Yeah, you can probably skip this one.
Cetaganda is my least favorite of the Vorkosigan books, but it’s still a great read. It’s my least favorite because one of the reasons I enjoy the series so much is because of how interconnected everything is while each volume still works as a standalone novel. I like Cetaganda less than the others not because of any particular failings on its part, but because it’s largely irrelevent to the series as a whole.*
*Since writing this post, my perspective on this issue has changed somewhat. See the addendum below.
Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan end up on the homeworld of the Cetagandan empire for a state funeral. Cetaganda is aggressively expansionistic and during Miles’s grandfather’s youth had attempted to “colonize” the then technologically backwards Barrayar. The political situation is understandably tense, and soon Miles and Ivan find themselves embroiled in the complex morass of Cetagandan eugenics policy.
So how is it?
As I said above, it’s a great book but my least favorite in the series. I have two main issues with Cetaganda. One I mentioned above, that it’s largely irrelevent. My second issue has to do with the internal chronology of the series as a whole.
Cetaganda as a novel could be excised from the Vorkosigan saga without having any impact whatsoever on the larger narrative. The events of the book are mentioned in two sentences in Memory, and one of the major characters returns in A civil campaign, but references are so minimal that the book really doesn’t do anything to expand them.
There are a couple of other books set in the Vorkosigan universe that are less interconnected. Falling free takes place hundreds of years before the series proper and has nothing to do with the Vorkosigan clan specifically or Barrayar generally. It still works in concert with the rest of the series however as it provides context and background detail of the history and technology of the universe, as well as explaining the background behind some of the more exotic characters in the series.
Ethan of Athos is also a “side story” type situation. The main character is totally unconnected to any of the other characters, coming from an isolated planet populated solely by men. That being said, the outsider’s perspective provides an interesting take, since Ethan finds himself involved in a Dendarii operation. It provides richness to series and works totally fine as a standalone novel.
Cetaganda is different from these two as it stars Miles, and yet doesn’t seem to add anything to the story of his life. I felt the same way about The Vor game the first time I read it, but reading more of the series (as well as rereading The Vor game) have changed my perspective and now I really enjoy that book.
My other issue is that Cetaganda is in the wrong place, chronologically. It would be far more effective if it took place sometime after the short story Borders of infinity. In fact, I was totally convinced that it did take place after Borders of infinity until I took a closer look at the timeline. Miles’s presence at a major Cetagandan function would be far more dramatically effective if it took place after the events of Borders of infinity. Instead, it’s the first time we see Miles interact with the Cetagandans and as such loses some of its punch.
I’m being a little unfair here. The book is still a great adventure, and foreshadows the more politically driven books that appear later in the series. If Bujold comes back and writes more books set in the Admiral Naismith stage of Miles’s career that show connections with Cetaganda, I’ll probably enjoy this book more.
Cetaganda is the only “Miles under 30” book that I haven’t reread. It’s possible I’ll feel better about it on rereading it, and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. It’s a great book, but if you don’t want to read the whole Vorkosigan series, this is a safe one to skip.
When I initially wrote this post (I typically write these posts 4-6 weeks before they are actually published) I had not yet read Captain Vorpatril’s alliance, the most recent book in the series. My complaints about later books not addressing the events of Cetaganda are totally invalidated in Captain Vorpatril’s alliance. It links up quite nicely and while it’s still not necessary to read Cetaganda to get a feel for the series as a whole, it feels much less like a minor appendage.