Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

As second half of Cordelia’s Honor, Baen, 1996, 596 pages, C10.99, ISBN 0-671-57828-6

I first read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar more than a decade and a half ago, as I was making my way through the long list of Hugo award-winning novels.  At the time, the only copy I could find was a French translation, and I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the Vorkosigan universe in which Barrayar is such a keystone.

Recently, though, I happened to pick up a copy of Cordelia’s Honor, an omnibus containing both Barrayar and its prequel Shards of Honor.  Filling the blanks in my Vorkosigan series, I read Shards of Honor and then, while I was at it, started on Barrayar to see if there was anything I’d forgotten in the meantime.

It turns out that I had forgotten quite a bit, and didn’t know about many other things.

The first thing that struck me going from Shards of Honor to Barrayar is how seamlessly the story flows from one book to the other.  Barrayar picks up pretty much where Shards of Honor leaves off: Cordelia’s Honor makes for a far more justifiable omnibus than the other collections of Vorkosigan material that Baen has been throwing together for a while.  There’s a five-year difference of writing experience in-between both books, and it shows: While I had some trouble staying interested throughout Shards of Honor, such unevenness isn’t as apparent in Barrayar as the novel starts out strong and stays that way: Bujold’s prose flows more easily, and her gift for portraying characters get better and better.

The second thing I noticed is that even if Barrayar is chronologically one of the first volumes in the Vorkosigan saga, it’s quite a bit more enjoyable for veteran readers of the series.  Dramatic irony abounds for those who know where the universe is going and what the fates of the characters introduced here will be.  It’s amusing to see familiar characters during their younger years and heartbreaking to see doomed characters get their moments of glory.  It’s also hard to overstate how crucial the events of this novel are to the rest of the series: Globally, Barrayar describes how Aral Vorkosigan is designated as regent and takes over the reins of power during a difficult civil war.  More personally for the characters of the series, this is where a pregnant Cordelia Naismith suffers from a neurotoxin attack, something that will forever shape her unborn son (and series protagonist) Miles.  Less seriously, it’s intriguing to see here the first seeds (Ivan’s birth; the Kou/Drou romance) of plotlines that will keep going through much of the series so far.  I don’t, as a rule, tend to like long-running series, but Bujold does it better than anyone else, and setting a novel a generation before the main body of the series allows her to bring the most out of her overarching plotlines.  It’s one thing to read through the Vorkosigan series and hear about the history of the characters; it’s another to directly experience it here.

We can also see in this novel the beginning of Bujold’s middle-period Vorkosigan era: From 1991’s Barrayar to 1999’s A Civil Campaign represents, to date, the peak of this series, past the initial throat-clearing and before the relatively minor exercises of Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn.  It’s during that time that she’s at her best blending SF plot devices, strong character development, pitch-perfect transparent prose and ingenious plotting with whatever tone any particular novel mar require.  Few other SF writers have ever reached the kind of sustained excellence of that series, and Barrayar is without a doubt one of the major novels in that cycle.  Never mind the Science-Fictional trappings and the accumulated knowledge of the series you need to have in your head in order for the book to work best: This is one great novel, beautifully conceived and skilfully written.  It’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with the Vorkosigan saga, and well-worth a re-read if you are.

[August 2011: Let me hide in a footnote another difference in reading the novel that should have headlined the review if I wasn’t so reluctant to discuss my private life on-line: Reading Barrayar, with its embryonic neurotoxin subplot, as an older teenager is one thing.  Reading it while my wife and I are experiencing the first trimester of our first pregnancy is positively terrifying.]

Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 2010, 345 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-3394-1

Was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn one of the most eagerly expected Science Fiction novels of 2010?  As far as its publisher is concerned, the only clue you need is the triumphant cover that heralds “A New Miles Vorkosigan Novel!”  The enormously popular series had, after all, lain dormant for much of the past decade, ever since Bujold followed up 2002’s Diplomatic Immunity with six fantasy novels set in an entirely different universe.

