Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

It has been at least a decade since I’d read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free and I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get around to it for lo, it is awesome.

I had always thought of it as a relatively minor Bujold novel and on this reading I discovered that I was very, very wrong. I’m not saying it is the very best Bujold novel, but it’s definitely moved into my top five (the others: Paladin of Souls, Memory, Komarr/A Civil Campaign, Barrayar okay I am totally cheating here by combining two–I can’t pick just five!).

The reason I decided to pick this up was a need to use my Audible credits–I was going on a long train trip and wanted a few choices in audiobooks. Between the two credits I had and a mystery coupon that was in my account, I managed to get three audiobooks for about $3 (plus my monthly membership fee, of course). I’d heard good things about Grover Gardner’s narration, I was in the mood for something short, so I picked it up. And after listening to the first two hours last Friday I decided that I needed to read it faster than I could listen to it and happily discovered that Falling Free was included in the omnibus Miles, Mutants, and Microbes that I’d picked up a few years ago shortly after I got my first e-reader.

The plot of the book is extremely straight forward: Leo Graf, welding engineer, is sent out to the back end of nowhere to teach a class on non-destructive testing techniques. When he arrives, he discovers that he’s been specially requested by one of his former students, someone he booted up to administration for very good reasons (involving people being promoted up to their level of incompetence). He also discovers that his students are a group of genetically modified humans–modified so heavily that they are an entirely different species of human.

Instead of legs, they have arms–two pairs. Known as quaddies, they also have other modifications that allow them to thrive in zero-gee conditions. They’re also, legally, not people. They’re the property of a large engineering firm, GalacTech.

And that’s where the problems start. Because Leo does see them as people and it is through his eyes that the reader does, too. As Leo gets to know the quaddies, so do we. And they are just a bunch of kids–the oldest among them are just 20 years old and the GalacTech personnel in charge of their upbringing have done their best to mold them into the shape they want and need them to be. This involves heavily revisionist history, total lack of privacy, and a general ban on fiction and other media.

Then it all goes haywire–two quaddies, Tony and Claire, were told to make a baby. And they did, and in the process, they became pair-bonded. And when Claire’s “production schedule” is accelerated and Tony isn’t involved…well. Things get interesting fast. So interesting that reproductive choice is the trigger event for everything else that follows–this is something that’s a theme in Bujold’s other work, too.

This really is an amazing and wonderful book. It’s fast-paced and the quaddies are so very interesting–and you can see the seeds that Bujold planted in this book for what quaddie culture becomes when we encounter it again 200 years later during Miles Vorkosigan’s lifetime. The beginnings their dance and musical forms are here, as are their naming conventions and everything about their entire society. Bujold even slips in a bit about accommodations; at one point when Silver is in an environment with gravity, she reflects that it wouldn’t be so bad if only the seat were shaped properly.

I also really love this book because of Leo Graf. He’s an engineer through and through and approaches everything as if it’s an engineering problem, even as he’s figuring out how to help the quaddies grab their freedom with all four hands and not let go.

My favorite bit is one near the end involving a work permit. Or the earlier bit with the inspection record. Or maybe the point at which Leo throws in with the quaddies fully:

The solution had been lying around him in pieces all this time, invisible until he’d changed. He grinned dementedly, possessed. He yielded himself up to it without reservation. All. All. There was no limit to what one man might do, if he gave all, and held back nothing.

Didn’t hold back, didn’t look back–for there would be no going back. Literally, medically, that was the heart of it. Men adapted to free fall, it was the going back that crippled them.

I am a quaddie,” Leo whispered in wonder. He regarded his hands, clenched and spread his fingers. “Just a quaddie with legs.” He wasn’t going back.

Leo and Cazaril (from The Curse of Chalion) are, I think, cousins of a sort.

I think if I talk too much more about this book I’ll end up giving it all away or typing in all my favorite bits (which is like 30% of the book, at least) and no one wants that so I’ll just say that Bujold is doing so many interesting things in this book–she’s talking about privilege and what it means to be a person and integrity and so many of the other themes that echo throughout her entire body of work. Ethics is another huge theme here–how much genetic manipulation is too much? Is it possible to go too far?

