Miles Vorkosigan Saga #4
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 15, 2020
Edits and Addendum on August 11
A Civil Campaign / Winterfair Gifts / Diplomatic Immunity / Cryoburn
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There has been a wide range of story types in the Vorkosigan Saga. In the beginning it was mainly adventurous space opera, then with Miles' career in the Dendarii Free Mercenaries it leaned toward military action, covert ops, and espionage. Then mystery and intrigue when he became an Imperial Auditor. At the same time there has been penetrating psychological drama, and sociological insights into war and diplomacy, science and economics, sexuality and self-autonomy, and sympathetic portrayals of persons with disabilities. And let's not forget romance, which began with the meeting of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. Miles has had several sexual relationships, but romance has eluded him, both because of his domineering personality, and the women he's been with have rejected the notion of ever living on Barrayar, still a highly patriarchal society. Cordelia has influenced a few changes, but any power women wield is still behind the scenes. For now.
In Memory we learned Emperor Gregor Vorbarra had fallen in love with Dr. Laisa Toscane of Komarr. Details of their impending wedding are interspersed throughout this narrative, but it's not the most important part. Miles is courting, while also refraining from courting, the widow Ekatarin Vorsoisson, whom he met on Komarr in the previous book. He has to be careful not to alienate her because she is observing the traditional year of mourning, as well as being wary of any future relationship since her late husband had been verbally and emotionally abusive. Yet Miles is fearful of losing her to many other suitors who seem to not care about the mourning tradition. Her late husband had worked in the administration of Komarr's terraforming project, and while not directly involved in that, she had developed an interest in botany, particularly landscaping and garden design. She is back on Barrayar with the intention of attending the university where both her aunt and uncle teach. It is approaching Midsummer, the date of the Imperial wedding, and her classes won't start for several months. Miles hires her to design a garden for an area next to Vorkosigan House which had been vacant for years, since buildings had been torn down for security reasons when his father was Regent. Miles' work as an Imperial Auditor is on hiatus due to the pending nuptials, so he hopes to be able to see Ekatarin most every day, and keep an eye on any potential rivals. As had happened with several of Admiral Naismith's military campaigns, Miles' plan doesn't go smoothly, and his attempt at subtle wooing blows up in his face.
The background information you need is that Barrayar, being a patriarchal society, had for many generations favored male offspring. That means that eligible ladies have the advantage of choice, while the men are desperately competing for the dwindling supply of women, or having to contemplate seeking an off-planet bride. Miles' cousin Ivan Vorpatril is not seeking a bride, he likes playing the field and is not ready to settle down. Miles has to warn him away from Ekatarin, and Ivan not being the most discreet of gentlemen, inadvertently spreads the word. Miles also makes the mistake of telling a few others of his intentions, and during a dinner party at Vorkosigan House one of them forgets it's supposed to be a secret, causing great embarrassment to Ekatarin. She flees the scene in the wake of the arrival of the Count and Countess Vorkosigan, whom she had not yet met. That only gets us to the halfway point in the book. Miles is despondent for several days, but finally pulls out of his funk due to Gregor's insistence that he help with politicking in the lead up to two different votes before the Council of Counts. Since Count Vorkosigan is now Viceroy of Sergyar, Miles is his proxy, the Vorkosigan district's Voice in the Council. One case involves the possible removal of one Count due to revelations of him having Cetagandan ancestry, the evidence of which points to complicity, rather than rape, during the Cetagandan occupation of Barryar more than a hundred years earlier. The other case concerns a district whose Count never produced an heir, his sister having continued business operations since his death, but without a vote on the Council. Thus we have two cases that have the potential to alter future Barrayaran politics, challenging the stubborn notion of purity of Barrayaran genetics, and the patriarchy itself. I won't tell you how those votes go, or how the potential new Countess tries to stack things in their favor.
