Review of Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Returning to the Vorkosigan universe is always a delight. Miles in particular is such a lovely protagonist. Part mystery, part spy-thriller, all fun, Cetaganda just reminds me how much I adore Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing. Her space opera game is strong; her political intrigue is delicious.
Cetaganda takes place relatively early in Miles’ personal chronology, when he is still a bratty young officer instead of a bratty more experienced right-hand man for Gregor. He and his cousin Ivan wind up on Eta Ceta for the funeral of the Empress of Cetaganda. There strictly as diplomatic observers, the two of them nevertheless wind up in the middle of a plot by one of Cetaganda’s governors to seize control of the empire and implicate Barrayar in the process.
OK, OK, Miles invites himself into the plot; Ivan just kind of … tags along … like the awesome sidekick he is.
Miles’ propensity for getting into trouble—going out of his way, in fact, to seek it out!—is adorable. I love listening to Bujold narrating his train of thought, the way he tries to think around enemies who might be just as crafty and cunning as he is. I love when Miles realizes he has made a mistake, realizes he has it wrong, and has to pivot immediately. He and Ivan make the perfect buddy-cop kind of duo. Ivan is a fantastic character in his own right, as the more recent Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance demonstrates, but there is something so complementary about the way he and Miles support each other. It’s not quite “brains and brawn” so much as “brains and hella brains”.
I also love getting such a detailed look at the Cetagandan Empire. After several stories set in or close to the Barrayaran spheres of influence, we finally get to learn more about Barrayar’s most potent enemy. The Cetagandans are famed for their genetic tinkering, and of course because of our biased perspective, it has been unclear up until this point how much of the Barrayaran distrust of Cetagandans is a result of their distaste for “mutants”. Bujold’s depiction of the structure of Cetagandan society is intricate and fascinating. It’s intensely gender-aware, with men and women heavily constrained by expectations of their gender, as well as heavily caste-constrained. The distinctions between ghem and haut and the complex interactions of fealty, marriage, etc., are really cool. The consorts remind me kind of the Bene Gesserit from Dune, with their desire to control and manipulate the bloodlines of the noble houses, albeit with a bit less of a religious fervour.
(A bit of a trigger warning around pronouns: Bujold uses it to refer to the “genderless” ba servitors. Although the intention to dehumanize is probably part of the book, I know some agender or non-binary friends have mentioned that they really detest the use of “it” as a singular pronoun for such situations and would prefer singular they or something like xie. For those who think they is clunky, try reading this story and see how clunky it gets.)
The eugenics theme only deepens as the plot thickens. There are secrets deep within Cetagandan politics, and although this is a political thriller first and foremost, Bujold also hints at Deep Time storytelling. Who can tell what the Cetagandan haut will become in the succeeding generations—or if, indeed, they will still even think of other societies’ inhabitants as human? Although this isn’t a question Bujold can answer in this story, she still manages to examine so many other related ideas. I certainly had a lot of intense food for thought while I was enjoying watching Miles strike out with the ladies and nearly being blown up by a duped ghem-lord.
Cetaganda has all of those elements that SF nerds love: a compelling story, sweet worldbuilding, and unique protagonists. It’s not a terrible place to start if you want to jump into the series, at least when it comes to Miles’ adventures. Miles is the kind of hyper-competent but still quite human protagonist who would, in a different genre, be a scarily-capable action hero. You’ll miss a lot of the wider context since you’re lacking familiarity with Barrayaran culture (I highly recommend picking up something like the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor for the first two Barrayaran books). But the story here is a lot of fun, thanks in part to the combination of fantastic characters and setting.