This year’s Vorkosigan novel is up for a Hugo nomination. The previous book, also a Hugo nominee, was my first exposure to Lois McMaster Bujold’s sprawling and successful series, although I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. I went on to read the first two books, though, and those provided a firmer grounding in the series, not to mention better stories. I’m also glad I read them before reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. This book makes some allusions to the characters and events of the first two books, so I enjoyed seeing the connections.
Humour is much in evidence from the beginning of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. It’s been over half a year since I read Bujold, so I didn’t recall how much wry banter she likes to pack into her dialogue. But things really pick up when Ivan, Tej (the aforementioned femme fatale), her assistant Rish, and Bylery are trapped in Ivan’s apartment. Immigration, as well as the local police, are at the door. In an inspired moment of insanity, Ivan decides to marry Tej, thus making her a Barrayaran subject. They travel back to Barrayar, where Ivan introduces Tej to his family, and they try to obtain a divorce. Except they can’t, because they haven’t been abusing each other, sleeping around, not sleeping with each other (mmm-hmmm), etc. It’s an old, old story, but Bujold makes it new again.
So we essentially have a romance masquerading as a situational comedy alongside a political thriller, which makes it awesome. Bujold is that rare combination of a writer who can comfortably straddle multiple styles within one book. Plenty of writers can switch between comedy, tragedy, and drama in different works, but it takes a special kind of skill to do it all within the same chapter (and occasionally, when she’s especially cheeky, the same paragraph). Thanks to the abundance of dialogue, most of the story proceeds at a heightened pace, as the characters hash out what’s going on and what their next step should be. There are plenty of arguments and disagreements, but not so much in the way of action or physical conflict. This is definitely a story that shines because of its wit and the pleasure inherent in watching a complex plot unfold.
It’s also a joy to watch the characters converse. Bujold’s characters are just so much fun, from the smiling but serious Emperor Gregory to the more nonchalant, slightly scary Miles Vorkosigan. Even Simon Illyan, once the head of ImpSec and now retired on a medical basis, is a joy to watch, as he engages Shev’s father in a deal (“more of a bet, really”) to see who can outwit whom. Although the book itself is fun, each individual scene stands alone as an almost exquisite vignette set within the context of Barrayaran politics. Even for someone like me, whose exposure to Barrayar is still minuscule compared to the amount of literature available, it’s still possible to understand and enjoy what’s happening.
The marriage between Ivan and Tej is a sham. That’s obvious. It’s equally obvious that they are going to end up in love and together. This is the type of romance novel I can get into, because even though the romance element is front and centre, Bujold takes the time to make her characters rounded, and the obstacles to their happiness are more than contrived character flaws. For one thing, Tej’s parents and family are, in fact, alive. They show up on Barrayar and immediately co-opt her into a scheme to raid an underground bunker left over from when her grandmother worked in it as a geneticist. They want to use these ill-gotten gains to finance a re-takeover of their House back on Jackson’s Whole. The only possible problem is that the bunker happens to be beneath ImpSec headquarters.
Oh, did I mention it’s also a heist story? My love of heist stories is second to none. The family is working against time before their emergency visa runs out. Tej’s loyalties are divided, and it’s fun to watch her genuinely struggle—should she be the upstanding daughter that her family never appreciated, or the dutiful wife of a Barrayaran nobleman? It doesn’t help that, much like Cordelia Naismith before her, Tej appears to be falling in love with her Barrayaran beau.
(I can’t believe I just said that. Sorry.)
I enjoyed Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance even more than I was expecting. In fact, unlike Cryoburn, I actually think this book deserves a Hugo Award. It’s an excellent example of how to create a compelling science-fiction setting in which storytelling happens. And there are big ideas here, but they are more latent—Bujold works them into the cultural fabric that underlies her story, instead of hitting us over the head with them. And though this is the fifteenth published Vorkosigan book, new readers could start the series here and go back and read previous books without too much confusion. It’s always a pleasure to pick up yet another book in a long-running series and discover that the author still has that essential spark necessary for a great read.