Lots of interesting side plots, and I haven't even mentioned the one involving Mark and his new financial scheme. His part is mostly comedic, which conflicts with the tone of the rest of the book. It was particularly disruptive when the climax of the Council votes were being debated, it kept switching back and forth to what was happening with Mark at Vorkosigan House. I'm not revealing anything about that, other than to say if this is ever adapted to film or TV, one scene would be like the weirdest pie fight in the craziest screwball comedy ever. In the end, the votes go the way Miles had preferred, Gregor and Laisa's wedding goes off without a hitch, and Miles reconciles with Ekatarin, which seques into the "next" story. As mentioned before, internal chronology does not equate with publication order. A Civil Campaign is the 16th story published, and one of only three where number of publication matches that of chronology. The other two are the novella "The Mountains of Mourning" and the previous novel, Komarr. In spite of my misgivings about Mark's subplot, which would have been best on its own in another novella, I still rated this 5 stars, due to the complexity of the other story lines, and the multitude of things we learn about the characters and Barrayaran society. And I should mention it was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Tiptree awards, and won a Sapphire, voted on by members of the SF Romance Newsletter.
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The novella "Winterfair Gifts," a finalist for both Hugo and Sapphire awards, first appeared in the 2004 original anthology Irresistable Forces, edited by Catherine Asaro. It was later combined with Komarr and A Civil Campaign in the omnibus volume Miles in Love, which is out of print but available on Kindle. It is also a Kindle title on its own, but the only listings for it at Bookshop are for audio versions, all of which are on back-order. Goodreads shows it in a print edition on its own, but all their links lead to "not available" pages, so that must have been a very limited print run. After this page, which will include two other novels, I intend to do one focusing on peripheral characters and side stories. Early on I was thinking maybe I should save this for that page, but it does end with Miles and Ekaterin's wedding, so it belongs here with other Miles-centric stories.
Miles invited some of his old colleagues to the wedding, which made sense in the case of Elena Bothari-Jesek, since she had grown up with him, her father having been his bodyguard, and Cordelia had been like her foster mother. She had left the Dendarii group at the beginning of the novel Memory, she and her husband Baz Jesek wanting to settle down and start a family. They now have an infant daughter, whom they bring with them, to the delight of Cordelia, and not just because the baby is named after her. What totally surprised me was the appearance of Sergeant Taura, the bio-engineered super-soldier Miles had rescued off Jackson's Whole in the novella "Labyrinth." They had also been sometime lovers, which is completely weird since she is about eight feet tall, with fangs and sharp claws, while Miles isn't even five feet. And he told Ekaterin about her, and his other lovers, which makes Miles either amazingly stupid, dauntingly brave, or else Ekaterin is the most understanding woman imaginable.
I did like this, but not as much as most of the other stories, and I rated it just four stars. Just as it was hard to understand some of Miles' earlier accomplishments, how he inspired others, and most especially how he attracted the attention of strong, intelligent, beautiful women, it was equally difficult undertanding the actions and motives of Vorkosigan House Armsman Roic, the how and why of his attraction to Taura. It didn't seem to fit what we had previously seen of his persona, mainly that he was a clumsy bumbler, not prepared for the high stakes security needed by the Vorkosigans. But once again it proved that the Vorkosigan's strength was not just in their own abilities, but in their uncanny knack in choosing superlative people to serve with them. Both Roic and Taura foil yet another attempt on the life of a Vorkosigan, in this case the soon-to-be Lady Ekaterin. Roic is rewarded with time off, which he intends to spend with Taura as long as she remains on Barrayar.
Miles was obviously inspired by his mother, and while he is attracted to other strong-willed women, they have all been unique and different in personality. I guess it's just a coincidence several of their names begin with "E." His first crush was Elena Bothari, but she rebuffed him because of his ties to Barrayar, which she wished to escape, and she had learned self-sufficiency in her duties with the Dendarii. Then came Elli Quinn, now Admiral Quinn, to whom Miles had handed off control of the Dendarii fleet. Ekaterin is different though, not in beauty or intelligence, but because her strengths were not as visible, due to her emotional state. She had proved she was brave by her actions on Komarr, which few beyond Miles knew about since it involved sensitive security issues. I had already been spoiled about their relationship, but so far don't know much about later stories. Miles' wild mercenary days are behind him, but it's obvious the Vorkosigans still have enemies, some of whom may return in the future. I hope to remain spoiler free about that. For now I just want to think about Miles and Ekaterin's happiness.