There is one thing that confuses me, though. Why on earth has this book been repeatedly nominated for a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award? There’s nothing remotely libertarian about it–in fact, I would say that the principles it espouses are about as far away from libertarianism as possible. The quaddies share everything–they have very little private property and their entire society is set up as an interdependent system because that is the only way they’re going to survive. Quaddies, literally, cannot make it on their own–their natural environment precludes that as a possibility.

If you haven’t read this book, you really need to. It’s wonderful in every way a book by Bujold can be wonderful.

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold



As I mentioned last week, I recently picked up a copy of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines, her collection of speeches, essays, travel notes, and other bits and pieces she’s collected over the past 30 years or so.  While I pretty much mined the genre stuff out of the book for the post linked to above, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff in there, and while I think this book will appeal primarily to the Bujold Compleatist, anyone interested in writing or in a peek inside how a writer works will likely enjoy this as well, with one caveat: if you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, you’ll miss a lot of the nuance in what she’s saying.

The book is divided into easy, obvious sections: there are convention and other speeches where Bujold was the Guest of Honor or an award winner, and there are essays written for a variety of purposes—Hugo nominations, blog posts for Tor or Eos or the Baen Bar, local papers, etc., afterwards and forwards to omnibus editions of the books, travel notes covering three overseas trips (to Russia, Croatia, and Finland), and a few other things, such as the suggested reading order for the Vorkosigan books.  Everything is clearly labeled, and every piece comes with a paragraph or more of commentary to put that particular speech or essay into some context for the reader.  If you own the omnibus editions to the Vorkosigan books, you likely have a whole section of this book; likewise, Bujold, like any wily writer, reuses parts of previous writings in newer ones, both to save herself some time and because, hey, if she said it well once, it likely bears repeating.  So there is some overlap among the selections, a fact she herself notes from time to time.

As a Vorkosigan nut, I was mostly interested in those pieces that talked about Miles and the Miles books, and there are a lot of them.  Bujold ranges freely over her early years when she first began writing that series, how she overshot the ending of Shards of Honor and had to go back and find its ending, how she knew Aral and Cordelia would have a crippled child, and how her basic premise for dealing with the series has always been to make sure each book could stand independently to a great extent, and how her plans for each book basically involved her asking herself “what’s the worst thing I could do to this character?” and then doing it to him.  It’s an interesting glimpse into how she works.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she also spends a great deal of time talking about Falling Free, which is set in the same world as the Vorkosigan books but takes place much earlier.  Bujold seems very fond of the quaddies, of Leo Graf, and of this particular book, which was her effort to make science the hero of the story instead of the villain and to explore the consequences of what happens to obsolete technology when that technology is bioengineered humans.  There is an entire essay devoted to Falling Free, a book I have not read for some years.  I’ll be rectifying that soon now that I have a new way to think about it.

Fans of her Sharing Knife and Chalion books will also find much to enjoy here, particularly her musings on how she set out to tackle the romance genre in the Sharing Knife books—there is, in fact, a set of six short essays she wrote for Eos on these books that explore the various themes in them and what she was hoping to achieve when she wrote them that I found both informative and interesting, and I should note that I have not read that series.

Of somewhat less interest were the travel notes—Bujold herself likens their inclusion to “looking at someone’s travel slides” and to some extent, that’s pretty accurate, although she clearly enjoyed her travels and glimpses into other cultures.  But they tend to be a matter of “They took me here, I did a signing, there were translation issues, I ate a meal, I did a signing, I gave a talk, I was carried off by fans, I fell into bed and got up and did it all again the next day” which, you know, if you’ve never been there, yeah.  Someone else’s vacation pictures.

Mostly, though, what I really enjoyed were her thoughts on writing, on genre issues, and what books are: “The book is not an object on the table; it is an event in the reader’s mind.”  True, and it leads to this thought she has later in the same essay:

“As a writer, I am keenly aware that I am not in control of half my art. The exact same text one reader finds exciting, subtle, nuanced, funny and moving, the next reader may find boring, dull, or unmemorable.”

