This book follows on from the events of A Civil Campaign, about a year or so later. Miles and Ekaterin are married, and at the start of the book, are on their way home from a long-delayed honeymoon, planning to be back in Barrayar for the births of their two children. However, on their way home, an imperial courier catches up with them, and Miles is ordered off to Graf Station (a space station under the control of Quaddies) in his capacity as Imperial Auditor, to try to sort out a diplomatic mess arising from the presence on the station of a commercial fleet protected by Barrayaran ships.
The Quaddies – humans who were genetically engineered to cope better in zero-gravity by having four arms instead of two arms and two legs – are rather suspicious of “downsiders” anyway, and the arrogant and violent behaviour of the visiting Barrayarans has led to a large number of the crew being detained, and the passengers of the cargo ships having been asked to leave the ships and made to stay in hostels.
However, one of the first people Miles encounters in the Quaddie reception committee is an old friend and colleague, the Betan hermaphrodite, Portmaster Bel Thorne, who has been living on Graf Station for some time since his departure from the Free Dendarii mercenaries which Miles used to command. With Bel’s help, Miles begins to try to come to an understanding of how the mess started and escalated – and how he can extricate the fleet from Quaddiespace without vast expense to the Imperium or giving further offence to the Quaddies.
It’s not long into his investigation that Miles realises that the mess he was sent originally to sort out is fairly minor, compared to the conspiracy he then uncovers. While this is set up beautifully, and the revelations surprising, it did seem – to this reader – that Miles was remarkably slow at guessing what was going on, and the ba’s real motivations. But then he was handicapped by previous cultural knowledge, which led him to think that the person engaged in the plot would never do such a thing.
All is eventually resolved (naturally!), but not before Miles and Bel are infected with a parasitic disease, and war between Barrayar and Cetaganda is averted.
The theme of parenthood runs through this book. As well as Miles and Ekaterin’s planned children, Bel and his partner, Nicol, a Quaddie musician, want to have children, and this mirrors the main plot, though the ba goes about it in an altogether unconventional – not to say illegal – way. I loved the idea of the Cetagandan ‘Star Creche’ – a cabal of aristocratic women who genetically alter the next generation of children, further refining the human species – and the details of Cetagandan society Bujold reveals in the book. The culture and life on Graf Station is also detailed and believable: I particularly liked the idea of free fall ballet as performed by a Quaddie troupe, a performance of which Miles and Ekaterin attend.
While I found this book very entertaining and enjoyable, I had one slight niggle with it. After the events of Komarr and A Civil Campaign, I was hoping to see a lot of Ekaterin, and unfortunately she doesn’t appear much in the second half of the book, being banished to one of the Barrayaran shuttles, and can only give moral support to her husband (though she does that very well!). Given the plot of the novel I can see why Bujold did this, but I think it rather a shame, since Ekaterin is a great character: where she does come into her own and take charge, we don’t see it directly, and it’s only retold in a few paragraphs.
Otherwise, this is an interesting, well-written and exciting book, with well-developed characters and unusual settings. Highly recommended.