A Tunnel in the Sky

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Miles Vorkosigan Saga #4
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 15, 2020

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 being wary of any future relationship since her late husband had been verbally and emotionally abusive. Yet he 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, that challenge 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, 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, because 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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Lois McMaster Bujold

1999 - 2010

Detailed in review

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Civil Campaign
Winterfair (Kindle)
Diplomatic Immunity

Civil Campaign
Diplomatic Immunity

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