Category Archives: Vorkosigan saga

A civil campaign

A civil campaign / Lois McMaster Bujold

A civil campaign is definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books to date. It features a significantly more lighthearted tone than most of the series, and Bujold herself has described it as a “romantic comedy”. 

Plot summary

After returning to Barrayar Miles is eager to court Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, the arrival of sex-selection technology around the time of Miles’s birth has resulted in a generation with a severe gender imbalance and Miles must contend with a horde of other suitors.

Meanwhile, Ekaterin is living with her aunt and uncle, both highly respected engineers. Deciding to pursue her love of gardening and landscape design she has sworn never to marry again. After the events of Komarr are classified at the highest levels, Ekaterin  and Miles discover themselves implicated in an ugly rumor, one that ImpSec refuses to dispel as it provides an effective cover story for what really happened during the Soletta Array disaster.

So how is it?

As I’ve said, it’s not the “best” Vorkosigan book but it is my favorite. There’s a playful silliness here that serves as a nice contrast from the drama of psychological abuse that serves as the center of Komarr. Together, the two books balance each other out wonderfully.

There are several interesting subplots in A civil campaign that sere as interesting social commentary, especially as they intersect. 

René Vorbretten, newly married and eager to start a family, discovers that his grandfather was the son of an officer of the Cetagandan occupation, not his great-grandfather. The conservative faction of the Council of Counts jumps on this opportunity to have Vorbretten stripped of his titles.

In another subplot, Barrayar’s system of male primogeniture is challenged by the newly available medical technology.

In a third subplot, one Count attempts to deal with both the underpopulation of his district and the general societal gender imbalance by taking unused donor eggs and growing himself several hundred daughters.

All of these subplots have some interesting things to say about the assumptions made by chauvinists about how widely their views are held, and the way different interests interact to create political coalitions. 

A civil campaign might be the “romantic comedy” of the series, but that doesn’t mean it shares the normal conflation of obsessive, possessive behavior with romance. Miles’s attempts to court Ekaterin without her knowledge end up working well as a deconstruction at the way the classic romantic comedy structure eliminates women’s agency.*

Miles is presented as much more flawed here than he sometimes is, and finds himself confronting that his standard strategy when dealin with people is attempting to manipulate them into doing whatever he wants.

The way everything comes together is perfect, complete with an obnoxious proposal and a Shakespearean pairing-off of most of the recurring characters, but there are some really poignant moments. The emperor Gregor’s discovery about the type of person his father really was from The Vor game comes back here as Ekaterin struggles with letting her son know what really happened at the end of Komarr.

It’s a great book, but it’s conceivable that it might be too silly for some. There are several Oscar Wilde-sequel moments, including a disastrous dinner party and a scene where one character’s creditors catch up with them. There’s also what amounts to a food fight in there. A civil campaign maintains the emotional depth of the series but never feels grim. My favorite Vorkosigan book, but Sam the Eagle types will be cranky at the tone.

*the best of the classic romantic comedies is obviously His girl Friday, and a major factor in that is that the original stage version was about a platonic relationship between two men.

Komarr

Komarr / Lois McMaster Bujold

Komarr is the first post-Memory volume of the Vorkosigan series. As a result, it’s quite a bit different than the earlier books and even more so than Shards of honor presents a blend of genres – half regency romance, half science fiction.

Miles Vorkosigan features, but from this point on in the series other pout of view characters become increasingly prominent.

Plot summary

Ekaterin Vorsoisson is unhappy. Her husband, terraforming project administrator Tien Vorsoisson, is moody and struggling to hide a genetic illness that drove his brother to an “accidental” death in a vehicular accident. To make matters worse, her husband’s job has forced her to leave her belove home world for the domed cities of Komarr, a world whose attitude towards Barrayarans is rarely welcoming and frequently hostile.

After a mysterious accident destroys a large portion of the planet’s orbital solar power collector her uncle, former engineering professor and current Imperial Auditor Vorthys comes to Komarr to investigate. Accompanying him is the “mutie lord” Miles Vorkosigan, the twisted dwarfish son of the notorious “Butcher of Komarr”.

So how is it?

As I’ve mentioned in many of my previous posts on this series, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. 

I need I make a confession: I like books that feature really mundane activities. My favorite Recluce book is the first one because I like the part where Lerris is working as a carpenter. My favorite of the Chronicles of Prydain is Taran Wanderer. My favorite parts of Memory are the part where Miles is trying to get his home up and running and the part where he goes fishing. For some reason my favorite parts about sff are the parts that do the least to distinguish it from other genres. As a result, my favorite part of Komarr is a scene where Ekaterin and Miles go shopping. My second favorite part is a scene where Ekaterin’s son refuses to go to school. So be aware of that when I say that this book is one of my favorites.

