A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold (1999)
Review by Martin Wisse
A Civil Campaign should have been the last novel in the Vorkosigan series. Starting with Brothers in Arms and continuing through Mirror Dance, Memory and Komarr Lois McMaster Bujold had constantly upped the ante for Miles, not just by giving him bigger challenges to overcome, but by forcing him to grow up and become mature, putting him in situations where his character strengths are useless or even counterproductive. A Civil Campaign is the culmination of that process, as Miles crashes hard against the realisation that his usual crisis management tactics are not suitable for trying to win the hand of the woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her. At the same time Bujold also ties up all the loose ends from the earlier novels, providing a proper ending for the series. It’s not a book for people new to the series.
In the previous book, Komarr, Miles had met Ekaterin, a duty bound Vor woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and fallen hard for her from the first moment. With Ekaterin now a widow, Miles sets out to court her, but with the best of intentions decides to do so without her knowning or telling her that this is what he’s doing. Surely the same tactics of deception that worked so well in his career as a galactic man of mystery will be good enough to win him a wife? Of course there’s also the small matter of the imperial wedding to prepare for, the return of his clone brother Mark with his Escobarian business partner and their somewhat too biological startup they’ve set up in Vorkosigan House, the blossoming relationship of Mark with Kareen, the daughter of one of Miles’ father’s – count Vorkosigan – oldest friends and various other minor complications and side issues Miless will have to deal with, but how hard can it all be?
In typical Miles style, on small deception leads to another and it all blows up in spectacularl fashion when the small and intimate dinner Miles planned for him and Ekaterin and some carefully selected guests grows out of control and everything that shouldn’t have come out in the open just yet, does. It’s then that Miles finally learns you can plan to conquer a woman’s heart like you can plan the conquest of a star system. It’s a brutally crafted, darkly funny comedic scene, excruciating in the way the best comedy can be. It makes me wince everytime I read it. For Miles, once he gets out of his funk, it’s the chance to do what he does best: damage limitation.
What makes A Civil Campaign so good are the characters, as Bujold has developed them over the course of the series. Miles, though he should know better by now, is still the same cocky little manipulator he always was going into the book, only to come a cropper because of it, but is able to learn from his mistakes and grow up. Ekaterin, though angry at Miles’ deception is also able in the end to set herself over it. Most of the people involved in the various plots and subplots, the viewpoint characters, are confused to what they want and how they can get it, struggling even to get to a place where they can find out what they need to do. In the end it’s all set to rights of course, but it takes effort for everybody. And it’s only once the disastrous dinner party has happened and everybody’s dreams seem shattered that rebuilding can take place, helped by one of the greatest supporting characters in science fiction, Cordelia.
Despite the lack of galactic intrigue and world-shattering conspiracies this is the most compelling novel in the whole Vorkosigan saga and also the most entertaining and witty. You could call A Civil Campaign a regency romance in space, Bujold keeping the tone light even when Miles’ dreams are shattered. This light mood is sustained by the callbacks and references to earlier stories, making it something of a box of chocolates for a Vorkosigan fan, with something for everyone. It all helps to set off the darker parts of the plot.
Speaking of regency romance, this is more Jane Austen than Georgette Heyer, as the reality from Ekaterin’s point of view is far more serious than it is for Miles, no matter how bad he feels when he thinks he may just have chased away the love of his life. Barrayar is a primitive, conservative society and the role of women in it is not at all equal to that of men. She has to deal with the expectations of Barrayar society and her own family in addition to everything Miles has to go through and at one point she might just lose her son, Nicky, if she does the wrong thing. After Komarr it’s another example of how Bujold manages to sneak in some light feminism.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.