So, I enjoyed The Warrior’s Apprentice, and The Mountains of Mourning made me cry. How I would react to The Vor Game was anyone’s guess, but I knew that this last story in the Young Miles omnibus would not disappoint me.
Indeed, with this book, Lois McMaster Bujold hits it out of the park. I totally get why this won the Hugo Award in 1991. It is bold and brash but has a deeper psychological element to it, and the combination of these components results in an extremely entertaining work of character space opera. If The Mountains of Mourning endeared me to Miles Vorkosigan and Bujold’s bizarre feudalistic society of Barrayar, then The Vor Game proves that Bujold can do with Miles what she did with Cordelia in Shards of Honour.
This might be a backwards way to start a review, but I want to talk about the afterword to Young Miles first. Bujold provides a fascinating look at the genesis of the Vorkosigan saga and her career as a published author. She describes how the first Vorkosigan books obtained a home at Baen, and her experience preparing The Vor Game. At one point, she remarks how the book was stubbornly threatening to turn into a murder mystery set entirely on Kyril island, backing off only when she altered the contents of the mysterious package Miles finds from money to cookies. I understand that feeling, and I appreciate Bujold sharing such anecdotes. Much of what she says rings true and dovetails with my experience reading The Vor Game—and, ultimately, is that not some of the highest praise we can give an author?
Superficially, this novel is much like The Warrior’s Apprentice: Miles embarks on what should be a fairly straightforward journey, only to be drawn into an ever-increasingly complex and dangerous set of circumstances.
You cannot understand what it means to “raise the stakes” until you’ve read a Vorkosigan novel. Bujold did not invent the concept, obviously, but I think she might have perfected it (along with the related concepts of pacing and the dramatically ironical twist).
I could spend all day, and all night, counting the awesome number of twists, gambits, reversals, and stakes-raising that Bujold pulls off here. Let me just list, cryptically so as not to be all spoilery, a few: Metzov’s return and new lover; Miles finding Gregor (or should I say “Greg”?), losing him, and finding him again; the hilarious confusion of Cavilo and Metzov and Oser as they independently attempt to unravel Miles’ many and sundry identities; the sheer audacity of Miles’ plan culminating in the triumphant arrival of the Prince Serg.
The crowning achievement atop all this is Bujold’s pinpoint sense of humour. It’s not just that she manages to continuously and effectively raise the stakes: she’s funny while she does it. I chuckled throughout most of The Vor Game. I read the last 10% or so while on a plane ride home, and I had to work very hard not to disrupt my neighbours and contain my near-constant laughter. Some of the laughter was “funny-hah-hah,” but most of it was the laughter of delight—I giggled nearly uncontrollably at how Bujold portrays the reactions of people to the outcomes of Miles’ insane schemes.
Miles feels less like a Mary Sue in this book. I hope that’s the effect of The Mountains of Mourning on him: he still has that same “subordination problem” and the related, probably incurable, certainly terminal problem of not knowing when to stop—but now he has a sense of purpose. He knows why he schemes. And that’s what separates him from similarly clever, stunningly intelligent people like Cavilo—he can match her on her own playing field, but because he has a purpose, he has a sense of solidity that she can never have. Ultimately, that proves to be her undoing.
In addition to Miles’ creepy sexual tension with Cavilo, the second deeper, psychological aspect to The Vor Game is there in the title. Emperor Gregor turns up in an unexpected place, thinking suicidal thoughts. This catches Miles in a bind, because if he doesn’t somehow succeed—against all odds—in helping return Gregor to Barrayar, then there will be those who think he disposed of Gregor in order to place himself (or his father) on the throne. It’s so complicated! And meanwhile, we get to see how growing up as the emperor has affected Gregor, for better or worse.
I admire how Bujold manages to work these more serious themes into a novel that is, pacing- and plot-wise, a lighter and more fantastic work of fiction. That’s my bottom line: there was nothing boring about The Vor Game, no moment where I wanted to put the book down and do something else. I never had to push myself to keep reading. I never wanted to put it away! And I want more, more, more—oh look, another omnibus edition….
This is good stuff, people.