Werthead

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Tor.com ran an interview with Bujold a while back in which she wrote a bit about the circumstances under which the books were written and how she proceeded through the series. Cetaganda was written during what sounds like a less than fun period for the author between Mirror Dance and Memory, and Bujold describes it as "vamping, while things settled down and I got a grip on the next phase of my life." So that might offer a partial explanation as to why it feels kinda insubstantial.



I enjoyed Cetaganda insofar as I was in the mood for more fun Miles being awesome at people and this Cetaganda can provide, but I'm glad to hear the series starts fulfilling its promise for dense complexity soon, rather than relaxing into a kind of episodic string of adventures in which Miles goes round the universe getting the better of people, which is the kind of series Cetaganda suggests to me. [Given the quality of the earlier books I had no expectation this would happen, but it's still nice to hear assurances it doesn't.] Brothers in Arms, the next book and the only one I've read that takes place after Cetaganda, is still pretty firmly in romp mode most of the time, but is definitely starting to ramp up the more impactful stuff. I'm looking forward to reading the fabled Mirror Dance and Memory sometime soon.


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Book 6: Ethan of Athos

Ethan Urquhart is a doctor on the all-male planet of Athos, which is reliant on important genetic cultures in order to increase their population. When the latest culture shipment is contaminated and destroyed, Ethan is dispatched by his government to the transfer point at Kline Station to investigate. Almost immediately after his arrival, Ethan is drawn into a web of intrigue and conspiracies featuring agents from the Cetagandan Empire and the unnerving (for Ethan) presence of a female intelligence agent from the Dendarii mercenaries.

Ethan of Athos is, chronologically, the sixth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, although it was the third to be written. Even more confusingly, it is often omitted from counts of the series due to the total non-appearance of the series' main character, Miles Vorkosigan. However, Ellie Quinn, who appeared briefly in The Warrior's Apprentice and goes on to make more important appearances alongside Miles later on, plays a major role and this book establishes a fair bit of her character and backstory. So my recommendation is to accept it as part of the saga and move on.

I enjoyed Ethan of Athos a lot. It's what Bujold does best, a comedy-of-manners romp taking in scheming, intrigue, wheels-within-wheels, deceptions and double-bluffs, and a thin layering of real science (a more thorough exploration of the uterine replicator technology mentioned in previous books) and social commentary on top. There's some nice character scenes and moments of humour, and Bujold writers her typical wit.

However, the book feels like a somewhat missed opportunity. There are a few SF novels which take a look at societies where either women are put in charge or are dominant (such as David Brin's Glory Season), or where the normal genders don't exist as we know them (obviously, The Left Hand of Darkness), but surprisingly few about the idea of a planet where only men exist. The early and closing chapters set on Athos show that Bujold has put a lot of thought into this idea and how it works, and the resulting commentary it offers up on male gender roles is facinating. But as a concept it only bookends the novel, the bulk of which is a more basic - if still fun - SF thriller.

Ethan of Athos (***½) is a solid, enjoyable SF novel, but one that feels like it could have been a lot more than that if the story had remained on Athos for its duration. Otherwise, this is a reasonable addition to the Vorkosigan series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.
Edited by Werthead

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Amusingly, a set of the test machines at my work are named after characters and locations from the Vorkosigan saga. I've no idea who came up with that naming convention, but it does make for uniquely named boxes. I used to run quite a few tests on Sergyar and Komarr...



ST


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I am surprised you liked this one. It's probably my least favorite of the bunch and I don't think I've opened it again after finishing it (I usually re-read at least parts of books I liked several times and sometimes the whole book). The premise is interesting, but it's not really explored and I didn't really care about any of the characters too much.

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I am surprised you liked this one. It's probably my least favorite of the bunch and I don't think I've opened it again after finishing it (I usually re-read at least parts of books I liked several times and sometimes the whole book). The premise is interesting, but it's not really explored and I didn't really care about any of the characters too much.

This book showed me that Bujold had created a universe that could support multiple, challenging, interesting ideas, stories and characters if she chose to pursue them.

So on the one hand I really enjoyed the Cordelia books and the books about Miles up to the point when they moved into romances. On the other hand, I enjoyed Falling Free and Ethan because they weren't about Vorkosigans, and because they stood up well on their own.

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I am surprised you liked this one. It's probably my least favorite of the bunch and I don't think I've opened it again after finishing it (I usually re-read at least parts of books I liked several times and sometimes the whole book). The premise is interesting, but it's not really explored and I didn't really care about any of the characters too much.

I agree on both. Ethan was just so bland as a POV character, I just kept hoping we would get Elli instead. I did like the concepts and eventual ramifications set up, but when I get around to rereading the series I'm not sure I'll pick up this one.

