Miles Vorkosigan Saga #2
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 28, 2020
Edits & addenda on May 4 & May 7, 2020
Cetaganda / Borders of Inifinity / Brothers in Arms
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This is the fourth page of reviews for books by newly named SFWA Grand Master Lois McMaster Bujold, and the third to feature multiple books. Young Miles concerned the first adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, son of Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, originally from the rival Beta Colony. Miles was crippled even before birth, due to a toxic gas used against his parents in a failed assassination attempt. He is short, with a crooked spine, very brittle bones, along with other maladies like one leg being shorter than the other. But he has a brilliant mind, and all he wants to do is prove his worth. Cetaganda is set a couple of years following his previous adventure depicted in The Vor Game, which ended with him assigned to Imperial Security, with the head of ImpSec, Simon Illyan, as his direct superior. This was a finalist for a Locus award, and unfortunately out of print at this time, but the link will show you used copies available of various editions, as well as for Kindle.
Many consider Miles' appointment merely honorary, something to keep him out of trouble, perhaps as a special courier or assistant to Emperor Gregor, whom Miles grew up with when his father was Regent. Thus, if not for fate and accidental encounters, Miles' life might have played out as nothing more than a figurehead at the Imperial Court. But of course, accidents do happen, and Miles is always prepared to twist fate to his advantage. In this case, Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril travel to Cetaganda to represent Barrayar at the funeral ceremonies for the late Cetagandan Empress. There had been at least two previous conflicts between Barrayar and Cetaganda mentioned in previous stories, but now there is an uneasy truce, but the situation is still volatile. Immediately upon docking at a space station orbiting Eta Ceta, Miles and Ivan are confronted with (in their perception, assaulted by) an unknown, extremely distraught person. In the scuffle, that person drops an unusual looking wand-like device, as well as a small nerve disruptor, which Miles surmises is not a Cetagandan military issue weapon. Ivan of course wants to report the incident immediatlely, and to turn over the two items. Miles demures though, wishing to investigate himself. He wonders if the encounter was accidental or intentional. Is it possible he as an individual, or Barrayar as a whole, is being set up for a diplomatic crisis that might lead to another war?
I won't detail much more of the plot, but instead point out how well Bujold further enhanced our perception of Miles' intellect, and also depicted a very complex society in an economy of prose. This novel is barely over 300 pages, but the details of Cetaganda and its dual-natured society is handled with precision while also leaving a few mysteries, some of which we may learn in later stories. There are two branches of society, the Haut, essentially the ruling class, and the Ghem, which seem to make up most of the military and commercial sectors. Within the Haut, rule is generally by men, but succession to the throne is through the female line. The Haut ladies control the Star Crèche, the genome repository, using their talents to genetically design all new births, both Haut and Ghem. Miles' task is to try to figure out what the device he has actually is, what purpose it serves, plus needing to investigate the later death of the person he got it from, all while trying to keep his movements secret from Ivan and other Barryaran diplomatic and security personnel. That becomes even more difficult when he is approached by the high-ranking Lady Haut-Rian Degtiar, with a plea for his assistance. As in his earlier adventures, Miles' guesses are sometimes wrong, he makes a few mistakes, but his deductive powers eventually lead to the culprit. His actions also instill an appreciation of his talents, but not always with those he most wishes to impress. In the end, he receives a very high honor from the Cetagandan Emperor, one which he will have to keep a secret as much as possible, less other Barrayarans perceive his actions to have been treasonous.
I'm anxious to continue with more of Miles' adventures, the next two of which will be added to this page. Not sure exactly when since I have lots of other books on my TBR pile, including quite a few ARCs. Stay tuned.
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The publication dates of several books I have as ARCs have been pushed back, so I got to this sooner than expected. Borders of Infinity is a collection of three novellas, with scenes added for this book consisting of interviews Miles has with his ImpSec boss, Simon Illyan, while Miles is recovering from surgery that replaced is hand and arm bones with synthetics. He had previously had his lower leg bones replaced. The first story is more of a personal recollection for Miles, not directly related to the questions Illyan has posed, and it's also a story I've already covered in a previous review. The Hugo and Nebula winner "The Mountains of Mourning" was the middle story in the Young Miles omnibus, but that collection wasn't released until 1997. Borders came out in 1989, the same year "Mountains" and the next story were published in Analog. By internal chronology, "Mountains" fits in between the two novels in that omnibus, with the most probable reason it's included in this collection is to bring it to book length. The only other short stories she had published prior to this were not Vorkosigan related. In addition to its major award wins, "Mountains" was also a Locus finalist, which is the case for the other two stories here, and the book was a finalist for best collection. Since it had been such a short time since I read "Mountains" I didn't re-read it, and won't say any more about it, except maybe in a recap at the end of this review. The link is for the mass market paperback, which is out of print at this time, with a hardcover edition from NESFA Press the only one that is eligible for free shipping. Too bad the cover art for their editions are inferior to the originals, and that goes for the Kindle editions as well.