One of the reasons I like Komarr is how relaxed the whole thing feels. Yes, there’s a plot involving the secret behind the accident that destroyed the Soletta array, but that takes a back seat to scenes of people going shopping and eating dinner and questioning themselves and getting to know each other. It feels very historical romance that way, which is fine with me an makes me wonder if I should be reading more historical romance anyways.

Komarr is also more towards the “hard sf” end of the spectrum than most Bujold. There’s plenty of discussion about terraforming and waste-heat and things like that. It adds a sense of realism but never falls to Kim Stanley Robinson-like depths of obnoxiousness like “Joe exited the ship into an atmosphere of 70% nitrogen and was promptly surrounded by a dust cloud featuring iron particles at a concentration of 377ppm. The barometric pressure was N and the gravity was .7g which meant he found walking across the surface composed of 66% silicon, 20% iron, and 10% trace organic material …” (Etc.)

So Komarr is kind of weird in that it’s simultaneously more and less “hardcore” sf. I suspect that this will be more of a stumbling block for hardcore sf fans than it will others. The engineering talk is largely just extra flavoring while the emotional moments are the core of the story.

I think it was Jo Walton who said that for her, Memory was the point were the Vorkosigan books stopped getting better. That wasn’t the case for me, but Komarr is the beginning of a new stage of the series with less emphasis on Miles himself and fewer set-piece action scenes. I like it that way but those looking for puppy-style adventure will be disappointed when characters start talking about their feelings.

The climax of this book is amazing and make it worth checking out for fans of the earlier books too.

Recommendation

As I mentioned in my previous post about this series, Komarr is actually a great entry point to the series. It’s mostly told from the PoV of a new character and while previous events are important the plot doesn’t assume knowledge of them and it’s easy to figure it out from context. (Neither is much time spent recapping. Bujold is the best at informing the new reader without boring the old one.)

It’s also worth a recommendation to non-sf readers. Historical romance* fans in particular will find a lot to love here. It’s a strong recommendation for fans of Sarah MacLean who are willing to try something unusual. Shana Galen is another good comparison.

*That being said, Komarr is much less sexually explicit than most historical romance so if that’s your primary motivation you’re going to be disappointed.

Reading Vorkosigan

So here’s my guide to reading the Vorkosigan series.

My basic recommendation is to read the entire series in internal chronological order (not publication order) starting with Shards of honor. Falling free is technically the first book chronologically but it could be inserted anywhere since there are no characters in common with the rest of the series.

The thing is, that’s lot of books and I know quite a few people who actively refuse to read long series, and more than one person who avoids reading sequels in the vast majority of cases.

So what should you read if you’re interested in the series but don’t want to read absolutely everything?

Honesty as much as there is a coherent character arc, the books are largely self contained. With the exceptions of Mirror dance, Memory, and A civil campaign you could pick up almost any book with no knowledge of the series and do okay.

But that’s not necessarily the “best” way to go about it, as which books you’ll enjoy the most really depend on what you want to get out of it.

If you want to read the series but just want the “core”, or if your genre tastes run to the more military, then you should read:

  1. The warrior’s apprentice
  2. The Vor game
  3. “Borders of infinity”
  4. Brothers in arms
  5. Mirror dance
  6. Memory

You can do that with only 3 physical volumes: the Young Miles omnibus, the Miles errant omnibus, and Memory. So it’s a cost-effective way to experience the narrative arc that covers most of the series without requiring a significant time and/or monetary investment (if you’re buying them instead of getting them from the library).

If you’re more interested in reading books with a female main character then go:

  1. Shards of honor
  2. Barrayar
  3. (Optionally) Komarr

The first two star Miles’s mother and Barrayar especially is absolutely great. Both are collected in the Cordelia’s honor omnibus. Komarr is still “about” Miles but it primarily told from a new, female character’s point of view.

If you prefer more romance-oriented tales with fewer spaceship battles go this way:

  1. Shards of honor
  2. Barrayar
  3. Komarr
  4. A civil campaign
  5. “Winterfair gifts”

This only requires two books, Cordelia’s honor and Mile in love. Non-sf fans can skip the former and go straight to the latter, a Komarr is written more like a regency romance (à la Heyer or Laurens, not Harlequin or Austen) and A civil campaign is a straight up screwball comedy, the best one since His girl Friday. You could add Captain Vorpatril’s alliance after A civil campaign for another humorous romantic adventure that’s closer to The lady Eve than His girl Friday.

