SF Book Review, Part 11: The Vorkosigan Saga Ends

The last time I wrote about the Vorkosigan Saga books, a commenter noted that the best books were ahead of me, and indeed, I think they were. In fact, the run of books starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign is as good as any series I've ever read, and the series as a whole represents quite a feat. It is not so bogged down with continuity that you have to read all of them - most of the novels are complete stories in and of themselves. But on the other hand, when you read them in order (as I have done), a lot of value is added. This makes some of these later books in the series difficult to judge. Memory might be my favorite novel in the series, but is that because of what happens in the novel by itself, or is it reliant on previous installments for that heft? And is that a bad thing? Personally, I don't think so... but it may make an interesting topic for another post.

Below are short reviews of the last five novels of the series (with a bonus short story thrown in for good measure). I've tried to avoid any real talk about the plots of each, but there might be some minor spoilers on a macro level. That being said, I knew a lot of this stuff was coming before I read it, and it did not diminish anything. Half the fun is Bujold's style, which is not ornate or flowery, not showy, but perhaps deceptively effective and downright compelling. These are page turners, but ones of unusual sophistication. While I have finished the series, I don't think this will be the last I blog of it. Indeed, I already have a few ideas for other posts, but they will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, here's some mixed thoughts on the last five books of the series:
  • Memory - I think this may be my favorite novel of the series. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have nearly the same impact if you started here. This book is a culmination, a real turning point for both the character of Miles and the series as a whole. Up until now, Miles has led a dual life, and for the most part, he's gotten away with it. But the chickens come home to roost in this novel, and Miles has to make some hard choices. Like all the best Vorkosigan novels, seemingly nothing goes right in the first portion of the story. I keep thinking to myself: This is wrong! Or No, you idiot! Fortunately, Bujold knows what she's doing. Miles falters in the beginning, but starts to pick himself back up, and watching him grow, watching him finally accept and acknowledge his identity, his true identity, makes for a wonderful story (this is primarily why new readers might not wholly get it). Oh sure, there's lots of intrigue and conspiracy and of course Miles is in the center of it all, but that's the norm for him. What's new is that he doesn't retreat to his normal crutches (er, not after the beginning anyway), and instead forges a new path for himself.

