Komarr, Lois McMaster Bujold (1998)
Review by Martin Wisse
Komarr was the first Miles Vorkosigan book I’d ever read, back in 1998. At the time it was the latest in the series to have been published and deliberately written as a jump on point for new readers like me. I didn’t jump in completely ignorant however, as the Vorkosigan series was one of the favourite series of rec.arts.sf.written, with each new novel thoroughly dissected and discussed. It was these discussions that prompted me to finally pick up one of the series and luckily, it was the perfect starting point.
What I missed about Komarr the first time around was how feminist it is in its own right. It’s not an overtly political book, but the heart of the story is how one woman manages to escape from a bad marriage and the gender assumptions, traditions and expectations she grew up with. It’s her story that makes Komarr special, in what otherwise would’ve been a fun but unremarkable adventure science fiction story. As I’ve realised since, Lois McMaster Bujold has always been good at infusing even her slightest science fiction with subtle sociological backgrounds, imagining what effects the usual genre props might actually have on a society. So for example, the coming of Galactic gender assignment technologies to backward Barrayar has lead to a glut of males, as tradition values male heirs more than costly daughters and every family scrambled to make sure they got their quota of males. It’s something that has happened in the real world as well, not that outrageous a prediction to be sure, but Bujold pulls that sort of thing all the time, hidden in plain view in the background to Miles’ adventures.
Now in the previous book Miles was made Imperial Auditor, a job which means acting like the Emperor’s Voice, a role that seems to have been designed with him in mind. It gives him almost the same power and authority as Gregor, the emperor himself and the freedom to use this power in any way he seems fit on his assignments. He’s the newest but not the only Auditor and to get some on the job training he has tagged along with his fellow Auditor Professor Vorthys on his latest case, investigating whether the ore freighter that rammed the Komarr orbital mirror display did so accidentally or on purpose. Said mirror is an important element in the terraforming of Komarr, helping raise the average temperature there and augmenting the planet’s natural sunlight. Komarr itself is a colony of Barrayar which guards the sole wormhole that gives access to Barrayar and through which it had been invaded by the Cetagandans once already. Taking no chances, Barrayar therefore conquered Komarr and kept a tight grip on it ever since. Under Emperor Gregor Komarr has been put on a more equal footing, with the emperor himself due to marry a Komarran women. All of which makes the task to find out what happened at the Solyatta all the more important and the investigation incredibly delicate.
But Komarr starts with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, dutifully going through the motions of a now loveless marriage. Grown up with all the traditional notions about marriage, honour and a woman’s duty that being part of Barrayar’s Vor class, its aristocracy instills in its daughters, she feels she has no choice but to remain loyal to her husband, even if he does not deserve her loyalty. Her honour does not allow her otherwise, even though it costs her dearly. Not in the least because Tien, her husband, suffers from Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, a genetic disease that will kill him eventually if left untreated and which even worse is also present in her nine year old son Nikolai. It’s a treatable disease, but Tien refuses to take action unless he can do so outside the Barrayaran Empire, for fear of being branded a mutant. Barrayar’s long isolation from the rest of the Galaxy has given it a long history of genetic disease and fear of so-called mutants, something Miles with his own odd personal history, having been exposed to toxins while in the womb and as a result saddled with a short, out of proportion body and brittle bones, long since replaced by more sturdier replacements.
Miles and Ekaterin meet due to the simple reason that she’s the niece of his fellow Auditor and they’re both staying with her and Tien. On Miles’ side, it’s love at first glance. Ekaterin on the other hand, though oddly charmed by him, is stuck fast in her shell, built up through her long marriage with Tien, bound to her duty. And in the meantime there’s still the question of what happened at that orbital mirror and what her husband might have had to do with it. In the resolution of this Ekaterin plays a large role, showing that if she would return Miles’ love, she would be the ideal woman for him as she singlehandedly wrecks the plot of the conspiracy that caused the accidental sabotage. It’s a brilliant scene and made me whoop almost as loud as Miles threatens to do when he hears of it.
Komarr is told through a tight third person narrative, with viewpoints switching between Ekaterin and Miles in alternating chapters. The contrast between Miles’ usual exuberant personality and Ekaterin’s far tighter grip on her emotions is done well and subtlety so it comes across as natural rather than manufactured. Ekaterin is wholly believable and sympathetic, while Miles’ crush on her is completely in character as well. He is rather more restrained than in earlier novels, as the realities of his new career sink in. Characterisation on the whole is very good, with the nominal villains of the story having understandable motives for their actions, even coming across as sympathetic at one point.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.