Cetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold

CetagandaCetaganda, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan visits Eta Ceta, the homeworld and capital of the empire that formerly ruled his own planet, as a diplomatic envoy. What starts off as a fairly routine job – representing his world at a state funeral – escalates into a clandestine battle of wits between Miles and an unknown Cetagandan enemy who is trying to frame Barrayar for a crime and reignite hostilities between their two empires. Miles has to find and defeat this foe without offending his hosts or shaming his own world.

Cetaganda is the fifth novel (by chronology) in the Vorkosigan Saga and the shortest to date, clocking in at only around 250 pages. It’s a slight story, and feels more like an expanded short story than a fully-fleshed out novel.

On the successful side of things, Bujold brings her trademark wit and readability to the story. To use a lazy reviewing tactic, if you liked the previous books in this series, you’ll probably like this one as well. However, Bujold is arguably unsuccessful in really making the Cetagandans (here making their first on-page appearance after many frequent mentions) an impressive, convincing society. The Cetagandan Empire is ruled under a bewildering array of rules relating to male/female relations, genetic engineering and social function, which is all fine until you realise it would be too easy to topple the whole thing if enough people decided they didn’t want to play along (as indeed almost happens in this novel).

More damaging is the fact that Bujold does not complicate Miles’s story enough. Every time something bad happens, Miles immediately shifts it to his advantage, and he is never on the back foot for more than a paragraph or two. With a long series based around one character you have to constantly be on the look-out for that character becoming too infallible or invulnerable, and that nearly happens to Miles here.

Still, even a sub-par Vorkosigan novel remains a fun, if lightweight, read.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his “brother”, Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson’s Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark’s deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior’s Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book’s title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson’s Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don’t think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark’s character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven’t seen for a while.

There’s also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation – that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan – is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles’s position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson’s Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There’s a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book’s direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that – apparently – is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold’s enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Labyrinth, Lois McMaster Bujold

LabyrinthLabyrinth, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

In his disguise as commander of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, Miles Vorkosigan is dispatched by Barrayaran intelligence to rendezvous with a defector on the anarchic world of Jackson’s Whole. However, it isn’t long before Miles is up to his neck in political intrigue between three feuding houses, with the defector, a mutant and a werewolf to worry about…

Labyrinth is a short novella featuring Lois McMaster Bujold’s signature character of Miles Vorkosigan, once again up to his neck in trouble after a simple mission goes wrong (as they usually do). It’s a fun little piece, featuring lots of Miles getting captured, smart-talking his way through interrogations and then escaping whilst throwing an entire world into turmoil but retaining deniability for Barrayar.

Whilst it’s good, it’s slight. There’s some interesting stuff about genetic engineering, not to mention the first appearance in the Miles timeline of the quaddies, people who have had their legs replaced with arms to better cope with life in zero-gee. Between the quaddie, the werewolf (actually a genetically-altered super-soldier), the dwarf (Miles) and the hermaphrodite (recurring character Bel Thorne), the novella can be said to be about people who are outcast from some societies due to unthinking prejudice. Unfortunately, the novella’s short length prevents Bujold from exploring any of the issues in any real great depth, especially as the fascinating sociological stuff is put on hold for most of the story as we instead follow Miles trying to break out of a prison.

That said, Labyrinth is a fun read which cracks along fairly smartly and packs a fair amount of character development and action into a short page count. It’s just a shame that Bujold didn’t flesh the story out into a full novel, as it feels like the characters and issues being explored could have warranted it. Without that exploration, the novella ultimately feels too slight and disposable. The novella is available now as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. Oddly, it is also reprinted in the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus as well.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold

Borders of InfinityBorders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan, in his guise as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, has been captured by the Cetagandans and imprisoned on a remote moon, along with thousands of other POWs. Vorkosigan finds a camp in the grip of chaos, with different groups of prisoners fighting amongst themselves and the strong preying on the weak. He has to somehow unite the prisoners before any breakout can be attempted… which is difficult to do when you have bones that shatter easily and no incentives to use.

Borders of Infinity is another short novella featuring the character of Miles Vorkosigan, this time back with the Dendarii (after a break of several stories and books, in chronological order anyway) before being imprisoned by the Cetagandans. It’s a fairly straightforward and entertaining story, basically involving Miles trying to set up a prison break but being confronted by problems with asserting his authority and making enemies who want to kill him, even if it means they never escape.