That particular quote made me think very hard about what it means to be a reviewer, actually—not to get all sidetracked from what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is telling you if checking out Sidelines is worth your time, but my dilemma has always been just how much of my own prejudices and preferences should go into a review.  One of the things I like about writing here is that I can interject my own likes and dislikes and warn the reader of my own biases (note: I hate elves in books).  I try to be objective, I try to address expectations.  But unless you know me and what I like and don’t like, what I find interesting (like a 350 page book on how one writer I happen to admire a lot approaches her craft) you may in fact find mind-numbing.  And it really can’t be helped.

That said, I really did enjoy reading this—I found it enlightening in a lot of ways, and on a lot of different levels, and her comments about genre, about valuing any book based solely on its “social utility” (her words), and about how genres can be made to work together were especially thought-provoking.  But I’m a rhetorician by training, and this kind of rhetorical and narrative examination fascinates me.  If you’re not interested in that kind of thing, or in Miles Vorkosigan, then you might find this far less interesting than I did.

The Genre Dance

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines of late.  Sidelines is a collection of essays, speeches, travelogues, and sundry other non-fiction bits and pieces, and it completely deserves and shall have its own review.  However, as I was reading the text of a speech Bujold gave at the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention (Denvention 3), I remembered this half-written piece I started, oh, months ago, in response to a review I read of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance that dealt with the book as a romance.  That review (you can read it here) really bugged the crap out of me, although I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the reviewer was cherry-picking the bits out of CVA that dealt with Ivan’s romance and pretty much giving short shift to the fact that while that book, and many of the Vorkosiverse books, do contain romances for the characters, they do not fall within the boundaries of a romance as it is traditionally defined.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Now I’m not someone who thinks genre is a dirty word—all books are genre books to some extent, and thinking about the ways that a particular book falls within the boundaries of a particular genre doesn’t bother me—you’ll note that our tags in this page usually place a book within some sort of  category: mystery, romance, SFF, biography, etc.  Genre is a handy label that gives the reader an idea of what to expect—certain tropes are common and various elements are expected in certain genres.  So if I were asked, for example, “Tell me about Moby-Dick”, I could say “It’s about this insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale” and that tells you what the story is about, sure, but it doesn’t tell you much about how the story is told—but if I say “It’s an adventure novel about an insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale”, well.  That gives you a much better idea of what you’re in for.  By the same token, I could say “It’s the classic novel about…blah blah blah” and that suggests something completely different in terms of expectations.  As Mark Twain once noted, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”  Most people hear the word classic and their mind goes straight to dull.  Or possibly old-fashioned. Or even good for you.  No one likes literary spinach.

Genre labels have expectations.   It’s then up to the story to meet those expectations, fail to do so, surpass them, or turn them on their heads.  But I think in the above example you can see the danger in them as well.  Useful as the label is, it’s also possible to use them to mislead.  If I really wanted to push Moby-Dick like a crack dealer on an unsuspecting reader, for example, I’d avoid labeling it a “classic” and stick with “adventure story”.  Science Fiction comes with its own issues as a label (which Bujold hilariously details in an essay later in Sidelines where she describes being the only SF author at a book fair and soliciting opinions about why the people there didn’t like the genre.  The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “I only read important books”).  You see the problem with labels… because oh those pesky pre-conceived notions.

Me, I don’t think it’s any crime to like genre books and read them. I don’t think they’re unimportant–in fact, I think they are undervalued as a whole by critics.  Are some of them fluff?  Oh sure. Some of them have no heft to them whatsoever.  I’ve also read some “important” books in my time that are fluffy, or overwritten, or just plain stupid.  That’s not a genre issue, that’s a writer issue.  Genre does not equal bad, or lacking value.  Genre does not deserve to be looked down upon like a hairball the cat left on your new rug.  Poop on that.  Want to read a fluffy cat mystery?  Do it.  Fluff is sometimes exactly what someone needs.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m reading.  I just want to read it.  It’s to escape, not to improve my mind. I compared this need once to the difference between fast food and fine dining.  Sometimes you just want a Happy Meal to fill you up.  You don’t really care if there’s actually any beef in your cheeseburger.  Happily, though, there are just as many substantial books that do have some heft to them.  So if you want that, you can have it.  If you don’t, you don’t have to.  That’s the great thing about our world.  There are so many books, bless ‘em.  Something for every need and occasion.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign