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Another example of how this series has been written out of order; Diplomatic Immunity, a Nebula and Locus finalist, was published in 2002, but is set more than a year following Miles and Ekaterin's wedding, which wasn't detailed until the 2004 novella, Winterfair Gifts. Due to Miles' work obligations they had put off a formal honeymoon, but are now touring various planetary systems, with a minimal security staff. They've just left Earth enroute back to Barrayar, hopeful of making it home about a month prior to the decanting of their twins from their uterine replicators at Vorkosigan House. Business intervenes however, as Emperor Gregor directs Miles to investigate conflicts at Graf Station, since Miles is the Auditor closest to the action. With little prior knowledge of what he will find there, Miles invites Ekaterin to accompany him, along with Armsman Roic and a pilot. Another relatively short novel, barely 300 pages, but again packed with lots of action and exposition. A minimal criticism would be rehashing previous events, some of which was necessary and unavoidable, helpful for those who haven't read everything, but not necessary for me. Plus, fewer scenes with Ekaterin than I wanted, but you can't have everything.
Graf Station is part of the Union of Free Habitats, which had been established some 200 years before, built by and for the quaddies, the genetically engineered race of four-armed (and no legs) race that was introduced in Bujold's first award winner, Falling Free. Miles had encountered a quaddie on a station orbiting Jackson's Whole in the novella "Labyrinth." Nicol was a musician Miles and his subordinate Bel Thorne helped to escape the man who held her indenture. She now resides on Graf Station, a member of the Minchenko Orchestra and Ballet. Miles had reluctantly dismissed Bel from the Dendarii Mercenaries at the end of Mirror Dance, and now is surprised to find them (yes them, not "it" dammit!) the Port-master on Graf Station, and in a relationship with Nicol. Another expositional highlight is incorporated into the discussion of a museum exhibition on the station which incorporates the ship Leo Graf piloted when he helped the quaddies escape Cay Habitat. Graf Station is divided into artificial gravity sections to accomodate human traffic, and free-fall sections where the quaddies work and live. When they have to venture into the gravity sections they use float chairs.
A fleet of Komarran trade vessels, and the Barrayaran military ships that had been escorting them, are on lockdown, unable to leave the station. One Barrayaran crewman apparently wants to desert, requesting asylum on the station, having fallen in love with a quaddie woman. The military attachment sent to retrieve him are in custody for injuring several quaddies and damaging property. Another crew member is missing, assumed dead, but his body has not been found. Shortly after interviewing some of the Komarrans, who are restricted to various hostels on the station, someone attacks with an improvised weapon, but it is not clear if their target was Miles, Bel Thorne, or another Betan they were with at the time. Do all of these events connect to each other, or are they individual random occurrences? What is again remarkable about Bujold's work is how much plot she is able to cram into so few pages. Lots of possibilities, lots of clues, some of which may be red herrings, or mere coincidence. This on top of the flashback exposition, it sometimes seems there is too much story for one book...and yet I have to repeat, only 300 pages! Multiple crimes have been committed, some tracking back to before the perpetrators made it to Graf Station. So much is going on it sometimes takes Miles a while to stop and gather his thoughts, to determine which clues are the most important.
