I shouldn’t have read this book out of order, since there are so many references to events occurring in previous books in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, particularly Komarr, which immediately precedes A Civil Campaign, that it made me want to go and read them immediately. Coming to this book, the ninth featuring Miles Vorkosigan as the main character, having only read The Warrior’s Apprentice before (as well as Shards of Honor and Barrayar, in which Miles only features as a child in the latter), I didn’t feel myself at such a loss, since Bujold does sufficient explanation that one isn’t overwhelmed and confused by the number of characters featured and the relationships between them all. The appearances as major characters of various Vorrutyers, for example, made me wish I had my copy of Barrayar to hand so I could see which of the family tried to break up Aral and Cordelia’s marriage, thirty years before. That said though, I think this book would be confusing for any reader who hadn’t read any of Bujold’s previous books.
Miles Vorkosigan, newly appointed Imperial Auditor after his forced retirement from military service, has returned to Barrayar in love with Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a young woman who was widowed in fishy circumstances on Komarr (presumably previously detailed in the book of the same name). He approaches courtship of Ekaterin rather in the manner of a military campaign, but so as to avoid the impression of it, since Ekaterin had an unhappy marriage and is not keen to repeat the experience.
Also added to this situation are Lord Mark Vorkosigan’s arrival from Beta Colony with an entomologist and a colony of butter bugs with which he hopes to market as vegetation munchers and food-producers, not to mention his love for Kareen Koudelka, which seems fraught with problems; the preparations for Emperor Gregor’s wedding; challenges to the succession of two District counts which involve Cetagandan blood in one and a sex change in the other.
Bujold controls her plot with masterly skill and her large cast of characters are well-drawn and consistent. There is humour in abundance, and farce, particularly at Miles’ disastrous dinner party, where everything that could go wrong does, though I did also love the part where Ivan Vorpatril goes to meet Lady Donna Vorrutyer at the spaceport and finds that his expectations have been absolutely wide of the mark; and the path of true love does not run smoothly. Bujold plunges the reader into the murk of Barrayaran politics, but always guides us gently through the labyrinth of shifting alliances and party politics.
It’s also beautifully written – Bujold doesn’t waste words, but every one seems chosen – and although she writes mostly in the omniscient narrator style, she does show us occasionally what the main characters are thinking, which makes them seem much more rounded, not mention uncertain of themselves. The contrast between Barrayar, with its still sexist attitudes and general social conservatism, and Betan culture, for example, is well done, and believable; people acquire reputations which follow them, and no-one’s life is easy.
Bujold has stated in the past (I think it’s in her afterword to Cordelia’s Honor [a two-in-one of Shards of Honor and Barrayar]) that she puts her characters into certain situations and then thinks, What’s the worst thing that can happen to them now? and has it happen. This makes for a very entertaining read, since nothing is straightforward, especially her characters. I particularly enjoyed meeting Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan (now Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar), Miles’ (and Mark’s) parents, again, and seeing their interactions with their sons. Mark’s story is also affecting, and Bujold shows us how the cloned brother of Miles has his own identity but also how he is similar, and portrays him entirely realistically. The women are strong, individual characters, though Bujold points out the restrictions under which they’re living, and how they manage to circumvent them.
I picked this up at four-thirty in the afternoon and finished reading at eleven, unable to stop until I had finished: I really enjoyed this book and thoroughly recommend it.