of his actions.

    Later in the book, he runs across the errant Emperor, where Bujold has steadfastly declined to give in to cliche. Emperor Gregor has been in the series since he was a little boy, protected by Miles' parents during an attempted coup. Miles and Gregor grew up as playmates (inasmuch as the Emperor-to-be could have playmates) and in the hands of a lesser writer, Gregor would have grown into a tyrant that would be the flip-side of Miles's honor. Or something. But Bujold avoids that temptation without going too far in the opposite direction. Gregor is, in himself, a most interesting character. He's got his flaws and some major problems, which we see in this novel, but he's not a tyrant either.

    In the end, it's easy to see why this got the Hugo award for best novel. I don't think it's Bujold's best, but it's definitely a great novel and well worth a read.
  • Cetaganda - One of the great things about this series of novels is that Bujuld doesn't stick to one type of story for all the books. The series is primarily comprised of Space Opera stories, but there are a number of books that stray from the path, and this is one of them. Miles and his cousin Ivan (who is Miles's cousin and something of a foil, usually referred to by Miles as "That idiot Ivan.") are sent to represent Barrayar at the Imperial funeral of the dowager Empress, mother of the current Cetagandan Emperor. The Cetagandans are generally the villains of the Vorkosigan universe, so you can imagine that when Miles gets into trouble (which happens almost immediately upon arrival), things get hairy pretty quickly. In essence, this novel takes the form of a murder mystery, with some espionage and political wrangling thrown in for effect. The Cetagandan empire has a multi-tiered aristocracy, along with numerous castes and an almost inconceivable list of customs, traditions, and ceremonies. Like the best SF, Bujold keeps the info-dumps to a minimum, letting us infer the details of all this from the context of the story. Of course, Miles is in-over-his-head almost immediately, yet he manages to pull it out (that's not really a spoiler, right?). Indeed, given his earlier career (as discussed above, along with the fact that his exploits with the Dendarii Mercenaries can't be trumpeted), his success on Cetaganda proves almost politically embarrassing! This is actually the most recently written book of the ones listed in this post, though it is placed rather early in the actual chronology. I guess this is getting a bit repetitive, but it's a good, fun read, handled with wit and care, like all of Bujold's work.
  • Ethan of Athos - Perhaps the most unusual of the novels in the series in that it does not feature Miles (or anyone from his family) at all, instead focusing on Dr. Ethan Urquhart, from the planet Athos - a planet entirely populated by men. It's an isolated and reclusive planet that does not seek any real outside contact. They reproduce using uterine replicators (something mentioned often in the series, actually), basically technological wombs where children can be grown. However, they do require certain genetic materials, which means that someone has to go out into the big bad galaxy and secure some new biological samples. Ethan is their man, but he's quickly embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. He is helped in his task by Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries (which is one of the ways in which this book connects with the rest of the series). When we last saw Quinn, she had her face blown off during a battle in The Warrior's Apprentice, but she has since had reconstructive surgery, and is now quite the beauty. Given that Ethan has never had contact with women, this makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic. The bulk of the action takes place on a space station and it takes the form of an espionage thriller. This was actually among the first books of the series to be published, and I think you can see that, but once again, it's a really good story, and provides you with some background information on an important character (Elli Quinn) and obliquely connects with a couple other books in the series. Another good read.
  • Borders of Infinity - Ah, this is the book that causes a great deal of confusion for those of us seeking to read the series in chronological order. It's basically a collection of three 100 page (or so) novellas, with some connective tissue provided in the form of an interview conducted by Simon Illyan, who is the head of the dreaded Barrayaran Imperial Security Service (basically an intelligence organization). However, the confusion comes in because each story takes place between other books in the series. I tried to read them in the appropriate order, but kinda messed up because the connective tissue takes place after Brothers in Arms (which is the next book below). No matter, because these are three of the best stories in the series.

    The first story, entitled "The Mountains of Mourning" is particularly effective, and it even earned Bujold a (well-earned) Hugo award for best novella. It's another of the murder/mysteries, but it takes place in the backwoods of Barrayar, allowing Bujold to explore certain Barrayaran prejudices - especially for their intolerance to birth defects or "mutants". This is particularly impactful because Miles is, himself, something of a mutant, and he has a lot of political considerations to make during this investigation.

    In "Labyrinth", Bujold tells a somewhat less plausible tale, but it is one which connects with Ethan of Athos and Cetaganda a bit, and it is quite an enjoyable read. I'm kinda curious as to whether or not the character Taura will make another appearance in the series (it would certainly be a welcome development!) The third and final story, "The Borders of Infinity" starts a little strangely, but it quickly escalates, and Bujold manages a few interesting twists in what basically amounts to a prison-break story. It ends on a bit of a tragic note, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Like a lot of short story collections, this one doesn't quite work as a whole as much as a single novel would, but that's to be expected, and each individual story is truly excellent. Indeed, I would put "The Mountains of Mourning" up as one of the best stories in the series, and the other two aren't too shabby either. If you're looking at reading the series and think it's ok to skip these because they're "only novellas", think again - these are really fantastic and should not be skipped. I believe they're better integrated into the omnibus editions that are now in print, but that's probably a topic for another post someday.
  • Brothers in Arms - One of the things I've always found somewhat improbably about this series was that Miles would be able to lead an entire fleet of mercenaries without anyone noticing that he was one of the most famous Barrayaran noblemen in the galaxy. In this book, Bujold solves that problem rather handily. If I tell you how she did so, well, it will sound ridiculous. And it kinda is. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have fallen flat, but Bujold does an excellent job executing her solution here. It's almost comedic, though she never quite goes that far (if you just accept the premise and go with it, you'll find yourself laughing). However, by the time of the time you reach this novel, she's laid all the groundwork, and it actually fits rather well. The story itself is more of a political espionage tale, and quite a good one at that. Elli Quinn makes another appearance here, and the story ends at a point that leads into the whole connective tissue parts of Borders of Infinity. I expect to see more of a few of these characters in later books as well.
Yes, I'm completely hooked by this series. The only reason I haven't devoured the 8 remaining books is that I'm deliberately trying to prolong the experience, as I will no doubt experience a bit of withdrawal when I finish the series. Of course, the most recent installment was just published last year, so more books are not out of the question.

I heartily recommend the series. If you're interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia's Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles's parents, or The Warrior's Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Mountains of Mourning" from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases... Well worth it, if you ask me.