“The Mountains of Mourning”
My omnibus editions of the Vorkosigan saga continue with “The Mountains of Mourning”, which catches up with Miles shortly after he leaves the Imperial Academy. I was surprised that there wasn’t going to be a whole book of Miles’s exploits at officer training camp, but the final chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice covers that quite neatly, and “The Mountains of Mourning” is an entirely different beast. Miles is sent to solve a local dispute in his role as Lord Vorkosigan, and we see another side of Barrayar away from the officers and nobles of the previous book – the isolated villages where the peasants of this barely-past-feudal society live. Miles has to investigate the death of a child, one born with a genetic defects that makes it feared and hated by the people, and it’s the first time we hear the rationale for that hatred – that Barrayar was cut off from the rest of the galaxy when their wormhole closed, and the limited genetic diversity of the colonists led to a fear of inbred mutants. Including Miles himself, even though, as he is happy to recount at every opportunity, his physical defects do not extend to his germline. Anyway, it’s a reasonably done mystery, which expands the characterization of Miles and the worldbuilding of Barrayar, and it’s better written than the previous novel, with a much more sombre tone.
The Vor Game
“The Mountains of Mourning” convinced me that the series could rise above entertaining space opera into something even better, and The Vor Game continues the trend. The first section covers Miles’s first assignment as Ensign Vorkosigan, and instead of the ship duty he longs for, he gets sent off to a backwater base to learn how to be subordinate to his superiors. He promptly mutinies (for good reason, but not the best way to prove he can obey orders), and to deal with the inconvenience this causes, he’s sent off to be Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries again, where he investigates, gets kidnapped, discovers a multitude of hidden and double-crossing plots, and wins an enormous space battle that he can never tell anyone about. Again it hinges on convenience, as Miles just happens to get locked up at the same time as Emperor Gregor of Barrayar, who has fled his duties in a moment of personal crisis. I like Gregor, who has to juggle the pressure of ruling three planets with the fear that power will turn him mad, and that something of his mad ancestors is lurking within his genes. He’s not as smart as Miles, although practically no one is, but he’s not incompetent or stupid, just human, and he and Miles have the sort of slightly awkward friend you get when you grew up together and one of you became supreme ruler.
I wasn’t as excited by Cavilo, the sexy yet ruthless lady mercenary, because she doesn’t get to do much beyond being a sexy lady mercenary of unknown motives, and there’s not enough of Elena, the mercenary commander of the previous books. I’m slightly surprised this won a Hugo, although admittedly I haven’t read the rest of the nominees – it’s pretty good, but it’s a similar sort of thing to The Warrior’s Apprentice, only better executed.
Onwards to the “Miles, Mystery and Mayhem” omnibus (who names these things, anyway?), and thanks to reading these in book-chronological order, we’re now at a book written in 1995, combined with a novel written in 1986, and a novella from 1989. And it shows – Cetaganda is by far the best of the three. Miles, along with stupid cousin Ivan, is sent to Cetaganda to represent Barrayar at a noblewoman’s funeral, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy literally from the moment they dock. Cetagandan society and gender roles are complex and opaque to outsiders, and tied up with their genetics and the control of the Cetagandan gene pool, and I found it all fascinating as Miles gets slowly sucked in and realises how wrong many of his early assumptions were. I could do without all the passages about how mesmerisingly attractive the high-ranking Cetagandan ladies are, but Miles does get over it and work with them, and the local security chief who helps Miles’s investigation is nicely sympathetic.
Ethan of Athos
This book feels like a backward step after Cetaganda – the premise is intriguing but the other parts are somewhat lacking. Athos is an all-male society, and Bujold has thought about how reproduction would work, and the plot centres around Ethan, a doctor who is sent to locate more ovarian cultures to enable their society to continue. Inevitably he gets sucked into another conspiracy, and there’s another book of running around finding clues and working out what’s going on, except this time we’re following Ethan, who is not nearly as interesting as Miles, and Elli Quinn, a minor character from The Warrior’s Apprentice who gets to take the lead. Elli is pretty great, as she’s got a huge crush on Miles and uses him as inspiration to get herself out of trouble, but is still resourceful and determined and generally pretty cool. Ethan, predictably, discovers during his time with Elli that not all women are terrifying, and goes back to Athos where he will spark off a revolution. But not the one I expected – instead it’s tied up with the other component of the conspiracy, a genetically-engineered Cetagandan telepath trying to escape what the Cetagandans have planned for him. Together they implant the genes for telepathy in all the ovarian tissue Ethan takes back to Athos, as the limited maternal gene pool of the Athosians ensures that telepaths will slowly become a majority on Athos, rather than a persecuted minority anywhere else. But it’s all a bit cavalier – the telepath, Terrance, was planning to sneak the genes into the gene pool without telling anyone, and in the end Ethan does the same, and for a plan which will forcibly change an entire world, there’s surprisingly little discussion. One telepath was a valuable military resource, and a whole peaceful, barely defended planet of them will surely be of interest to the stronger Cetagandan empire, but the decision is justified because, as Ethan says, “Someone had to make it”, and the planetary authorities will never make a decision. And Athos doesn’t quite make sense – how and why did it come to exist in the first place? Is everyone on Athos comfortably homosexual? There’s mention of parenting roles being shared between relatives and friends, but also hints that Terrance might “grow accustomed to our ways” while he lives on Athos. It’s a case of a book not doing what I want it to do, and in the end that’s my problem; but it also seems strange to set up this whole culture, and use it as the backdrop to more running around a space station.
And back to Miles Vorkosigan for this last novella. And it’s an odd one. Miles is ostensibly buying weapons on Jackson’s Whole, the planet of dodgy weapons dealers. He’s really there to pick up a doctor who wishes to defect to Barrayar, and they are in need of a good geneticist, since they’ve just had a sample of telepath DNA dumped in their lap. Of course it gets more complicated – the doctor has for some reason lodged some previous genetic samples in the calf muscle of a mutant super-soldier, and Miles has to get them back before he’ll leave.
The mutant super-soldier, it turns out, is not just sentient but human, an intelligent teenage werewolf mutant female super-soldier, and Miles does rescue her. Once they’ve had sex. It’s … odd. She initiates it, wanting him to prove to her that she’s human by finding her attractive, and so Miles is forced to comply but turns out to be quite keen on it, and Nine (the aforementioned werewolf mutant super-soldier etc) goes from feral roaring to sex-starved to insecure and needy within about five pages, and we’ve only just met her. I don’t know if there is a good way to do a scene in which the hero deflowers a teenage werewolf, but there are probably worse ways than how it plays out.
The rest is a romp to the finish, as Miles pisses off several powerful houses on Jackson’s Whole but manages to get away unscathed. Unfortunately a key plot point is the destruction of the genetic library of one of these houses, by warming up their freezers, but if you were a powerful businessman whose work depended on your extensive genetic library, would you have one copy? No, you’d have half a dozen independent backup freezers at a minimum, with a copy of all your viral vectors. And a dozen hard-drives with all the sequences so you can synthesize them from scratch, although I’ll forgive that one for a work written in 1989.
Despite the iffiness of the last two works, I’m still enjoying it, and Bujold definitely knows how to write a pacy, twisty plotline and memorable characters. I get the sense that there is a really cracking novel waiting to come out of this series, even if if I haven’t found it yet, and hopefully I won’t be proved wrong. There’s only nine more novels to go…