This is the latest offering from Bujold’s long-running Miles Vorkosigan series – or is it the last instalment? It certainly feels as if this is a final round-up of some of the major characters that we’ve seen steadily develop over the years as we’ve followed Miles’ adventures.
Captain Ivan Vorpatril sometimes thinks that if not for his family, he might have no troubles at all. But he has the dubious fortune of the hyperactive Miles Vorkosigan as a cousin, which has often led to his getting dragged into one of Miles’ schemes, with risk to life and limb – and military career – that Ivan doesn’t consider entirely fair. Although much practice has made Ivan more adept at fending off his mother’s less-than-subtle reminders that he should be getting married and continuing the Vorpatril lineage.
Fortunately, his current duty is on the planet Komarr as staff officer to Admiral Desplains, far from both his cousin and his mother back on their homeworld of Barrayar. It’s an easy assignment and nobody is shooting at him. What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turns, out when Byerly Vorrutyer, an undercover agent for Imperial Security shows up on his doorstep and asks him to make the acquaintance of a young woman, who seems to be in danger. That Byerly is characteristically vague about the nature of the danger, not to mention the lady’s name, should have been Ivan’s first clue, but Ivan is no more able to turn aside from aiding a damsel in distress than he could resist trying to rescue a kitten from a tree. It is but a short stage down the road of good intentions to the tangle of Ivan’s life, in trouble with the Komarran authorities, with his superiors, and with the lethal figures hunting the mysterious but lovely Tej and her exotic blue companion Rish – a tangle to test the lengths to which Ivan will go as an inspired protector.
In the rest of the books, Ivan is depicted as the physically handsome, rather feckless cousin that Miles manages to drag along in his wake, who is allergic to any real responsibility – not a helpful attribute to one of the main heirs to the Barrayan throne. So it was a real treat to find him the main protagonist in this romp.
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Miles Vorkosigan books – don’t open this book, yet. Track down at least one omnibus edition of Miles’ adventures – better still, give yourself the best present of the decade and tuck into the whole riveting canon. Bujold’s world is a joy and her ability to depict a complex world undergoing major social upheavals through the viewpoint of one very driven, high-ranking character with singular physical disabilities has earned her a hatful of awards and a unique place in the science fiction world. While it is possible to enjoy this book without having read any of the previous novels, there are so many asides, allusions and in-jokes referring to Miles that you will miss if you haven’t read anything else set in this world.
This book doesn’t have the frenetic forward tilt of Miles’ adventures, mainly because Ivan has lived his life trying to stay away from the sort of excitement that Miles generates by being… Miles. It is far more a romance with a sharply clever under-achiever as the main protagonist, who once more finds himself in a mess not of his own making. Bujold’s characterisation is absolutely spot on – she knows these characters inside out, and it shows in the slick writing and enjoyable humour that constantly bubbles under the surface.
At times, that humour tips into farce – the fate of the Imperial Security headquarters, for instance, had me laughing aloud. Yet, it is finely balanced. Barrayar is always dogged by its recent violent past – and the account of the short memorial service to Ivan’s dead father is poignant and one of the standout moments of the book for me, more so because it is so beautifully understated.
While it isn’t Bujold’s best book – and there is one glaring anomaly with the world that her beta readers certainly should have picked up – it was a joy to read and a worthy addition to an awesome series.