Memory

This is one review I’ve been both dreading and looking forward to. I’ve been puttin it off for a while now because it’s one of my favorite books and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.

Memory  / Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory is more or less universally acknowledged to be the best Vorkosigan book. It manages to maintain the humor of the series while dealing with the fallout of the events of Mirror dance in an appropriately serious manner. It’s an emotionally demanding read if you’re the type to get invested in the characters when you read. It’s less dark than Mirror dance but tackles issues of personal responsibility and the potential costs of actually getting what they want. 

Memory is a book that I’ve heard more than one person describe as their favorite book that they’ll never read again. Others have said they love rereading it but always skip the first few chapters. It’s a point if view I can understand. While Memory is the “best” of the series it’s not my favorite (that would be the combination of Komarr and A civil campaign). I reread it about once a year but I look forward to finishing it so I can get to Komarr. I’m not sure my spouse appreciates that since I can’t even describe the plot of Memory out loud without crying. It’s that powerful. (Although I also cry every time I see or think about that ASL Wells Fargo commercial so keep that in mind).

Plot summary

On a routine hostage rescue mission Miles has a seizure and ends up severely injuring the rescuee. Miles is force to choose between admitting that the events of Mirror dance have left him medically unfit to continue to serve in the field or falsifying his report to Simin Illyan in an attempt to hide his condition. Miles makes his choice and lives with the consequences.

Also there’s some intrigue going on and a plot and stuff but this book is really all about Character.

So how is it?

It’s great. If it wasn’t about space-faring mercenaries it would be widely recognized as a Great Work of Literature. It’s the culmination of ideas that have been building for a long time across the series. I recently reread most of the earlier novels and it’s amazing how well these events are foreshadowed. Cordelia has repeatedly remarked that her son must eventually choose between being “the little Admiral” (excellent Napoleon reference, by the way) and “Lord Vorkosigan”. Here, Miles is forced to make that choice, and while at one point it seems like that choice has been made for him ultimately he does decide.

It’s a book about making hard choices, where you pay a significant cost no matter what you do. The finale is amazingly powerful. 

Memory’s biggest drawback is that it requires the reader I have read the rest of the series for maximum impact. The vast majority of the Vorkosigan books are completely modular, but without having read Mirror dance at a minimum you won’t get as much out of this one.

The way Bujold deals with mental health issues continues to amaze me. Other characters have been pointing out for a few books now that Miles is not exactly sane. The way Mark* processes the events of the previous book hint that the situation with Miles’s “cover identity” is more complex and deeply rooted than it might first appear. Bujold is one of the only authors I can think of who can successfully write mentally ill characters as regular people.

*this character’s identity left intentionally ambiguous to avoid spoiling earlier installments

Memory is a major turning point. Not only do characters make decisions that have permanent effects, but Memory also marks a significant shift in genre for the series. This is partially because one of the major subtexts to Memory is that Miles is solidly an adult now and partially because of choices that various characters make.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and I’d recommend it for absolutely everyone if getting the most out of it didn’t require investing in the series as a whole. As I mentioned above, I call it the best of the series but my favorite is Komarr and A civil campaign taken as a single novel (à la Miles in love omnibus ed.). A civil campaign was by far the most fun Vorkosigan book until the publication of Captain Vorpatril’s alliance, which comes close even if it’s not about Miles.

It probably says something about me that my favorite installments in a series that’s usually called space opera are a Regency romance (in space!) and a screwball comedy (in space!).

I’ve long considered doing a “reading guide” type post on the series. Now that I’ve reviewed the major turning point that’s probably what I’ll do next.

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