So having established that, let me get back to this idea of genre and cherry-picking.  And Bujold.  Since it was her speech at Denvention 3 that got me revved up on this topic again, I shall use her as an example: if you say to me “What is A Civil Campaign about?” well good grief.  It’s about a lot of things.  It certainly is about romance, and I’m confident that folks who are romance fans will not go away dissatisfied in that respect.  But. It has to be understood that while you can read A Civil Campaign strictly as a romance novel, if you have no prior knowledge of Miles or Ekaterin, or of Kareen and Mark, and have no interest in the Vor caste, or in the complex world Bujold spent 8 previous novels building, you will have merely skimmed the surface of what is, in my opinion, not only a great novel, but a great series.  And you will not understand the nuances of the Miles/Ekaterin romance if you do not understand the world they live in.  Rather than a romance for all time, it becomes just another romance.  And it’s way more than that.

I’m glad to see people recommending Bujold to readers who may not have much experience with SFF, mind you.  I think she makes a great bridge between the romance and science fiction genres in those of her novels where the romance elements are more pronounced. And I want to be clear that I don’t think the author of the original post was trying to pull some kind of fast one on their readers.  But this kind of unintentional thoughtlessness bugs me.  It’s sloppy thinking and it can, as demonstrated above, be misleading.  To treat Bujold strictly as a romance writer is dicey at best because the Vorkosigan books are space opera–character-driven science fiction adventures.  Sure, some of those adventures include some romance now and then, but.  It’s essential to make note of how the science fiction elements influence the romances: how the Vor culture dictates how Miles acts and Ekaterin responds, or how Kareen feels trapped by societal expectations for her gender, or how Donna Vorrutyer has to take a drastic step in redefining herself in order to circumvent tradition and what effect that has on her romantic future.  You couldn’t take these people out of their world and plunk them down in Regency England or midland America and expect their romances to work because their behavior is conditioned by the culture Bujold creates (likewise, taking Regency characters and parking them on Barrayar?  No—for exactly the same reason.)  I’m trying to say—and probably making a hash out of it—that you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff here.  Bujold herself describes ACC as what happens when you put Regency romance and the science fictional world of Barrayar into a blender and push start.  Miles is who he is because of the world that he grew up in—to pull him and his pursuit of Ekaterin out of that world and isolate them would be like trying to grow a bonsai’d skellytum in my backyard.  The romance in Bujold’s novels is the same way: it grows out of the fictional world she’s built, it’s not there in spite of it.  It’s as much a part of the landscape as the Dendarii mountains, and it’s just as organic to the series.

So yes—A Civil Campaign has romance novel elements in it.  It also has elements of political intrigue, feminist thinking, an examination of gender roles, a consideration of how traditions can be bent toward a more progressive future, and all the elements of a comedy of manners.  But it is still science fiction in the same way that Memory may make use of mystery tropes, but the answer to the puzzles—both the mystery Miles is trying to solve and the mystery of why he pulls one of the most boneheaded moves of all time– is found in the science fictional elements Bujold created.  Without those elements, there’s no sparkle in the diamonds the author’s cut.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I think romance or mystery has no place in these worlds—the absolute opposite is true, in fact, and Bujold herself notes in another Sidelines speech that borrowing those tropes helps place her characters into new and interesting situations.  I think they enhance the worlds created in so many ways, mainly by giving the reader familiar touch points to help them settle into unchartered territory, but also by allowing characters who might otherwise be alien to us to have a handle we can grasp.  They serve as bridges to new, unexplored territories, and there’s no reason you can’t have a mystery or a romance on a foreign world–I’m sure they have problems to solve and people they love just like we do.

To give you another example, Dorothy L. Sayers subtitled her final Peter and Harriet novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, “a love story with detective interruptions.”  But here’s the thing: Peter and Harriet have had a rocky 5 year courtship for a variety of reasons.  When they finally do marry, there are adjustments to be made and they have to make them, to figure out how to live with each other without making the other one a lesser person.  It all starts out as playing houses for them, until a murder interrupts their honeymoon.  And wisely, that’s where Sayers laid her conflict—at the heart of their relationship, their working as a team, their varying attitudes toward their responsibilities for the people involved in the death of a not very likeable man.  Without the mystery, there would be no conflict—they’d just continue to play house.  She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers.  But A Civil Campaign is not “A love story with science fiction interruptions” any more than Busman’s Honeymoon is really “a love story with detective interruptions”.   You can’t cherry pick them out of their home genre because that genre is what shapes the romance.