The second story is "Labyrinth," originally published in the August '89 Analog. In Cetaganda Miles was working directly through his ImpSec job, presenting himself as Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan. In "Labyrinth" he's back to using his persona of Admiral Naismith, in charge of the Dendarii Mercenary Fleet. He continues to hide his real identity from most of the other Dendarii, only three of whom know he is Lord Miles Vorkosigan. How he manages that still doesn't make sense to me. While in this guise he directs his troops in jobs he has contracted through ImpSec. This time it's the extraction of a bio-geneticist from the planet Jackson's Whole. You know the old saying, "the best laid plans..." It could be the subtitle to this story and the next, and I expect several later ones too. I knew Miles would encounter the quaddies from Falling Free in a later adventure, but one appears here, as a musician working for a man "Admiral Naismith" uses as contact for his cover story of purchasing freight. One of Miles' closest advisors, Captain Bel Thorne, is captivated by the quaddie, Nicol, and she later approaches them to ask for help getting away from her employer. The extraction of the scientist gets complicated too, with Miles being captured and imprisoned with a "monster" of genetic design, apparently created as a potential super-soldier. She's eight feet tall, with claws and fangs reminiscent of a wolf, but also quite different, more self-aware and intelligent, than Miles had expected. She's just a sixteen-year-old girl, she doesn't remember her real name, she only thinks of herself as her laboratory designation of Nine. She also knows all the others from the experiments are dead, and her time is probably limited too. Not if Miles can help it though. He is once again able to use his intellect to get around what seem insurmountable obstacles, and he gains another Dendarii recruit in the process, whom he gives the name Taura. I have to skim over all of that to avoid spoilers, only point out how clever, persuasive, and manipulative Miles can be when tackling a problem, which includes remarkable deductive skills and creative lying.
Even though written in '87, just a year after The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Borders of Infinity" is set approximately six years later. It's obvious Bujold didn't have everything mapped out from the beginning, since in this story Cetaganda is once again in aggressor mode, while in the previous novel everything seemed to be peaceful, relatively at least. This time Cetaganda is encroaching on the planet Marilac. Miles infiltrates a Cetagandan prisoner-of-war camp on Dagoola IV, with the intent of extracting the Marilacan commander, whom he says is a cousin of his mother's, but I'm not sure it that's true or just part of his cover story. Life in the camp has been harsh, with most of the soldiers having been there longer than they can even remember. The commander is catatonic, morale is low, with fights for food and other goods. Miles has to improvise another plan. He begins organizing them, ostensibly to facilitate a more equitable distribution of their rations, but in truth he is forming fourteen companies of troops, equal to the number of rescue shuttles he secretly informs the Dendarri fleet to send. Since this was written before "Labyrinth," before the character of Taura was conceived, she is not part of the rescue team, but Miles' instinct for competence enables him to recruit several he hopes to place in new Marilacan companies to resist the Cetagandans. Miles is able to instill loyalty in those he commands, and in turn he remains loyal to them. Determined to be among the last to evacuate the prison, he witnesses several of his troops, even one of his newest recruits, sacrifice themselves so that others can live. All of the losses he suffers only makes Miles determined to honor them and do better the next time. The information Simon Illyan is trying to get out of Miles is how and why his projects continue to exceed their budget, a situation that is brewing discontent among those who oppose Prime Minister Vorkosigan's centrist policies. In the case of "Borders," the overage is due to several fighter craft being abandoned so that shuttles could dock in their place on the largest ship in the Dendarii fleet, enabling the maximum number to escape, even though more than 200 don't make it. After that explanation, Simon assures him he will not question his methods and results again, and will continue to support him.