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Novella 2: Labyrinth

In his disguise as commander of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, Miles Vorkosigan is dispatched by Barrayaran intelligence to rendezvous with a defector on the anarchic world of Jackson's Whole. However, it isn't long before Miles is up to his neck in political intrigue between three feuding houses, with the defector, a mutant and a werewolf to worry about...

Labyrinth is a short novella featuring Lois McMaster Bujold's signature character of Miles Vorkosigan, once again up to his neck in trouble after a simple mission goes wrong (as they usually do). It's a fun little piece, featuring lots of Miles getting captured, smart-talking his way through interrogations and then escaping whilst throwing an entire world into turmoil but retaining deniability for Barrayar.

Whilst it's good, it's slight. There's some interesting stuff about genetic engineering, not to mention the first appearance in the Miles timeline of the quaddies, people who have had their legs replaced with arms to better cope with life in zero-gee. Between the quaddie, the werewolf (actually a genetically-altered super-soldier), the dwarf (Miles) and the hermaphrodite (recurring character Bel Thorne), the novella can be said to be about people who are outcast from some societies due to unthinking prejudice. Unfortunately, the novella's short length prevents Bujold from exploring any of the issues in any real great depth, especially as the fascinating sociological stuff is put on hold for most of the story as we instead follow Miles trying to break out of a prison.

That said, Labyrinth (***) is a fun read which cracks along fairly smartly and packs a fair amount of character development and action into a short page count. It's just a shame that Bujold didn't flesh the story out into a full novel, as it feels like the characters and issues being explored could have warranted it. Without that exploration, the novella ultimately feels too slight and disposable. The novella is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. Oddly, it is also reprinted in the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus as well.

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Labyrinth is a good example of how LMB does a good job of sticking to a story's plot rather than necessarily exploring every single science-fictional idea that she presents in the story. While some authors produce big door-stoppers that do examine every new concept in exhaustive detail, LMB keeps her eye on the prize and sticks with the characters.



I think that this is one of the reasons that she was so successful in the 1980's and early 90's with sales to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog and Isaac Azomiv's Magazine. I think that this story came out in one of those about the same time as Weatherman, another story focused on character and plot.



Finally, the fix-up novel Borders of Infinity explores ideas of compassion and acceptance through the action of Miles in all three of the novellas that are tied together within, including Labyrinth, Mountains of Mourning, and Borders of Infinity.


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Novella 3: Borders of Infinity

Miles Vorkosigan, in his guise as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, has been captured by the Cetagandans and imprisoned on a remote moon, along with thousands of other POWs. Vorkosigan finds a camp in the grip of chaos, with different groups of prisoners fighting amongst themselves and the strong preying on the weak. He has to somehow unite the prisoners before any breakout can be attempted...which is difficult to do when you have bones that shatter easily and no incentives to use.

Borders of Infinity is another short novella featuring the character of Miles Vorkosigan, this time back with the Dendarii (after a break of several stories and books, in chronological order anyway) before being imprisoned by the Cetagandans. It's a fairly straightforward and entertaining story, basically involving Miles trying to set up a prison break but being confronted by problems with asserting his authority and making enemies who want to kill him, even if it means they never escape.

The story's slightness works against it, as does a muddled tone. Funny scenes - Miles being forced to walk around naked and working with a crazy religious nut to try to win over the soldiers - are contrasted against some of the darker and more brutal scenes that Bujold has written to date. Making such a juxtaposition work is possible, but Bujold fails to achieve it here.

There's also the problem of the story being bigger than its word count. The story could easily have been twice as long, but just as it's getting started it abruptly ends, and in a rather straightforward manner as well (although the fallout does at least get novel-length coverage, in Brothers in Arms).

Borders of Infinity (***) is readable and passes the time, but is again a fairly short and slight story that feels like it's a novel that's been truncated almost to the point of non-existence. A story that's more important for what it does (setting up Brothers in Arms) than what it is, then. It can be found in the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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Thank you for these reviews, Wert, I really enjoy them.



I think that Weatherman, The Mountains of Mourning and Labyrinth came out in 1989 or 1990 via Analog magazine, which was absolutely red-hot at the time in terms of the stories that were being published.



For exactly the reasons you mention in your review, Borders of Infinity the short novella did not appear in Analog. When I finally read it in Borders of Infinity the fix-up novel, it was the least of the three novellas included. I found it to be almost dreamy in atmosphere, on first reading, with allusions that were easy to miss.



Years later, after having read many other books by Lois McMaster Bujold, I reread the novel, including the namesake story. Upon this reading the story was much more appetizing and comprehensible. Perhaps it was because I had grown as a reader, but it was also that the universe and storyline around the tale was better fixed in my mind, and the author had shown Miles referring back to the situation and the losses incurred.