In her Denvention speech, Bujold offers three definitions of genre.  First, it’s “any group of works in close conversation with one another.”  Second, in terms of readers, it’s “a community of taste,” a subject I could probably write paragraphs on but won’t because I’ve already gone on waaaaay too long here.  And lastly, she notes, genre is “a marketing category.”  I agree with all of that.  Again, it’s a handy tool, a way to categorize what we read and to some extent why we read it.  But she also offers a caution, which is what I’m going to end this lengthy screed with, because to me, it perfectly sums up the problems with cherry-picking or trying to cram a book into a category where the fit isn’t quite right:

“The categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren’t perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels become toxic.”

Quirks, I have them

I surely cannot be the only person out there who has odd reading habits.

Can I?

One of 88 Christies I own

One of 88 Christies I own

F’rinstance.  Like most heavy readers, I have a TBR pile.  I cannot read the last book in it.  I must have an unread book available because if I don’t, there won’t be any unread books.  I know that probably makes no sense, but I hate the idea of not having a book I haven’t read available.  So I never read the book on the bottom of that pile (for years, that book was Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, until one day I realized I had two unread books and that one had been sitting around for three years and I was never going to read it—it was donated to my local library).  The current book holding the “only unread book” spot is Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot.

Also, I develop obsessions about writers and have to own everything they’ve ever written.  This would explain why I own 88 Agatha Christie books, for example.  This also extends to books written about them, which explains why I own at least 6 scholarly works about her and another 10 or so about Dorothy L. Sayers.  Because it also extends to things like histories of the time period, other writers of that time period, things like that.  Which explains how I got interested in Sayers, own everything Ngaio Marsh wrote, and own numerous historical works about people and events from England in the 1920’s and 30’s.  Because when I do something, I am thorough.

The first of my 33 Sayers books

The first of my 33 Sayers books

I get so attached to books I can’t get rid of them, even if I know I’m never ever going to reread them.  I still own all of the Nancy Drew books I had when I was a kid.  Like, 60+ of them.  I cannot bring myself to get rid of them.  I was very fond of Nancy Drew when I was younger.  I have biographies that I’m never likely to reread, but I just can’t give them away.  Every once in a while we simply have to prune, and it is painful and nearly impossible for me to do it.  And I feel sad for days after.  Like I’ve given away friends.

My books are shelved as befits someone as obsessed with order as I am.  All mysteries are in one bookcase (except my Sayers collection, which did not fit and is housed in its own small bookcase with my Nancy Drew books—because that juxtaposition amuses me), all fantasy and science fiction on another.  Classics and non-fiction on another.  Children’s books have their own place.  Furthermore, those books are shelved in publication order by author.  And I get cross if other people here borrow them and don’t put them back in the right place.  And it bugs me when I run out of room on a shelf and they have to run over onto the next shelf.  The horror, I tell you.  I then sit down, take everything off the case, and rearrange it so all of an author’s books are together.  Because they have to be.  If necessary and possible, I’ll double stack them before I’ll let them run over to the next shelf.

The first Bujold I read

The first Bujold I read

I don’t have an issue with reading a new series out of order, but when I finish, I’ll go back and reread it in order just because I have to get the timeline straight in my head.  Just as an example, when I first started reading Bujold, I started with A Civil Campaign because it was simply the only one of her books at that time I could find (it was still fairly new back then—just out in paperback).  I read the whole Miles saga completely out of order as a result as I tracked copies down over the following six months.  Then once I had finally assembled them all, I sat down and reread them in order.  Now it may have made more sense to get all the books first (I should be clear here that my library didn’t have them.  Small town…) and then read them in order, and it surprises me, given my need for order in my life, that I don’t do that.  I can only put it down to my desire to Read All The Things trumping my desire to Organize All The Things.

And I cannot stop reading in the middle of a chapter, either.  I can’t just say, “Let me finish this page.”  It has to be “Let me finish my chapter.”