Part of the synopsis on the hardcover dustjacket states: "The downside of being a trouble-shooter comes when trouble starts shooting back." Some of this story is more like Miles' former mercenary adventures than his other Auditor cases. He also makes a few mistakes along the way, from misreading clues, and also misundertanding how high the stakes are. They may be higher than even Gregor imagined, or maybe Gregor knew more than he revealed, another reason he assigned Miles to the case. He trusts Miles' abilities implicitly. Miles is able to overcome those errors and apprehend the main culprit in the nick of time. Or at least in the nick of time to save Graf Station; both he and Bel are exposed to a bioweapon. It's a good thing Barrayaran science and medicine had advanced since his father's time, but that is only good enough to hold death at bay. It takes going back to the source of the weapon to effect a cure. That involved interacting with people he had never wanted to encounter again, and even though he gets more honors out of it, I'm sure Miles hopes it's the last time he'll find himself in their orbit. No clues on the details, you'll just have to read it yourself. Recommended.
PS: This novel is also available in the omnibus, Miles, Mutants, and Microbes, which includes Falling Free and "Labyrinth," available from Amazon and Bookshop in mass-market paperback. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
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Cryoburn was a finalist for Hugo and Locus awards. It is the last (so far) of Bujold's novels that center on Miles Vorkosigan. There are others, which I'll get to soon, in which he may make brief appearances, or maybe just be mentioned, but they focus on other characters. It is unfortunate, then, that this is my least favorite of his stories. The case that brings Lord Auditor Vorkosigan to Kibou-daini (also known as New Hope) is interesting enough, but the pacing is off, and the plot meanders too much. Most of the other books have had unanticipated events, whereas this one has too many that are easy to predict pages, sometimes chapters, ahead of their reveal.
One of the major businesses on Kibou-daini is that of cryonic suspension. Multiple corporations maintain facilities which house people frozen at various ages, waiting on disease cures, or just a cure for old age. Late in the book it is revealed that Miles' brother Mark has been working with the Durona group, the ones who saved Miles after the disastrous raid Mark attempted to carry out on Jackson's Whole, as told in Mirror Dance. Their new project is life extension, but they need willing cryo-revival patients for testing. Before that reveal, we've learned of several shady dealings within the cryo-corps on New Hope, which might not have come to light except for the fact one of those companies wants to bring the technology to Komarr. Barrayaran Empress Laisa is from Komarr, and a succession of her relatives report questionable financial proposals by WhiteChrys Corp. Miles is sent to investigate.
The book starts in media res, with Miles wandering dark underground tunnels after escaping from kidnappers, who were successful in capturning Miles' bodyguard, Armsman Roic, as well as several others who had been attending a cryonics convention in the capital city of Northbridge. The kidnappers had used drugs to sedate their targets, but as with several other drugs, Miles' reaction to it is different than the norm. He has short-term amnesia and has also been hallucinating. When he finally makes it out of the tunnels he encounters two people, the older of which thinks Miles is just a druggie and wants to leave him in the gutter. However, the young boy, Jin Sato, wants to help. While not predictable, it is serendipitous that Jin turns out to be related to someone that will later figure into Miles' investigation. Roic eventually escapes the kidnappers and is able to summon the authoritites, so he and Raven Durona reunite with Miles. The mysteries are convoluted and murky, and I grew bored with them. The only highlights are new characters introduced, primarily Jin and his younger sister Mina, but I think it's safe to say we won't see them again.
As with many of the books in this series, Cryoburn is relatively short, about 335 pages, but it seems so much longer. Part of the problem is that Miles is usually hyperactive, inspiring the excitement of the reader's imagination, and the plots have moved at a rapid pace. He seems so lackadaisical here, as if he doesn't care about the investigation, just going through the motions. One problem for me is it wasn't the book I wanted or expected, and it might be why Miles' attention was elsewhere. It is set about seven years after the previous book; Miles and Ekaterin now have four children. Why didn't we get to see Miles' development as a father? That could happen in the future of course, since Bujold has written quite a few out of sequence, but she's had ten years to come back to that if she was interested. I'm tempted to say Bujold was lackadaisical about writing this book, and if so it's possible it was because she wanted to put off the ending as long as possible. Then again, endings always set up new beginnings, which I'll read about soon. As for now, I'm giving this just 3 stars, maybe rounded up a bit but not by much, and I can't recommend it. That's a first for this series.
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