The story’s slightness works against it, as does a muddled tone. Funny scenes – Miles being forced to walk around naked and working with a crazy religious nut to try to win over the soldiers – are contrasted against some of the darker and more brutal scenes that Bujold has written to date. Making such a juxtaposition work is possible, but Bujold fails to achieve it here.

There’s also the problem of the story being bigger than its word count. The story could easily have been twice as long, but just as it’s getting started it abruptly ends, and in a rather straightforward manner as well (although the fallout does at least get novel-length coverage, in Brothers in Arms).

Borders of Infinity is readable and passes the time, but is again a fairly short and slight story that feels like it’s a novel that’s been truncated almost to the point of non-existence. A story that’s more important for what it does (setting up Brothers in Arms) than what it is, then.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Brothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers_in_ArmsBrothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it’s time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military… but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in the Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity’s homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar’s navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue… which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn’t too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it’s great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there’s also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he’s in too deep? There’s also the anguish over Miles’s lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It’s fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold’s ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles’s character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold

ethanofathosEthan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Ethan Urquhart is a doctor on the all-male planet of Athos, which is reliant on important genetic cultures in order to increase their population. When the latest culture shipment is contaminated and destroyed, Ethan is dispatched by his government to the transfer point at Kline Station to investigate. Almost immediately after his arrival, Ethan is drawn into a web of intrigue and conspiracies featuring agents from the Cetagandan Empire and the unnerving (for Ethan) presence of a female intelligence agent from the Dendarii mercenaries.

Ethan of Athos is, chronologically, the sixth novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, although it was the third to be written. Even more confusingly, it is often omitted from counts of the series due to the total non-appearance of the series’ main character, Miles Vorkosigan. However, Ellie Quinn, who appeared briefly in The Warrior’s Apprentice and goes on to make more important appearances alongside Miles later on, plays a major role and this book establishes a fair bit of her character and backstory. So my recommendation is to accept it as part of the saga and move on.

I enjoyed Ethan of Athos a lot. It’s what Bujold does best, a comedy-of-manners romp taking in scheming, intrigue, wheels-within-wheels, deceptions and double-bluffs, and a thin layering of real science (a more thorough exploration of the uterine replicator technology mentioned in previous books) and social commentary on top. There’s some nice character scenes and moments of humour, and Bujold writers her typical wit.

However, the book feels like a somewhat missed opportunity. There are a few SF novels which take a look at societies where either women are put in charge or are dominant (such as David Brin’s Glory Season), or where the normal genders don’t exist as we know them (obviously, The Left Hand of Darkness), but surprisingly few about the idea of a planet where only men exist. The early and closing chapters set on Athos show that Bujold has put a lot of thought into this idea and how it works, and the resulting commentary it offers up on male gender roles is facinating. But as a concept it only bookends the novel, the bulk of which is a more basic – if still fun – SF thriller.

Ethan of Athos is a solid, enjoyable SF novel, but one that feels like it could have been a lot more than that if the story had remained on Athos for its duration. Otherwise, this is a reasonable addition to the Vorkosigan series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Black Sun Rising, CS Friedman

blacksunrisingBlack Sun Rising, CS Friedman (1991)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Twelve hundred years ago, a sleeper ship from Earth deposited several thousand colonists on the wild, untamed world of Erna. Seismically active Erna is a harsh planet to survive on, made worse by the presence of the Fae, a source of energy that permeates the elements and can be harnessed by certain humans to further their own ends. Unfortunately, the Fae can also be manipulated subconciously, resulting in the people’s fears and nightmares taking on solid form.

With all high technology lost in the birth of a new religion, the colonists of Erna have descended to a Renaissance level of technology, although retaining certain advanced medical, astronomical and scientific knowledge. Damien Kilcannon Vryce, a warrior-priest of the Church and one of the few churchmen able to wield the Fae, arrives in the city of Jaggonath to adopt a new and difficult role in the Church hierarchy. However, when a local Fae-wielder is brutally attacked and her ability to wield the Fae is neutralised, Damien is drawn into a lengthy quest that will lead into the dangerous rakhlands to confront a powerful sorcerer. Along the way Damien is forced into a most uneasy alliance with the cold and arrogant Gerald Tarrant, a powerful wielder of the Fae who has secrets of his own…

Black Sun Rising is the first novel in Celia Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. This SF-epic fantasy hybrid was very highly regarded upon its initial release in the United States, but oddly it wasn’t until fifteen years later that Orbit finally published the first UK edition.