Do you have quirks like this?  Share them in the comments if you’re willing.  It’ll help me feel like I’m not alone.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold

Disclaimer: the following review was written by an unabashed fan of Lois McMaster Bujold and Captain Ivan Vorpatril.

Warning: The following review is full of spoilers.

Two points I need to make up front:

1.  Ivan Vorpatril  is hands down my favorite secondary character in the Vorkosiverse.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

2.  That said, I was obviously beyond excited when I learned there was going to be an “Ivan” novel forthcoming, but my excitement was tempered by wondering, really, if Ivan was capable of carrying off his own narrative.  I mean, even Ivan knows he’s been Miles Vorkosigan’s donkey for years now…

I really should have had more faith in Bujold.  Of course Ivan is able to carry his own novel quite well, thank you, and Bujold wisely removes Miles to Sergyar except for a brief appearance, which prevents him from stealing Ivan’s thunder here.  Which is just as well, because the five or six pages he’s part of give you some idea of just how dominating a character he is.  He can’t help it.  But if you’re only going to read this book for Miles and Ekaterin, be warned now—they really do only make the briefest of appearances.  However, Miles is often referenced in one way or another, usually in the backstory.

Readers who have not read the entire series might miss some references to previous books and plotlines, although this shouldn’t really be detrimental to their enjoyment of this novel, which is capable of standing on its own.  But if you’ve read Memory and A Civil Campaign and even Cetaganda, your enjoyment will be magnified; since Bujold is very good indeed at sneaking in all the backstory you need to understand the plot and the worlds of Barrayar and Jackson’s Whole, however, you can start here if you wish and work your way backwards.  Then read them all forward again.  And again, and again…oh, sorry.

So Ivan.  The always charming Ivan, used mostly as comic fodder and as Miles’ foil in the earlier novels but given a bigger, better developed role in both Memory and A Civil Campaign, finally steps out on his own here with, if not the manic flare of his genius cousin, then at least with his own sense of style.  And as he wades through a phalanx of bounty hunters, Jacksonian plotters, and the machinations of the dissipated Byerly Vorrutyer, Ivan proves that it’s entirely possible he’s wasted in Ops.

When the novel opens, Ivan, as aide-de-camp to Admiral Desplaines, is temporarily stationed on Komarr and looking forward to exploring its domes in search of a little fun when By turns up on his doorstep, looking for help.  He’s up to his ears in an internal smuggling operation, and has learned that a certain young lady is being targeted for kidnapping, although he has no idea why or even who she really is.  He begs Ivan to take what little information he has and make her acquaintance with the idea of rescuing her—she’s really a side job here, and he just doesn’t have the time—plus, he can’t risk blowing his cover.  Since the young woman is stunningly attractive, and because Ivan is chivalrous to a fault, he unwillingly agrees to help By.

Because it’s Ivan, things don’t exactly work out the way he intends: he ends up being taken prisoner by Tej and her companion, Rish, then thwarting their would-be kidnappers (in a scene that makes it clear that Ivan was paying attention on all of those accidental adventures with Miles) and taking the women home with him until he can figure out how to safely get them off of Komarr.  When the tables are turned on them yet again, Ivan does what seems to be the only logical thing he can do at the time—he marries Tej even as Dome Security and Komarr Immigration officials are attempting to break down the door of his apartment, then hires Rish as a means of protecting them from deportation and himself from a charge of kidnapping.  He doesn’t consider that he barely knows his new wife.  Or at least, he doesn’t consider it for too long.  And he certainly has no intention of staying married anyway.

Tej, as it happens, is the youngest daughter of a Jackon’s Whole House Baron whose house was overthrown in a coup; most of her extended family, except for a brother currently working on Escobar, is assumed to have been killed in the takeover.  There’s a big price on her head as a result, and Ivan sees his marriage as a means to a little recreational sex and merely a temporary thing to keep Tej and Rish one step ahead of Jacksonian bounty hunters before eventually shipping them off to Escobar to meet up with her brother. Back on Barrayar, however, Ivan discovers that neither his family or ImpSec seem to be in any hurry to speed Tej on her way–and when the brother turns up on Barrayar with her presumed-dead family in tow, Ivan soon realizes that his formidable mother is the least of his family problems.

