Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.


Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror_danceMirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (1994)
Review by Megan AM

With clones and diplomatic intrigue muddling up the Vorkosigan lifestyle, yet again, another adventure takes Miles out of the picture. Instead of our normal Vorkosigan friends, Mirror Dance offers a unique point-of-view, that of an intruder, giving fans, and detractors, a new perspective on this wealthy Barrayaran family

A series with character, as in strictly character driven, with things happening and things to be accomplished, Mirror Dance belongs somewhere in the early middle of this lengthy series that revolves around members of the same noble family. The Vorkosigan series reminds me of a dollhouse where the fashionable and wealthy characters leave their mansions each day, and drive their expensive, powerful cars (or starships), to run errands and have adventures. Maybe someone gets kidnapped, or deals with a bad guy, or sinks into quicksand… I’m pretty sure I played out these plots with my dolls as a little girl. (Though my dolls did more dressing up than hijacking of rocket ships, but they were pretty adventurous.)

In this episode, Miles’ doppelgänger, Mark, the genetic clone brother who was originally created for the infiltration and destruction of the Vorkosigan family, tricks Miles’ mercenaries into aiding in the rescue of other clones held on Jackson’s Whole. Miles finds out, but before he can put a stop to the violent conflict that follows, he is killed by a grenade. His body is cryogenically frozen for future medical attention, but then lost in space in the chaos of battle. Despite this, the Vorkosigans accept Mark into their home, but Mark feels responsible for the loss of his hated clone/brother/enemy, and his investigative actions result in his own imprisonment and subsequent torture.

But, like the adventures of Barbie and Ken, it’s always going to work out for Miles and his lot, and there is always the same root, the same hearth, the same heart to which they return. But unlike Barbie and Ken, the Vorkosigan charisma and fortitude might be entertaining and inspiring enough to distract from the aristocratic glaze of this elite Barrayaran family.

Mirror Dance is the most enjoyable of the four to five Vorkosigans I’ve read so far. It may be that I am finally indoctrinated into the series, though I suspect Mark’s outsider perspective has more to do with it. (And, let’s get real, a 100% audio run might have helped, too.) Like me, Mark is critical of this family of rich privilege, (although he acclimates quickly enough), and his observations better match my own suspicion of this self-righteous-but-not-enough-to-really-upset-the-status-quo family. Is Mark’s POV just a byproduct of his circumstance, or a hint of Bujold’s self-awareness?

Although Mark (and I) might be critical of this family, it’s clear that fans of this series find comfort in this kind of steadiness. But don’t get too comfortable, comfort readers. Mark’s creation story, which might be covered at more length in a different installment, involves manipulation, programming, torture, and rape. (The thing is, it seems like every Vorkosigan character of importance is raped, or very close to it. It is a primary factor for plot and/or character development in this series. Personality hinges, or perhaps, unhinges, on rape, particularly among the male characters.)

To demonstrate Mark’s consequential developmental and intimacy disorders, Bujold has him sexually assault a ten-year-old clone girl with breast implants, with no consequence because, after all, she’s just a clone. (Not Bujold’s thinking, of course, but a demonstration of the inhumanity of this future space culture – although we don’t really need such a drastic lesson since the narrative tells us as much because, in this series, so much is told.) During his imprisonment after Miles’ death and disappearance, Mark is raped, force fed, raped some more, manipulated to rape, maim, and kill. He copes by splitting his psyche into separate personalities who enjoy each vice: Grunt, Gorge, Howl, Killer. These are not graphic scenes, merely hinted at, but unpleasant all the same. But Mark survives, the bad guys are defeated, and Mark goes home and shakes it off like a wet dog.

This is common with the Vorkosigans. While there is struggle, change, even development, there is no depth, no transformation, no real threat. Change happens, sometimes hard change (loss, dementia, aging, death), but character revolution won’t. I’ve seen these folks at the beginning and at their most recent, and they are always recognizable, familiar – the most likely explanation for this series’ oft-criticized success. Readers come to this series to embrace their old friends, and fill in narrative gaps.

Series like this are, in essence, just like a dollhouse: the flexible, resilient framework combined with foundational permanence, the character stability, the episodic nature, and the à la carte entry points (you can sample the series at any point, a revolving narrative, whereas space opera tends to recommend strict linearity), not to mention the family focus, the extravagant wealth, and the relative ease for characters (even in the face of tragedy), brings to mind this analogy, and I think that’s why this series appeals to so many fans. Once you know the characters and the open floor plan, you can walk up to this structure at any time, get out the characters, and start a new adventure. Both a strength and a weakness, depending on what kind of reader you are.

For a series reader wanting comfort, welcome home.

For me, it just isn’t my bag, and a few other nagging things don’t help. The torture and tragedy never grip me. I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences. Also, Bujold likes to rely on old clichés (“with friends like these” and “gut feeling like a bad case of indigestion” are two that come to mind) rather than delight us with fresh writerly quips. And, as usual, “bemused”, gets abused, both in rate of use and definitional misuse. (I understand “bemused” as “baffled and confused”, though she tends to use it as “slightly amused”, though it’s sometimes difficult to choose through context clues, which is why it is so frustrating because the difference between the two can screw with a character’s point-of-view. Boo.)

But what I like, and what I think really captures the fans, is the motivational-spoiler effect that happens when publication order does not synchronize with narrative order. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of aft-shadowing – it fosters curiosity about the future and past of these characters, no matter what order you decide to read. And for a series that is strictly character driven, that seems to be the key.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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.