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Review of CryoBurn by


by Lois McMaster Bujold

Let me begin with a huge disclaimer: I have not read any other books in the Vorkosigan Saga. And it's all Lois McMaster Bujold's fault.

Well, that's not strictly true. It's the fault of her fans for getting Cryoburn nominated for a Hugo Award, which is why I am reading it now. But ultimately it's Bujold's fault for garnering such a huge fanbase. So there. I had intended to start with the first book and work my way through the series at a sedate pace, but circumstances have forced me to do otherwise. I'm sure that my opinion of Cyroburn will be different once I'm more familiar with the world of Miles Vorkosigan (and yes, I know Miles isn't all the books, or even the first book).

Is it Cryoburn or CryoBurn? The copyright page uses the former; Bujold calls it by the latter form. The cover page is no help—for all we know, it's CRYOBURN or cryoburn! I'm going to go ahead and call it Cyroburn, because I'm not a big fan of CamelCase unless it's very very justified. However, I'm not assertive enough to go ahead and change the title in the Goodreads database.

As far as introductions to a series go, Cyroburn worked very well. The single most obvious fact about this book is that Bujold knows how to write. She knows how to remind old fans and education new ones by dropping enough facts about the distant Barrayaran Empire without sitting us down for a three-chapter lecture on the subject. She can refer to previous characters and to past events without leaving a neophyte like me swimming in the seas of confusion. Most importantly, Cyroburn is a fun story, makes me laugh, and makes me love Miles Vorkosigan. From our first meeting, when Bujold shows that he is fallible and capable of being incapacitated, to his last page, where nothing in his life will ever be the same again, Miles kept me riveted. He's a great character, and it's obvious that Bujold loves to write him. He also happens to be one of my favourite types of character. In fact, it's kind of scary how close Miles comes to my idealized "somewhat crazy covert operative in space" template. If I had a nickel for every time an author stole ideas from my before I was even born….

Miles can use a weapon when need be, but there's actually very little of that kind of action in Cryoburn. It's part action-thriller but mostly mystery, and Miles is a sneaky and devious man. Dispatched to Kibou-daini and a conference on cryonics, Miles discovers Emperor Gregor was right to be concerned: one of the cryocorps, as they're called on Kibou, that plans to expand to one of the imperial planets, Komarr, is up to no good. His first clue comes when they offer him a bribe, which Miles uses a way to get his foot in the door and do some surreptitious investigation. I particularly love this passage:

Aida facilitated the conversation onto a series of pleasant, neutral topics, all the while inching nearer, her coat and undercoat loosened to strategically reveal the swell of her breasts beneath her low-cut top. Miles suspected pheromone perfumes, but the message hardly needed the boost; this young lady could be part of his bribe if he wished. Alas, Aida had shown no sign of knowing enough dirt to cultivate, and anyway he didn't need to look every kind of corruptible. There was such a thing as artistic restraint.

I love that Miles mediates the persona he projects so carefully! And, of course, Bujold communicates this is a way that made me snicker aloud. There's just so much joy here, because Bujold knows Miles is wacky and we know he's wacky—even Miles knows he's wacky. Yet the threats he faces are very real, with very real consequences, and that helps add an edge that keeps Cryoburn from sliding into the territory of absurdism. This is a humourous story in many ways, but it also has some serious moments (especially at the end).

The flaws in Cyroburn are gaping, so it is to Bujold's credit that she distracts us enough not to care about them. By which I mean, the story and its pacing are just so damn compelling that I could see what was missing, but I didn't care. I just wanted more Miles and more madness. I was having fun, and that was all that mattered. But now the fun is over, and it's time to pick up the pieces and look at what works—and what doesn't.

The cryocorps are the main antagonists in this book. They are suppressing information that could hurt their industry, despite its potential to impact a massive number of people (most of them frozen). Yet as we learn more about the conspiracy, it's clear it's actually being perpetrated by several top executives at a single cyrocorp—and we only ever get to meet one. Everything else happens offstage, behind a wall of lawyers and exposition. Confrontations go through hired goons. So while Miles is a compelling protagonist, he has no matching number on the other team. In fact, having Miles on our side makes it rather unfair for the bad guys. They don't know what hits them. There is never a single moment of genuine terror, never a moment where I wonder if Miles is going to fail. There are some great setbacks, mix-ups, and threats—but they never really seem serious enough. Miles is fallible and not all-powerful, but the bad guys more than make up for his flaws with their own ineptitude.

As I approached the end of Cryoburn, I was starting to worry that Bujold would leave me with a sickeningly-happy ending. No one important had died—no one had even been maimed; I would have settled for maimed! Two minor characters, who had been making eyes at each other in the most obvious way, were well on their way to hooking up. As Miles departed Kibou-daini, I worried that Bujold would ruin my happiness by giving it to him. It's not that I dislike happy endings, but I didn't feel like Miles' time on Kibou had changed him that much. He came, he saw, he triumphed—what did it mean to him?

And then in the last few pages, Bujold twisted it around and shattered Miles' life in a very big way. Fans might have been expecting it, I don't know, and newcomers and fans alike might see it in the subtext. I didn't see it coming, but I had been paying enough attention to understand why it was so significant. And with that, Bujold accomplished two things: firstly, she made me want a new Miles Vorkosigan book, a sequel, like right now; secondly, she cemented the events on Kibou as an unforgettable part of the Vorkosigan canon. Any doubts I had about the relevance of these adventures were erased: Cyroburn is a watershed moment for Miles.

I'm reading this book so I can cast an informed vote for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I ordinarily read books with a critical eye, but in this case, behind all my other questions lurks one more: why does this book deserve the Hugo? Would if I had an answer, but it doesn't. Or at least, not compared to the stiff competition provided by the likes of The Dervish House. Cyroburn confirmed what I had heard from friends, which is that Bujold is a good writer and her Vorkosigan saga is an excellent science-fiction series. I have no doubt on any of these counts, and I will definitely be reading more books in this series. This was a great introductory novel for me, but it definitely left room for my enjoyment of the series to rise even higher.


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