The Vor game

The Vor game / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1990.

The Vor game is the second of the Miles Vorkosigan novels by internal chronology. It serves as the jumping off point for Miles’s career in milititary intelligence where he will serve for about the next decade. It is also the last novel to keep the more action-oriented fast-paced plot style of The warrior’s apprentice. It also won the Hugo award for best novel, so that’s something.

As usual, I encourage you to ignore Amazon’s method of numbering the series, which apparently counts novellas and short stories as full volumes.

Brief plot description

(Possible minor spoilers for the previous volumes)

The plot of The Vor game is split into two main sections, one based on Barrayar and one with a more interplanetary setting.

Miles Vorkosigan has just successfully graduated from the Imperial Academy and is reaady to get his first shipboard assignment. Unfortunately for him, he ends up the weather officer at a remote arctic infantry training camp staffed by bigoted alcoholics.

The second section follows Miles in his first assignment as part of Impsec. He quickly discovers that his supervising agent has no faith whatsoever in him, and after a run in with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries Miles is forced to re-activate his Admiral Naismith persona in an attempt to rescue an important Barrayaran and prevent an interstellar war.

So how is it?

Initially I didn’t enjoy The Vor game as well as The warrior’s apprentice. Upon re-reading the books more recently, my opinion has shifted. While the plot of The Vor game is somewhat more disjointed than that of the previous novel, the events flow more directly from decisions made by characters.  The plot grows out of the interplay of many decisions, as opposed to an avalanche of events caused by one character’s whim. It makes the plot more believable, and its examination of the way individuals react to prejudice has a little more emotional depth than in The warrior’s apprentice.

In many ways, The Vor game is a book about characters making bad decisions, partially as an extension of The warrior’s apprentice and it’s focus on accepting the responsibility for one’s actions. Every major character in the book is where they are because of poor decision making skills. Before the book starts, Miles has made some poor decisions that result in him being assigned to an unpleasant job on a remote base. Poor decisions on the part of that base commander set the stage for the second half of the book.

The major “villain” of the book is brought down not by the actions of the heroes, but because of their own poor decisions. Every major plot point is the result of somebody making a bad decision, and the way Bujold deals with these issues really helps to drive the story and make it an entertaining read.

The remainder of my review has been transplanted to the bottom of the page due to some spoilers as well as content issues. Note that while I do have a content note below, that doesn’t apply to the book itself and the vast majority of people who have issues with that sort of content should be totally capable of enjoying this book and the series generally without being triggered.*

*I am not a mental healthcare professional. I do have experience “screening” media for people with severe problems with certain types of content, and base what I’ve said above on that experience, but as everyone is different it’s possible that there may still be triggering content. If you have concerns, I’d recommend enlisting a trusted friend or someone who knows you better than I do. This also applies to my earlier review of The warrior’s apprentice.

Strengths:

Plot has more emotional depth than The warrior’s apprentice

Miles continues to be a very entertaining character

Weaknesses:

Suffers from the Star Wars “incredibly small galaxy where people continuously encounter the same people over and over again” syndrome

Plot is somewhat disjointed and lacks a cohesive, overarching theme compared to the other books in the series

 

Continued from above

(Spoilers up to about the halfway point of The Vor game follow)

One of the great strengths of the Vorkosigan books is Bujold’s ability to work incredibly serious themes into what is otherwise light reading. Prejudice against the disabled is addressed explicitly, and issues of classism and sexism are also treated more-or-less openly. Issues relating to mental illness are just as important to the series, but they are addressed in a much more subtle way.

(Content note: the following paragraphs include discussion of suicide)

It’s made perfectly clear that Miles is not exactly emotionally stable. In The warrior’s apprentice, he mentions that Sergeant Bothari has saved his life several times. Initially, it’s assumed that he has saved Miles from assassins and zealous family members attempting to euthanize the “mutant” child. What’s only mentioned in one sentence, and could be easily overlooked if one is not reading carefully, is that at least one of these rescues was actually Bothari preventing Miles from committing suicide. The issue isn’t emphasized, and Bujold draws no attention to it other than mentioning it one time.

The major plotline of the second section of The Vor game is Miles’s discovery of the missing Emperor Gregor of Barrayar. Initially, Gregor states that he ran away in order to live a life free of the crushing responsibilities and expectations of his position. What eventually comes out is that he ran away after a failed attempt to commit suicide by throwing himself off a balcony. When he survived the fall relatively uninjured, he decided to run away instead.

What makes these two incidents so powerful, to me, is that Bujold never uses the term “suicide” in this context. These characters are in pain, and in the true spirit of “show, don’t tell” she refrains from using a word that carries a great deal of cultural baggage to describe their actions. It gives the events emotional heft without drawing too much attention to them. It also enables Bujold to feature characters who struggle with these issues without stigmatizing them.

(Discussion of suicide ends)

Bujold does the same thing with how she treats sexuality in the series. It’s made fairly clear that Miles’s father is bisexual, and while his past liasons with men are used to attack him only once in the entire series up to this point is he actually described as bisexual, and it’s in a conversation between his spouse Cordelia and another character, where she mentions that her impression was that her husband preferred men for the most part. It’s implied that this might be a cultural issue: Aral prefers stronger, more assertive partners and highly patriarchal Barrayar is a society that actively discourages women from taking an active role in public life. (There’s also a great moment earlier on in the series when a character attempts to shock Cordelia by revealing Aral’s past romantic involvement with men.)

Issues of sex and sexuality continue to be important throughout the series, but continue to be dealt with in a more subtle fashion (excepting perhaps A civil campaign, which as a relatively straightforward romance novel stands as the exception rather than the rule) than books attempting to address these issues normally would. It’s another testament to Bujold’s strength as a writer. I’d draw a comparison with “family” films, where filmmakers frequently include references that will “go over the heads” of younger viewers. Bujold does the same, here: casually reading the Vorkosigan as an escapist adventure series is very, very easy. Still, for readers paying closer attention, there is much more going on than initially appears.

 

 

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