After such a lengthy real-world pause, Cryoburn fittingly picks up seven years after the events of Diplomatic Immunity: Miles has grown into a respected imperial auditor, a devoted husband and a father to several kids.  Not that the domestic aspects of his personality get much play here, as he spends most of the book on Kibou-daini, a planet noteworthy for the extent to which it has invested in cryogenic preservation techniques.  The catacombs under the city are filled with frozen people, and that’s where the novel confidently begins in media res, with Miles blindly stumbling about after a failed kidnapping attempt.

Once the dust settles down after an initial volley of typically Vorkosiganian adventures, the shape of the plot becomes clearer: Miles is investigating various corporate shenanigans on behalf of the Emperor, and solving the one he’s been sent to settle doesn’t preclude taking on another more interesting conspiracy when it comes to his attention.  Miles is nothing but a hyperactive problem-solver, and dangling further corporate malfeasance in front of him is an excellent way to get an adventure.  He is fortunate to be accompanied by his faithful armsman Roic, who gets his share of the narrative viewpoint while suffering through Miles’ elaborate schemes; and Jin, a Kibou-daini kid with a missing mother and a refreshing perspective on familiar characters.

Cryoburn is a minor Vorkosigan novel more or less in the mould of Diplomatic Immunity, with enough hard science to justify a background for Miles’ adventures but without series-changing developments until its sucker-punch conclusion.  Kibou-daini’s fascination for cryogenic preservation is a solid excuse to explore the stranger social consequences of that scientific innovation—the best one being the logical consequence of proxy voting rights transfer from the frozen many to their holding corporations.  We also get to see the thawing process in two tense sequences, with enough plausible technical details to make it feel satisfying to the harder-minded SF fans.

This being said, most readers coming back to the Vorkosigan series with Cryoburn will read it for the characters, not the fictional science.  Miles is thankfully back in full form, plunged in the kind of complex power-play that allows him to be as devious as he likes.  Roic’s viewpoint is most useful in feeling the impact that Miles can have on people who know him best, whereas Jin’s viewpoint is played for the emotional impact of characters who aren’t necessarily indestructible by virtue of being series protagonists.

Yet notions of invulnerability inevitably lead us to the abrupt epilogue of the book, in which an amiable but minor Vorkosigan adventure suddenly becomes something else.  It’s not an entirely unexpected development: Thematically, Cryoburn is about death… and Vorkosigan fans will be able to piece together the upcoming revelation solely on the basis of what a series protagonist of Miles’s age should experience.  But while the development is intriguing, it still makes Cryoburn feel unbalanced, far more so that previous adventures in the series.  This isn’t a major entry in the Vorkosigan series, but the ending suggests that the next novel will be.  Until the next Bujold novel shows up in bookstores, there’s no avoiding the wait and assorted speculations.

Fannish expectations will vary enormously: Those who care deeply about the Vorkosigan series may find that Cryoburn feels like light throat-clearing before another major entry.  People without that much attachment to Miles and company will find it to be an entertaining adventure with intriguing elements and an accomplished writer’s deft touch with plotting and characterization.  It may have been one of the SF’s most eagerly-awaited novels of 2010, but it’s not likely to remain one of the year’s major works (although, knowing Bujold fans, a few award nominations are definitely possible.)  One thing’s for sure: I can’t imagine any fan of the series not wanting to read the next novel as soon as they’re done with Cryoburn.

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1997 mass-market paperback reprint of 1996 original, 462 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-671-87845-0

Given how much I like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Science-Fiction novels, I was recently surprised to realize that I hadn’t read all of them.  I was particularly embarrassed to remember that I hadn’t even read Memory, often considered by fans to be one of the major books in Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series.  I had read most of what came before and all of what followed, but never that particular novel.

It’s a mystery as to why I waited this long to finally read it.  Much of Bujold’s SF writing is set in a single universe, revolving around the character of Miles Vorkosigan and his extended family.  Not every Vorkosigan story is told in the same mode or has the same importance: They range from military SF to romance, and they can go from simple entertainment to gut-wrenching drama.  Memory is one of the key texts in the Vorkosigan saga: Deceptively summarized by the publisher as “Miles hits thirty: thirty hits back”, it’s a major novel that marks a definitive transition in Vorkosigan’s life and in the makeup of the series.  There’s definitely a pre- and post-Memory era in the Vorkosigan saga.