This is all a great deal of fun, and best of all, it gives Bujold an opportunity to flesh out the more domestic side of some of her secondary characters, including Lady Alys (I want her apartment!), Simon Illyan (who has some great scenes), and Count Falco Vorpatril (whose appearance is brief, but memorable), while delving into a little ancient Barrayarian history vis a vis the Cetegandan Occupation.  Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a hybrid of a novel–part interplanetary political thriller and part domestic farce, with a little romance thrown in; it is also easily Bujold’s most readable, most enjoyable outing since A Civil Campaign—it’s funny as hell in spots, with just enough plot twists to keep things lively.  She makes the unusual mash-up work.

For me, what was most interesting was where the author took Ivan in his development.  Ivan is 35 in this book (which is, incidentally, set before Cryoburn), and has, in his previous outings, been cast as a happy-go-lucky womanizer whose mother despairs of ever seeing him safely married, but we learn more about Ivan’s relationship with Lady Alys here, and also about his place in her life, which is much more precarious now that Simon is installed as her domestic partner.  I realized long ago that Ivan was not the family idiot he’s made out to be, but now that he’s front and center here, it’s driven home pretty quickly that the Ivan we’ve grown to know and love was always filtered through Miles’ take on him.  So it was personally gratifying for me to see my own analysis of Ivan bearing fruit here.  In particular, there is a scene early on where Alys and Ivan, accompanied by Simon and Tej, go to burn their annual death offering for Alys’ now very late husband, Padma (who was killed by rebel forces just hours before Ivan’s birth) that provides enormous insight into why Alys is so formidable, and equal insight into why Ivan has been content all these years to stay within her orbit, quietly underachieving.  It’s a moving scene in many ways, and it speaks volumes about not only each character’s personality, but their often fraught relationship.  Likewise, we get to see a side of Simon that would have been almost unthinkable in the earlier novels—as a man who is emotionally vulnerable and trying hard to figure out not only what his role is in the Alys-Ivan relationship, but what his role as retired Chief of ImpSec is.

Ivan has always cultivated an air of intellectual laziness in the past, preferring to let Miles do the heavy lifting there while he plays a more ornamental role.  But it is a mistake to think that Ivan is stupid or lazy—he is, in fact, neither and never has been.  Here, he does some weasel work worthy of ImpSec and, furthermore, shows that he’s just as adaptable and quick-thinking as his cousin.  When dealing with Byerly Vorrutyer, who plays games within games as one of ImpSec’s deep cover moles, Ivan shows that he not only has By’s number, but that he’s just as good at playing his cards close to his chest as the wiggly By.  Always a character who reacted to situations instead of acting first, Ivan is forced in this instance to prove he is capable of both action and considered reaction—a major development for his character.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in his dealings with his newly-minted, if temporary, in-laws.  Bujold is obviously having a grand time with Tej’s family—they are truly awful people, as befits a Jacksonian House Baron and his family.  Jackson’s Whole, for those not familiar with all of the Vorkosigan novels, is Bujold’s picture of laissez-faire capitalism taken to the nth degree, where The Deal is Sacred and Power is King.  No good Jacksonian gives anything without receiving something in trade, and watching first Tej and then her parents try to work their Deals on Barrayar is both amusing and eye-opening.  Watching Ivan adjust to it is downright entertaining.  Similarly, it becomes clear that Tej is really quite as torn about her family as Ivan is about his: she finds them exasperating and impossible, but they are her family.

Which brings us, in the end, to Ivan and Tej’s marriage of convenience.  While both of them insist that their hasty wedding was nothing more than a means to an end, they discover that divorce Barrayaran-style isn’t as simple as they think. The reader, if not the characters, quickly tumbles to the fact that these two were made for each other.  They see in their partners all the qualities that their respective families have always refused to see.  To Tej, Ivan is brave, quick-witted, and thoughtful and not the amiable idiot.  To Ivan, Tej is not just the wayward youngest child with no purpose except as a bargaining chip in her parents’ political games, but a bright young woman, loyal to those she loves, who is capable of anything if someone would just give her a chance.

You’ll have to read the book, though, to find out if they can make this work.  I’m not going to tell you.  But I will tell you this: I loved nearly every word of this, and as soon as my husband finishes with it, I’ll probably read it again.