The novel is a mixture of the familiar and the use of more original tropes, although the familiar does win out in the end. This is a quest story, with an interesting band of ‘heroes’ setting out to right a great wrong and travel across a vast chunk of countryside in the process. The world of Erna has some interesting facets to it but the travelling makes for the more tedious part of the book, especially the endless mucking around in caves. Page after page of description of rocks and tunnels does not make for entertaining reading.

Fortunately, Friedman’s characters are an interesting, if largely unlikeable bunch. She isn’t afraid to kill off major characters and paints them in convincing detail. Less impressive is that secondary characters are not very well developed at all. The rakhs’ motivations in particular could have been fleshed out more and one key character who hangs around for a good 150-200 or so pages doesn’t even get a name.

The plot-line is intriguing and there’s no denying that the world-building is quite well-thought-out. The cliffhanger ending comes out of nowhere and the enforced humour at the end of the book doesn’t really work as well as intended. That said, the book was enjoyable enough to make me look forward to picking up the second volume, When True Night Falls.

Black Sun Rising was surprisingly disappointing for such a widely-acclaimed novel. The author is a good writer but needs to lighten up a bit. The world is unrelentingly grim but Friedman isn’t in the same calibre as Scott Bakker, who can make such a world come alive and become compelling.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai’s claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.

Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet’s cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen’s past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there’s also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai’s bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven’s characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.

The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai’s discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book’s climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.

Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.

Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold

Mountains of MourningThe Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village… only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.

The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosgian universe. It’s a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles’s investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It’s a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior’s Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst clichés of the “high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do” trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning is a fine novella, but it’s not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior’s Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vor GameThe Vor Games, Lois McMaster Bujold (1990)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Imperial Academy on Barrayar and is immediately assigned as a weather specialist on a remote arctic base. Given that he knows nothing about weather science and was expecting a space posting, Miles is unhappy with his assignment. However, what starts off as a minor job soon has Miles travelling to distant worlds, hooking up with some old friends (and enemies) and getting embroiled in a major interstellar incident. In other words, it’s business as usual.

The Vor Game is the fourth novel (by chronology) in The Vorkosigan Saga and the second to feature its signature character of Miles. The novel picks up after the events of The Warrior’s Apprentice (see here) with Miles now graduated from the Academy and ready to start his life of military service. As previously, Miles’s physical weaknesses (he suffers from brittle bones and is stunted due to a poison gas attack on his then-pregnant mother) both hinder his ability to get involved in the action and also act as an easy means for his enemies (and friends he’s trying to avoid) to identify him. Once again, Miles has to use his wits and intelligence to overcome obstacles and emerge on top.

This time around the obstacles include a psychotic military base commander, almost dying of exposure, being captured, being enslaved, almost being shot and being pursued by a lunatic femme fatale with delusions of becoming Empress of Barrayar. As with The Warrior’s Apprentice, the book starts simply enough and then snowballs, accumulating plot points, characters and complications with almost frenzied energy.

As with its forebear, the book is a highly readable, page-turning experience. Bujold knows how to pace even a complicated story (and between the bluffs and double-bluffs, this book has become fairly complex by the time it ends) well and combine it with action as well as character-building material. A key theme in this novel is that Miles has problems with subordination, which is a bit of a problem in a military hierarchy, and his way of dealing with the crisis in this novel provides an idea on how Barrayar can use him to further its goals despite his limitations.

As usual, Bujold mixes out-and-out moments of high comedy (though The Vor Game isn’t as much of a comedic romp as The Warrior’s Apprentice) with darker moments. Despite starting in a completely different place, it’s also very much a continuation of The Warrior’s Apprentice, with some character arcs continuing between the two novels. If The Vor Game has a major problem, it’s that it’s slightly too reminiscent of its forebear. This is very much The Further Adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and if you enjoyed the previous book, you’ll like this one too. Bujold knows how to tell a ripping yarn and keep the pages flying, but this novel lacks originality and it lacks the previous novel’s ability to spin on a dime between tragedy, comedy and drama. I was rather surprised to learn that The Vor Game is a Hugo Award-winning novel, both because it wasn’t as good as the competition (The Fall of Hyperion was a better novel in the same year, probably Earth as well) and it’s not quite as good as The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Still, The Vor Game is a fine, entertaining SF novel. It is available now as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with The Warrior’s Apprentice and the novella ‘The Mountains of Mourning’.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.