Komarr is another of Bujold’s series of SF books featuring Miles Vorkosigan, set at a time in Miles’ life when he has had to give up his military career in ImpSec (Imperial Security). Newly appointed as an Imperial Auditor, Miles arrives on the planet Komarr, along with fellow auditor, Professor Vorthys, to oversee the investigation into the accident which caused the destruction of the solar mirror which was helping the colonisers terra-form the planet, and the killing of several people as a result. It’s not known at the start whether the accident was that, or due to sabotage – for Komarr was conquered by Barrayar some thirty years earlier, and resentments still linger. Miles also suffers from being known to be the son of Aral Vorkosigan, called the ‘Butcher of Komarr’ due to having been (thought to be) the instigator of an infamous massacre at the time of the Barrayaran conquest. Komarr is an important strategic location (even if its current inhabitants have to live inside giant domes, because there is currently insufficient air to breathe at the surface), due to its location close to a wormhole nexus, one of which is the only gateway to Barrayar.
The two auditors stay with Vorthys’s niece, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, her husband Etienne and son Nikolai, or Nikki, who are Barrayaran colonists. Tien is Administrator of part of the terraforming project; the latest, the reader discovers, of a series of jobs he has held which have led to the family moving constantly. We discover, both through presentation of Ekaterin’s thoughts and emotions as well as Miles’, that Tien is a sufferer of a genetic disease, Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, which he has passed on to his son, but which he is currently trying to keep secret – mostly because genetic anomalies are viewed with suspicion by the Vor class on Barrayar. His and Ekaterin’s marriage is not a happy one by this stage, though she is clinging on to the vows she made and is loyal in deed, if not in thought, to Tien’s wishes and commands. He, tellingly, is quick to assume that people do not rise in society through their own efforts, but through connections and nepotism, and resents what he sees to be his lack of success due to his lack of such influence – rather than his own limitations.
The book considers the investigation into the solista damage and the peripheral information arising from it, as well as the relationship between the Vorsoissons, and how the arrival of the auditors changes it. It also becomes clear that there is a major conspiracy within Tien’s department, with which he is complicit (though not an active member) – though Bujold doesn’t reveal to the reader what that is until near the end of the book.
The characters are well-rounded and sympathetic, particularly Ekaterin, and Bujold is careful to consider the constraints operating on women in a long-standing patriarchy (such as is Barrayar), and the difficulty of disowning the system in which one has been born and brought up. Although Ekaterin tries to be obedient to her husband, she is intelligent enough to realise that he is not worth her respect, and, of course, she is deeply worried about her son’s medical condition and Tien’s reluctance to have this fixed (medical technology has advanced to a level where the genetic modifications required could be done easily, though not cheaply). There’s a very moving bit where she’s questioned under ‘fast-penta’ and the drug (which tends to impel truthfulness from its subjects) has removed all the inhibitions and pressures under which she is living, and she is able to relax and say, “It doesn’t hurt.”
The secondary characters are also well-drawn, and their motivations and actions are believable. The pace is slower and the action less dramatic than Bujold’s previous Vorkosigan books, reflecting the changes Miles has to make to his life, both as a result of leaving ImpSec and becoming an Auditor, and because of a different set of health problems. There is enough science fiction here to keep SF fans happy, though the relationships between Ekaterin and Tien and Miles are of equal importance to the plot.
There are many humorous bits, and dramatic events, and Bujold handles the unravelling of the enquiry deftly. Further to my review of A Civil Campaign, I would recommend reading these books such that Komarr is first – they follow on almost directly from each other, and there are many references in A Civil Campaign to the events of Komarr. I think it probably also helps to have read the other Vorkosigan books as well, if only to put into context Miles’ previous career, and the society structure of Barrayar and its galactic neighbours (though I haven’t, and enjoyed both books very much).
This was a very satisfying read and is thoroughly recommended.
(The image above is from the UK edition of Komarr, though I read the Baen US edition whose cover is not nearly as good)