So for me Borders of Infinity the short novella improved with age, while some others like Ethan of Athos showed more poorly upon additional readings.


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Book 7: Brothers in Arms

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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I think that Brothers in Arms is the turning point for Bujold's Vorkosigan series.



The books up until Brothers In Arms were all in good fun, but there was not as much critical emotional burden for the reader to carry for Miles / the Vorkosigans. Oh sure, we sweated with him and his mother in their travails, but the risk was always personal failure for one person, usually Miles. And in this I include the risk of failing his father or grandfather, because I identified that as Miles' risk as the reader.



But starting in this book, and ramping up in the books that follow in terms of the internal chronology, the risk of failure for Miles spreads out. I felt a lot more peril for those around Miles if he failed. I felt the peril to the other Dendarii, to his parents, his emperor, his clone, his own family, etc. etc. that were incumbent upon Miles' actions.



And Bujold also included more loss, or a greater sense of unexpected loss, in the books that followed. Characters that we had grown to love failed and died, and the implications of old decisions, many of them Miles' decisions, became reality, and some of that reality was sub-optimal. These losses were different from the deaths of Bothari and his grandfather. The reader sees these two as the hard-edged, old-school characters who did bad things to ensure the success of the future. Some parts of their death were appropriate and felt right, given their behaviors and choices in the past.



But in the books following Brothers in Arms, there are losses that are sad, because the world that Bothari and Cornelia and The Count delivered to Miles' generation should have been a better place than it turns out to be. And this is where Bujold really demonstrates a new ability she hadn't previously unveiled; the ability to show how the real world will destroy people who lived good lives because the real world is a bad place, and full of real people who make short-sighted and bad decisions.



I am looking forward to the reviews of these next works, Wert.

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Miles is not genetically challenged! Say that to his face and you'll get one of these.

Hahaha yes, I thought the same. The whole point of Mark's trauma is that he shares Miles genes and they had to do extensive damage to him to make him become like Miles. Miles genes are fine, the soltoxin gas that poisoned him and Cordelia was not, tho. This also ties into his struggle with the "mutant" label, since on the one hand, he wants to stand up for the people labelled as such, but on the other hand he's also very keen on distancing himself and pointing out that he is not a mutant.

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Book 8: Mirror Dance

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).

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You really hit the nail on the head with that review, Wert. The events of Mirror Dance are the most serious and weighty of the whole Vorkosigan Saga. Furthermore, the author really hits her stride in terms of handling multiple, complex plot points and psychological issues.



And while I appreciate the increasing skill Bujold demonstrates as a writer, I also miss the simplicity of the earlier books. On the other hand, when Heinlein went from his juveniles to his more adult books, he seemed to have (eventually) lost his mind or perhaps his grip on reality, while Bujold seems to get a better grip on the way the world works.



Thanks for these reviews, I enjoy them.



Side note about covers: While the covers for the Vorkosigan novels were generally always pretty tenuous on their grip of the contents of the text (The Warior's Apprentice being particularly egregious and The Vor Game being the best), Mirror Dance has an actually relevant cover. However, the picture of Miles and Mark is hilariously unlike the descriptions of either of them and soi distant from my own mental picture of these two - the first time I saw it, it looked to me like it should have the title "The Wolfman and His Better-Barbered Cousin", or "Richard Chamberlain in Space".


Edited by Wilbur

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Yes, Mirror Dance is a very good book. I like the next one (Memory) just a little bit better, but these two are definitely the apex of the series.


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From her Q&A on Goodreads, sounds like Bujold is "resting" and has absolutely no new book in the pipeline at the moment. She hasn't ruled out more Vorksokigan or Chalion books, but promised nothing either. :ohwell:

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Yes, Mirror Dance is a very good book. I like the next one (Memory) just a little bit better, but these two are definitely the apex of the series.

I think Memory is my favourite, if nothing else because I just love the crap out of Simon Illyan as a character. Plus the hilarity when Ivan Vorpatril figures things out is just LOL.

Mirror Dance is nearly on the same level though, as is Komarr (I think Ekaterin's abusive marriage is brilliantly described, even if it can sometimes be a difficult read).

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From her Q&A on Goodreads, sounds like Bujold is "resting" and has absolutely no new book in the pipeline at the moment. She hasn't ruled out more Vorksokigan or Chalion books, but promised nothing either. :ohwell:

That stinks, but I'm even more saddened to hear about her poor eyesight. Knowing everything that could be going wrong, without actually knowing what is going wrong gets my head spinning into worst case scenarios, so I'm really hoping it's something correctable and not something permanent.

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