As Memory begins, Miles is still having fun as his alter-ego “Admiral Naismith”, leading his own fleet of mercenaries through dangerous adventures. For him, it’s definitely a more interesting life than being stuck at home as Lord Vorkosigan in a rigid aristocracy.  But things aren’t necessarily going well: Miles is feeling the consequences of a major medical trauma, and is liable to suffer unpredictable debilitating seizures.  This has serious consequences during a hostage rescue mission, and Miles finds himself temporarily grounded as superiors and colleagues review his actions.  Throughout Memory, Miles has to confront the end of his boyhood fantasies, liquidate his invented alter-ego and finally face his future as himself.

Coming-of-age novels usually feature younger characters breaking out of childhood into something like adult maturity, and the Science Fiction genre certainly has its share of such stories.  But growing up isn’t a binary condition: Kids don’t suddenly turn into adults until the end of their lives: Even adulthood has its stages, and Memory squarely confronts a tricky transition.  It’s a difficult assignment made even more so by the dramatic demands of an action-adventure SF series: Having Miles run around the galaxy blowing stuff up is certainly more exciting than seeing him confront his obligations as part of the aristocracy.  Bujold took huge risks in removing the exciting half of Miles’ identity and definitely scrapping those plotting avenues.

It also forces Memory to take place largely within Miles’ head.  Oh, there’s a mystery for him to solve in trying to piece together who’s trying to sabotage Imperial Security’s leadership –but that’s thematic underpinning for Miles’ own personal reintegration.  The novel’s most satisfying moments are in seeing Miles come to grip with his life, deciding to get rid of a crutch he had created to fulfill outdated needs, and joining a more challenging society of peers.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Memory is how Bujold is able to create a gripping novel out of self-contemplation.  This isn’t a surprise, of course: Bujold has long been one of SF’s most gifted writers, and the depth of the characterisation she brings to Memory, even through its tangle of subplots, is what fans can expect from her –but the result is satisfying to such a degree that it still feels like a minor achievement.   The self-awareness of the central character is scathing (rare enough in a sixth book in a series) and the process through which he comes to realize how best to live his seemingly diminished life is a crucible that feels just as real to the reader.

I’m not in a position to suggest how accessible Memory can be to those who haven’t read the rest of the series.  It surely means most to those who care about Miles and his adventures, but my own memories of the series were dated and fuzzy, and the first few chapters of Memory do a fine job at re-establishing the important relationships required to understand the shifting that occurs later in the novel.

While the mystery aspect of Memory isn’t much of a mystery, the rest of the book’s subplots and central dilemma easily make this one of the important entries in the Vorkosigan series.  Everything clicks, from the plotting to the characters to the prose to the impact of individual scenes.  It ends not with a sense of closing options, but with new opportunities and revitalized characters.  More series should go through this type of premise-defying shakeups.

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

Harper Torch, 2001, 502 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81860-4

I approached Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion by reminding myself of the old conundrum about an irresistible force encountering an immovable object. Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of generic fantasy. Books in that genre first have to convince me to overcome my usual prejudices and only then can they start being evaluated on their own merits. On the other hand there’s Lois McMaster Bujold, who has rarely written something I haven’t liked. Even her most ordinary efforts, like Diplomatic Immunity, are comfortably above the average SF novel. She masters characterization like few others and her prose style is so smooth as to be irresistible.

And yet, most of her fiction output has been set in the “Miles Vorkosigan” SF universe. How would she do in a brand-new setting? While The Curse of Chalion is not her first foray in full-length fantasy (her little-known novel The Spirit Ring claims that honour), it seemed to mark not just a change of genre, but a new step in her career. (From Baen, she switched to Harper Collins for this novel and all latter ones; plans to return to Baen and Miles Vorkosigan, are as of yet unknown). So how did she do? How did I do?

Turn out that the immovable object was moved: The Curse of Chalion easily overcame my usual objections against fantasy in mere pages, and got better as it continued. It starts and ends with great characters; the rest naturally takes care of itself.