    Also notable here is the setting of Barrayar, which becomes more complex and real to me every time I see it. Sometimes it seems like every science fiction planet has their own monoculture (or monoclimate), but Barrayar is fully realized, with distinct differences between rural and city areas, and multiple political factions, etc... It helps that the planet is populated with a veritable plethora of familiar and likeable side characters (another reason the book probably wouldn't resonate with new readers). In particular, it's fun to see a different side of Illyan, who up until now has been something of an inscrutable spymaster (though we do see him when he's much younger too). There's even a callback to my other favorite Vorkosigan story, The Mountains of Morning - Miles visits Silvy Vale again, to find that things have changed there, in no small part because of his previous efforts. It's a turning point for Miles in this story, and thus a turning point for the whole series.
  • Komarr - In this book, Miles and one of the Emperor's other Imperial Auditors visits one of the other two planets in the Barrayaran Imperium to investigate an engineering disaster. It looks pretty straightforward at first, but seeing as though Miles is involved, things get hairy pretty quickly. There are a few things that really set this book apart, and one is that half the book is written from Ekaterin Vorsoisson's perspective. She's the niece of Miles' Imperial Auditor colleague, and she's married to a minor Vor lord and administrator on the planet. This is a relatively new direction for the series, which has often relied on Miles as detective, but this time, it's his official role. I won't say much about the mystery in question, except that it's pretty well plotted and interesting. The real strength of this book is Ekaterin, who's in a pretty rough situation, and things get worse for her as time goes on. Miles and Ekaterin actually develop an interesting relationship here, and there's a moment about halfway through the book where they have a minor adventure when shopping, and it forces Miles to have flashback to his Dendarii days - it's actually a callback to one of the novellas from Borders of Infinity, and it totally explains something that I never quite got when I was reading that story. It's one of those moments when all the pieces unexpectedly come together... for something you never even realized was an issue. It makes me wonder about the degree to which Bujold had planned out the series. In any case, this is an interesting book. I wouldn't say that it's better than Memory, but it's solid in its own right, and it's an interesting direction for the series. Miles is still growing into his new role, and finding that his Impsec habits die hard (and that's a good thing, too, as his many varied experiences serve him well in his new job).
  • A Civil Campaign - You wouldn't think a book whose centerpiece is a (disastrous) dinner party would have very high stakes, but, well, here we are. Oh, and the conclusion of the story hinges off of... a democratic vote. Yeah, from the outside, this doesn't seem like much, especially in a series that has previously centered on military action and espionage, but it's actually quite involving because it's a big character piece. The points of view in this book expand from Miles and Ekaterin to also include Mark Vorkosigan, Kareen Koudelka, and even Ivan Vorpatril. Like Memory, we're on Barrayar here, so there's a huge cast of well established side characters making appearances, along with a bevy of new ones, including even some folk of the Vorrutyer clan who have been villains in previous books, but this time around, there are a couple that are, uh, maybe not good guys, but certainly better than the alternatives! It's another change of pace for the series, and the Romantic angle which has been building since Memory seems to have picked up a lot of steam. The books starts a bit on the slow side, but once you get to that ill-fated dinner party, which is hysterically funny by the way, things pick up considerably, making this among my favorite of the books in the series. Actually, the grand majority of the book is funny, probably making this more of a comedy than previous books in the series. Where Memory was all about Miles, this book seems more about Ekaterin. Her character underwent a lot of changes in Komarr too, but she's really the one that is driving everything this time around. This book really does a lot, but Bujold manages to juggle all the various storylines well, and make it all seem natural and balanced. Excellent book.
  • Winterfair Gifts - This is a short story that depicts Miles' wedding on Barrayar. The Dendarii mercenaries (sans Elli Quinn, for obvious reasons) have arrived for the wedding, but Lady Ekaterin has mysteriously fallen ill... The story is told entirely from Armsman Roic's POV, which is a neat touch. We've seen him a bit in the previous novel, but he really gets a chance to shine here. Indeed, there's even something of a romantic subplot with him and Taura, the 8 foot tall, genetically modified Dendarii mercenary with fierce, catlike features. Roic, being a Barrayaran, has a prejudice against women soldiers and "mutants", of which Taura certainly qualifies. But he quickly reverses position. It's not really the focus of the story, and it was pretty clear that nothing much would come of this because of Taura's unnaturally short lifespan, but it was a nice touch. The mystery the two of them solve is pretty neato too. All in all, it's a really pleasant story, and it was really nice to get updates on the Dendarii folk, who had been pretty absent from the recent books. If you're reading the series, don't skip this one because it's "just" a short story. It's a lot of fun.
  • Diplomatic Immunity - As I tweeted when I was reading this, I tried really hard to resist the "urge to constantly scream the title like the South African guy from Lethal Weapon 2". Of course, I failed miserably, and yes, I just kinda screamed it right now. Anywho, after the previous four books in the series, which were all superb, I think this one probably represents a bit of step backwards. Not bad at all, just not quite at the level of the previous few books. It does take a little while to get started, but once the nature of the conflict starts to become clear, it becomes incredibly tense and thrilling. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the conclusion happens "off screen" as it were, and we find out that Ekaterin saves the day in Miles' stead (I'd like to have seem more from Ekaterin's perspective in this one). On the other hand, we do get to hang out with Bel Thorne again, which is awesome, and Bujold's writing is still wonderful and absurdly funny at times. I don't want to talk much about the plot here, as it is interesting (you'll probably have to have read Cetaganda before this one for the ending to really have a good impact) and despite not being my favorite Vorkosigan book, it's still better than average SF mystery! It's one of those weird things. Miles manages to foil a galaxy-wide conspiracy plot that could have potentially lead to war... yet it seems like there is less at stake here than in A Civil Campaign!
  • Cryoburn - Like Diplomatic Immunity, this one suffers a bit from reduced stakes. Bujold manages to work around this by adding the POV of Jin, an 11 year old kid at the heart of the conspiracy that Miles is uncovering. But the book takes place on Kibou-daini, a planet that we've never heard of before (most of the other planets in Bujold's universe are mentioned and foreshadowed in other books before a story gets set there), and the only familiar face we run into is Armsman Roic (who is indeed awesome!) A few others show up later in the story, and we see some communiques from Ekaterin and Gregor and the like, and we hear a little about Miles' kids, but for the most part, it's all new characters. Fortunately, the new folks are pretty great in their own right, and the story here is also rather interesting, which I think elevates this above Diplomatic Immunity, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of some other installments. Ironically, despite being the latest novel published (and the latest in terms of the chronology), this might make a decent entry into the series, which is rather strange, and of course, everything you'd read after this would be prequel, so I wouldn't recommend it, but I suspect that's why this managed to garner a Hugo nomination... Anyway, I had a ton of fun with this, but there was something about it that felt strange. Not bad, but it's like Miles has become so powerful in his old age. He's done all the growth he's needed to do. It's like he's maxed out his levels in an RPG and so most enemies don't really represent a threat to him... so while I enjoyed the story, I never quite feared that he wouldn't manage to pull it all off in style, which, of course, he does. There's nothing really wrong with that, and again, I really had a lot of fun with the book, it's just another that isn't really top tier stuff (though Bujold's writing is tight as ever). The very end of Cryoburn, after the story proper has been resolved, seems a bit rushed for what it represents. There's a bit of a tragedy there, but not an unexpected one, and indeed, Bujold laid the hints on pretty thickly in the preceding chapters, though I didn't quite recognize that for what it was. It makes for a fitting end to the series, though I'm sure there are plenty other stories that could be told as well (and indeed, Bujold has written a tale centering around Ivan that will be out later this year).
Whew. There are only two books in the series that remain for me, one that takes place a couple hundred years in the past and is mostly unrelated (Falling Free) and one that is forthcoming (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, which can't get here soon enough - I think withdrawal pains are starting to set in already).