Borders of infinity

The borders of infinity / Lois McMaster Bujold.

It’s been a while since I did a Vorkosigan review, so here’s another one.

Borders of infinity is a collection of three novellas bound together by a frame story. The novellas themselves have since been republished in the other omnibus editions of the Vorkosigan saga, but the frame story hasn’t. As a result, I kind of prefer this version.

Brief plot summary

Frame story: Miles is hospitalized, recovering from injuries incurred on a recent mission as well as surgery to have his fragile arm bones replaced with synthetics. Head of Impsec Simon Illyan interviews Miles regarding his recent expenses as his father is under suspicion of misusing imperial funds.

Mountains of mourning: set between The warrior’s apprentice and The Vor game, Mountains of mourning features a young Miles charged by his father with investigating the death of an infant in the backwards rural part of his holdings, where deep-seated prejudices against “mutants” are still strong.

Labyrinth: Taking place some time after Cetaganda, Labyrinth features Miles in his Admiral Naismith persona, charged with extricating a genetic engineer from the unscrupulous crime families of Jackson’s Whole. Unfortunately, the scientist refuses to leave unless Miles can also rescue his “samples”.

Borders of infinity: Miles is tasked with engineering a breakout in a prisoner of war camp.

So how is it?

All of the stories are very strong, and showcase different facets of the Vorkosigan universe. The events of all three stories are centrally important both to the overarching narrative and to Miles’s character development. As a result, they really aren’t “optional” reading the way many novellas tied to series are. The first and last stories concern major formative experiences in Miles’s life. Labyrinth introduces a major character who plays an important role in the development of the series as a whole.

Mountains of mourning is a relatively intimate story, about the struggles of modernising a culture where a large percentage of the population doesn’t have electricity or running water. The fact that Miles, visibly disabled, is tasked with investigating the possibly eugenics-oriented death of an infant provides added complexity.

Labyrinth features Miles as the James Bond-style adventurer, embroiled in a covert mission to rescue an uncooperative target. It feels claustrophobic, and helps to establish the setting of Jackson’s Whole in a way that paves the way for later books in the series.

Where Labyrinth feels claustrophobic, with the action taking place in dark tunnels and mysterious locales, Borders of infinity feels bright and open. It showcases Miles-as-tactician, and this novella in particular is inextricably linked to the other novels, setting up the circumstances that lead to Brothers in arms, the next (in internal chronology) full-length novel.

Overall, we get to see Miles wear many different hats and the book does a good job of illuminating the different sides of his personality. We get to see Miles the detective, Miles the secret agent, and Miles the master strategist as he adapts to disparate settings. It’s a fun experience and well worth reading.

Borders of infinity (the book as a whole, as opposed to the novella of the same title) is a surprisingly important book in the series. Much of the internal struggles that Miles goes through in subsequent books have their roots here, and the vast majority of characters introduced play integral parts in later installments. It could have been a book of filler, but Bujold is too good a writer for that.

Recommendation

I’d highly recommend that readers of the series not skip this one. If you’re reading the series for the first time via the omnibus editions it’s less critical: the frame story, while entertaining, isn’t really that important. The only issue is that Labyrinth isn’t included in the proper context, so readers of the omnibus editions might miss out on some of the context when certain characters are introduced.

People who aren’t interested in reading a long series might want to check out this book as well. I’ve seen non-Vorkosigan fans who really enjoyed it, as it provides a good sense of the scope of the (pre-Memory) series without requiring a multi-book reading commitment.

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