The standout hero of this story is Cazaril, an experienced warrior with plenty of scars: Abandoned by his own side, he returns to familiar grounds as the story opens, trying to find a new place for himself with scarcely nothing more than rags on his back. Fortunately (and “fortunately” is a word that plays heavily in a story dominated by gods), he still has a few friends: Before long, he finds himself assigned to be secretary-tutor to a princess. But there is a reason why his own side left him rotting in a foreign country: secrets that influential people still don’t want made public…

For its first half, The Curse of Chalion isn’t much more than palace intrigue with fantasy trappings. I write this as if it’s a bad thing, but it means a compulsively readable thriller thanks to Bujold’s capable hands. Cazaril is many things, but he is first a dependable character: The novel revolves around him (indeed, he’s the only viewpoint character) because he’s such a bedrock of common sense. Strong, battered, seasoned to the point of flippancy against impossible odds, he makes his choices and sticks to them whatever the consequences. It’s page-turning stuff, even if the “fantasy” label seems a bit weak.

And then something quite wonderful happens, turning the entire novel into something else. It’s not really a twist given how we don’t learn anything that overturns previous assumptions. But The Curse of Chalion suddenly delves far more deeply into the nature of its mythology, with very real religions and associated magical powers. Cazaril himself is transformed by this turning point, elevated to a position that is at odds with everything he’s known this far. And yet, he keeps pushing back, always fighting for what he swore to do. Romantic themes are gradually weaved into the story, alongside some more intrigue and high-level strategy. It ends as you may wish for, with a battle and a triumph.

Still, I remains of two minds about the book’s (over)use of chance and coincidence as plot drivers. On one hand, it becomes a real thematic element of the novel’s meditation over the role of gods in a world where their influence cannot be denied. What are mortals but mere puppets? On another hand, some of the plot developments still stretch credulity and do knock some structural supports out of the story. On yet another hand, most of those coincidences would have been perfectly fine in a novel twice its length showing the details preceding The Curse of Chalion… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would have enjoyed reading it all. In the end, it’s better to nod along and consider all of it as divine intervention.

What’s not so attributable to divine intervention, however, is Bujold’s gift for characters and effortless prose. The Curse of Chalion is professional-level fantasy, attractive to even non-fans of the genre. In the age-old question, we now know that irresistible is stronger than immovable.

A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1999, 405 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57827-8

Many nasty things can be said about series of science-fiction books set in the same shared universe. They’re exercise in marketing over art; they repudiate the spirit of unbounded imagination that is at the core of SF; they allow authors to be lazy; they require less mental effort from their readers; they often repeat the same themes over and over…

Which is why it’s so rewarding to find a series of novels that’s genuinely good. Nearly all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fiction output so far (minus a couple of short stories and one fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring) has been linked to the “Vorkosigan Universe”, named from the family around which most adventures of the series seem to take place.

It’s not easy to isolate the secret of Bujold’s success with critics and readers (She has brought home an unprecedented 4 Best Novel Hugos for the series so far) because it appears so transparent; great characters, memorable plotlines, superb dialogue all moved along with crystal-clear writing. But the simplicity of Bujold’s work is deceptive, because it hides in plain view an astonishing mastery of her art.

The depths upon which the Vorkosigan series are constructed becomes more apparent when considering A Civil Campaign and its two immediate predecessors, Memory and Komarr. Memory was, in many respect, a big important book, both for Bujold and her protagonist Miles Vorkosigan, as he saw himself forced to abandon covert military service and learn to cope with his family obligations in a more direct fashion than previously. At the same time, Bujold was cutting away the important military/action roots of her series. Few authors have the guts to try something as definitive.

Komarr is often seen as something of a “simple adventure” in the Vorkosigan Universe, a simple matter of Miles investigating a crime in his new job as Imperial Auditor. But A Civil Campaign highlights the importance of the novel in introducing Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who quickly becomes the object of Miles’ affection.

In war as in love, there are no certitudes, and if Miles Vorkosigan’s first adventures were military in nature, A Civil Campaign is a love saga, blending seamlessly the conventions of regency romance with the Barrayaran aristocracy, a compatible match if ever there was one. (Along with the usual everything-goes-wrong tendency of the Vorkosigan adventures.)

Everyone who’s read as much as one Bujold novel already know how funny she can be. A Civil Campaign allows her to run wild with comedic scenes. Readers with some attachment to the characters will find themselves swept along, slapping their forehead in embarrassment, grinning ferociously at the witty developments and even shouting out loud whoops of satisfaction at what are known in the trade as “the cool scenes” (of which there are, as usual, many) Few novels, few authors are able to pull in readers as efficiently as Bujold, and for that alone, she deserves special attention.