This leaves a couple of books out. It’s not that they’re bad, they just aren’t “core” to the series as a whole. They definitely have some things going for them though:

  • Ethan of Athos – this one is great but isn’t heavily tied to the main arc of the series. It’s still worth reading and a solid recommendation for sf fans. Fans of the “lighter” C.J. Cherryh novels (e.g. Medchanter’s luck) should especially enjoy this one.
  • Cetaganda – this one is about Miles, taking place pretty close to the same time as Ethan of Athos, but as I mentioned in my review it’s not integral enough to the series to be required reading. Good, but if you’re looking for books to cut in order to move on to other things this isn’t a bad choice.
  • Falling free – this one is virtually a standalone in itself. It’s set several hundred years before the series proper. It’s much more of a “hard” sf novel, lots of discussion of space station engineering. It’s a great book on its own, just too different from the main series to recommend alongside it and not snarky enough for my taste. Perfect for Vernor Vinge fan but recommended for most.
  • Diplomatic immunity – I barely remember this one. Set after A civil campaign it’s too forgettable to be core but I remember enjoying it anyways.
  • Cryoburn – I think this one will be better in the future. Set significantly later than Diplomatic immunity, lots of things happen but the long-term impact has yet to be established. 

So that’s my general guide. For starting points, there are basically three: Shards of honor, The warrior’s apprentice, and Komarr. Starting at any of those and moving forward in internal chronology should be a great experience regardless.

Ethan of Athos and Falling free are kind of the odd ones out. They focus on more minor characters so could really be read whenever. Captain Vorpatril’s alliance fits here too, but those planning on reading the series should wait until after A civil campaign to check it out.

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.

Mirror dance

Mirror dance / Lois McMaster Bujold

I figure it’s about time for another Vorkosigan post.  Since this is the beginning of some relatively major changes in the series, I’m going to be throwing pretty much the whole thing under the cut. If you have already read Brothers in arms, or don’t care about having that book’s major plot twist spoiled, then read on.

I’ll sum up what’s below here:

Mirror dance is in some sense a direct sequel to Brothers in arms. It introduces some major twists into the series and represents the beginning of a huge turning point in the life of Miles Vorkosigan. It’s also the darkest Vorkosigan novel up to this point. Beyond its interest for the series, Mirror dance elaborates and expands on many of the continuing themes of the series – especially the way the series portrays and examines mental illness.

Mirror dance is also the necessary precursor to Memory, widely considered the best novel of the series. Anybody who enjoys the series should read Mirror dance, but like Memory it’s fairly dependent on the previous volumes and as such isn’t really a good entry point into the universe.

Continue reading Mirror dance

Brothers in arms

Brothers in arms / Lois McMaster Bujold

That ain’t no clone, that’s my brother

I’ve been having trouble deciding what I want to post about next so I’m just gonna go back to the Vorkosigan series.

Brothers in arms is set more or less directly after the novella Borders of infinity (as opposed to the book of the same title), and is the first in a series of five novels that are fairly closely linked. Borders of infinity is itself the catalyst for this “set”, but it’s not strictly necessary to have read the novella for the rest of this to make sense.

Brief plot summary

After [events of Borders of infinity], the Dendarii Free Mercenaries are forced to stop on Earth for repairs. Problems arise when Miles, technically part of the Barrayaran military hierarchy, is assigned to a desk job while his nominal commanding officer waits for approval to release the funds to cover the repairs to the Dendarii fleet.

Separated from his troops, Miles is forced to conspire with his cousin Ivan to make contact with the Dendarii to prevent mass desertion, mutiny, bankruptcy, and/or the repossession of the fleet by their creditors. All the while, Miles is forced to attempt to reinforce the crumbling wall between his two identities.

Continue reading Brothers in arms

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.

Continue reading Borders of infinity

Cetaganda

Cetaganda / Lois McMaster Bujold.

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.

Plot summary

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.

Continue reading Cetaganda

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.

Continue reading The Vor game

The warrior’s apprentice

The warrior’s apprentice / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1986.

The warrior’s apprentice is the second Vorkosigan book to be published, and is the first to star Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, hero of the majority of the series. Published shortly after Shards of honor, The warrior’s apprentice actually takes place about 17 years after the conclusion of Barrayar.

Brief plot description

(Possible indirect spoilers for Shards of Honor and Barrayar)

The warrior’s apprentice features Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, physically disabled but brilliant son of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. After his physical handicaps prevent him from the military career he had always dreamed of, Miles travels to his mother’s homeworld of Beta Colony in an attempt to figure out what to do with his life.

Continue reading The warrior’s apprentice