In the last segment of the frame story, Cordelia Naismith visits her son in the hospital, chasing Simon out. A couple of things mentioned indicate Miles' recovery, and Simon's interviews, occur after the action in the novel that follows, which I'll get to soon. All three of these stories have been included in several other omnibus volumes, but without the frame story. I'm not sure why it took me so long to read this far into the Vorkosigan Saga, other than periods of not as much reading time, and following other authors. I'm impressed with Bujold's plotting skills, how she packs so much exposition into so few pages. Her characterizations are also usually believable, but not without some minor problems. It still puzzles me when many people keep referring to Miles as a mutant, and he's grown tired of trying to correct that perception, but at the same time he's able to exert such a postive influence on many. I'm also not sure why I never heard about things she included that might have caused some original controversy, and it might be best if she re-wrote some of those scenes. In particular, I have Bel Thorne in mind. Today the term is intersex, whereas previously those who exhibited both male and female sexual characteristics were termed hermaphrodites. Alternate pronouns are frequently used now, so Bel being referred to as 'it' is very awkward, 'they' would have worked so much better. The fact that people like Bel are accepted as they are is refreshing, even when it might get a little awkward between Bel and Miles, since when Bel is feeling their feminine side they are attracted to him. When Bel encountered Nicol the opposite occurred. I've been trying to stay as spoiler free on future books as possible, although I do know the next book takes Miles and company to Earth.
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Brothers in Arms was only nominated for a Locus, and it came in 15th in the voting. That surprises me since I think it is at least the equal of Barrayar and The Vor Game, both of which won Hugos. I've been doing these reviews roughly in the order of internal chronology, so this is a good example of how Bujold expanded the saga of Miles Vorkosigan, but out of order. Brothers is set a couple of years after the events in Cetaganda, even though it was published six years earlier. It picks up shortly after the previous novella, "The Borders of Infinity," but there is a brief mention of another job they did after they escaped Dagoola IV, and before they arrived on Earth. Miles fears the Cetagandans are still searching for the Dendarii to exact revenge for the prisoner-of-war breakout. They are forced to go to Earth due to the normal wormhole routes back to Barrayar being under Cetagandan control. Miles hopes he can send word back to his boss Simon Illyan so that ImpSec can send the money they are owed for several past missions. Their ships are in need of major repairs, and several troops need better medical care than was available within the fleet. Funds are low, forcing them into some creative accounting, even borrowing money against their flagship, since their ImpSec pay has not arrived after two different ten day waits for couriers to travel from Earth to Barrayar and return. In the meantime, Miles has been assigned duties at the Barrayaran embassy on Earth, which poses even more problems than before in keeping his true identity secret from the Dendarii fleet.
Up to this point, only three Dendarii officers know about his dual lives, and just a few in ImpSec, but including Miles' parents, and the Emperor. His cousin Ivan Vorpatril has been on Earth working at the embassy for a while, so he is the next to be brought in on the secret, along with at least two other officers. Miles suspects the courier has embezzled the funds, or maybe it's the courier's superior officer, who happens to be his superior at the embassy too. Captain Duv Galeni has been at the embassy for about two years, and Miles later learns he is a Komarran, recruited into the Imperial Academy in a program begun by Prime Minister Aral Vorkosigan following Barrayar's annexation of Komarr. More is learned about Galeni later, which puts even more suspicion on him. Another complication comes after Miles has to intervene when several Dendarii get drunk and take a shopkeeper hostage, and a news reporter sees him as "Admiral Naismith," then later as Lord Vorkosigan. Miles makes up a story about clones on the spot, which comes back to haunt him when he has a hard time convincing others of the truth of an actual clone who kidnaps him and takes his place at the embassy for several days. So, Miles has a brother, of sorts, a few years younger but otherwise almost an exact copy. It seems a few Komarran expatriates are out for revenge against Barrayar. They created the clone from tissue samples stolen from the Imperial hospital where Miles spent so much time as a child, and the clone was produced at one of the labs on Jackson's Whole seen in the novella "Labyrinth."
Another relatively short novel (338 pages), which packs as much action and exposition into that short frame as you're used to seeing in books twice as long. Mysteries and intrigue, miscalculations and red herrings, multiple chases and assassination attempts, captures and excrutiating interrogation scenes. Even bright bits of humor amongst the chaos. Miles' first suspect turns out to be one of those red herrings, and his interactions with the clone have unexpected results. Many times throughout these books Miles thinks back to lessons learned from his parents, about honor and loyalty, benevolence and compassion. Those values mean more to him than the duty expected by ImpSec. He is frequently insubordinate, but his instincts are inevitably correct, and even more surprising, he is able to convince others that his way was the correct way. So, the major villain is defeated, another suspect exonerated, and Miles makes peace with his clone, whom he has named Mark, after his maternal grandfather. And he has a girlfriend, Elli Quinn, one of the three Dendarii who know both his identities. Not sure how long that will last, but I'm anxious to find out, and I'm looking forward to seeing Mark again, although I'm not sure when I'll get to the next in the chronology, the Hugo-winner Mirror Dance. Once again I have to say I'm sorry I waited so long to get into this book series. I've enjoyed them all to various degrees, with several being among the best space opera/human drama hybrids I've ever read.
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