In short, it’s really hard to be anything but enthusiastic about the latest Bujold novel, especially when it’s one of her better ones such as A Civil Campaign. On the other hand, like most of Bujold’s novels (Barrayar comes to mind) it’s not a novel that depends as much on its science-fiction elements as other works. Some readers will call it “slight SF”, and in a sense they are right. Even though Bujold’s output is excellent fiction, it’s definitely not strong SF, which explains some of the mixed sentiments about Bujold’s regular Hugo nominations.

And yet, under the surface, look closer and you’ll find serious SF material nearly everywhere in A Civil Campaign. From the biotechnology of the “butter bugs” (and impact thereof on Barrayaran ecology) to the biotechnology of Lord Dono’s solution (and impact thereof on Barrayaran aristocracy) to the biotechnology of Lord Vormuir’s semi-cloned daughters (and impact thereof on Barrayaran society)… there is no doubt that A Civil Campaign is definitely SF.

In the meantime, put these esoteric considerations out of your mind and get the latest Bujold. If you haven’t yet started the series, well, it’s not too late to begin…

The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1986 (1988 reprint), 315 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65587-6

In almost four years of steady book reviewing, I have somehow managed to avoid talking about Lois McMaster Bujold’s work. This oversight is inexplicable given that I’ve never read anything by Bujold that I haven’t liked. I’ve even had the chance to meet her in 1997, at Montreal’s Con*Cept SF convention (I unknowingly transgressed normal con-going etiquette by asking her to autograph a book while she was browsing the art show. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to sign my paperback copy of Mirror Dance with a smile.) So, allow me to use this review of The Warrior’s Apprentice as a general rave about her work.

Lois McMaster Bujold is not exactly at the cutting edge of science-fiction. Her books contain few original ideas, her future is comfortably extrapolated according to the old-style rules (no pervasive nanotech, no real infotech impact, etc…) and -if you want to get downright nasty- many of her stories could comfortably be told in fantasy, romance or contemporary settings.

But that is belittling Bujold’s considerable skills. What she lacks in terms of innovation, she compensate by creating some of the most realistic and sympathetic characters in the genre. Her writing is simple, yet elegant and powerful. Her plotting is meticulously paced to keep the reader racing forward. While her worldview is characteristically positive (the good guys invariably win), she doesn’t hold back on the punishment her heroes have to endure in order to triumph.

Most of her stories are set in one single universe and feature the same set of characters. This provides her with the opportunity to build one comprehensive universe, and to move her characters across arcs that would be impossible to complete in one single novel. Contrarily to other multi-book universes, hers holds together amazingly well, and seems more logical than most.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is, from real-world chronology, the first book to star Miles Vorkosigan, the tortured hero of most of her cycle. Published in 1986, it was her second novel, but it remains as good as her latter efforts. Ultra-intelligent Miles is introduced and brilliantly wins both his battles and the reader’s undying sympathy. After all, who else can fail his military academy exams and yet manage to build up a mercenary fleet?

Despite a few slight flaws here and there (it needed a bit more clarity in some spots, and maybe some fleshing out of the mercenaries), it’s very hard to dislike this novel. Not only is it compulsively readable, but the characters are all-around winners. Miles Vorkosigan’s superior tactical skills could be insufferable if they weren’t balanced by some wickedly funny self-depreciating internal monologue: A typical SF superhero with an atypical lack of pretentiousness. The other characters are well-handled and also made suitably sympathetic. Bujold not only writes good stories, but also has the knack of building up to great scenes. The Warrior’s Apprentice mixes coming-of-age episodes with space battles and one final great courtroom scene in a whole that’s just satisfying.

After that, it’s no wonder to see Bujold regularly nominated for the fan-selected Hugo awards, and to read some rabidly devoted comments by Usenet fans. She deserves all of it. Though maybe not imaginative enough to be an essential part of the SF panorama, the works of Lois McMaster Bujold are nevertheless worth some attention. And you could do worse but to try The Warrior’s Apprentice as an introduction.