The Sparrow: a tale of religion and aliens
This book was recommended to me I think when I was lamenting the lack of religion in modern SF on Galactic Suburbia, and then also somewhat at random by my school librarian. Who then proceeded to buy it for school… but put it on my desk before putting it on the shelf. Truly I am looked after.
The premise behind it is one that, once stated, makes an enormous amount of sense when you consider the history of colonisation and exploration from a European perspective. Which group of people have, historically, often been the first into new, uncharted-by-white-folks areas? That would be the Jesuits. Of course. So, in 2019 when a signal is received from another planet, it is the Jesuits who finance and send the first interplanetary mission. As the history of Earth’s colonisation would also suggest, it is not an easy mission, and fraught with all sorts of difficulties – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
The narrative follows two timelines: one from the time of the discovery of the radio signal, and the subsequent preparations to go to the new planet; the other, some 40 years later, with the one returnee being… interviewed… by his Jesuit brethren about what happened there. This is a difficult process for a variety of reasons: some pertaining to the priest (Emilio) himself, some to the interviewers, and others to the way the situation has been handled and reported. This second timeline is the most difficult to read, obviously, but in turn it has a big impact on the way in which the first has to be read. In the first, Emilio is not the man he has become in the second, so reading the two congruently gives the reader quite a sense of dissonance – which of course makes sense and adds to the experience of understanding just how this man changed, and why.
Did I mention it’s not an easy book to read?
Most of the characters are compelling, and usually in a good way. Emilio is probably the most enigmatic of them, right from the start. The rest of the crew who head off to the alien planet are more accessible, to a greater or lesser degree; most of the Jesuit investigators likewise, although we get to know them to a much lesser extent. There is a nice variety of character – different religious backgrounds being the greatest and most important example of diversity, given the book’s premise. I found most of the characters intensely believable, too, with one exception – and that exception I can’t really talk about without giving spoilers. Suffice to say, I hope, that I didn’t find that this took away from the book in the slightest.
In some ways this book can be seen as a meditation on the impact of European contact and colonisation on the rest of the world in the so-called Age of Discovery. Interestingly, and intriguingly, it looks at the impact on both the subject and the colonisers, which is I think something often missing from the literature (Heart of Darkness being an obvious parallel here). Connected to this, and really really interestingly from my perspective, is the fact that the impact of such an experience – right from the discovery of aliens to contact and the end result of that – on religious people is also front and centre. And taken seriously, and described in ways that I, as a Christian, found quite profound and… accessible, I guess. (The author discusses her own religiosity in an afterword, saying that she was a lapsed Catholic until she had children, at which point she started thinking about religion again and converted to Judaism.) I appreciated this attempt to grapple with what I think are incredibly important issues, and that are often overlooked in the genre.
There is a sequel, apparently, and I’m not sure what I think about that; it stands so starkly and brilliantly by itself that I would be reluctant to add to the ‘afterwards’. That said, this book is so beautifully written that I’m a bit in love with Russell’s prose and I think I could read every other bit of fiction that she’s put out there, so I guess I’ll be reading the sequel.
Shades of Milk and Honey are delicious
This has been on my to-be-read list for a long time – since Tansy recommended it at least, and definitely since it won the World Fantasy Award last year (2010). It’s not really the sort of book that might immediately seem appealing to me; I don’t think the list of books that I’ve read recently and reviewed here would indicate that I’m much of a romance, or Jane Austen, reader. (Hmm. Maybe the Carriger. And possibly the Bujold if you’ve actually read them….) The reality of course is that I am a sucker for a well-written romance that isn’t set in my normal world, and that includes other interesting elements. So, Austen – because I dig the social commentary, and it is indeed so far from my own experience. Not that I’m a great Janeite; I think I’ve only read three completely? (I Could Not get through Emma. She annoyed me too much.)
Anyway. This book is described as one that Austen might have written… had she lived in a world with magic. And, yes, I could pretty much leave a review at that, except that someone else has already stolen that line and where would be the fun in such a short discussion?
Kowal has clearly and consciously set out to write a Regency romance + magic – no attempt here to hide her influences. It is a comedy of manners – and one of those comedies that falls perilously close to being a tragedy, as such things must in order to make the comedy (not the laugh-out-loud sort, but the all-coming-good sort) all the more poignant and wonderful. The main character, Jane, is very plain indeed, but possessed of a remarkable talent for manipulating glamour – the art of using magic to enhance or change appearances. In the same way that the Bennet sisters were to be skilled at the arts of music in particular, well-bred young ladies in this Regency are to be familiar with magic. Its subtle and sensible use are key to a charming, upper-class home. Jane has little hope, though, that her talents will secure her a husband, being that terribly old-maid age of 28. The plot progresses with mishaps and misunderstandings, revelations and rescues, and some utterly delightful pieces of descriptive prose.
There are a number of things that make this book a wonderful, relaxing, read – much like a bath with a book and champagne, or a spring afternoon in the sun with a book and chocolate. The first is the assurance that, because Kowal has taken Austen as her muse, you just know that things are basically going to turn out all right. Of course, it was possible that Kowal would totally throw readerly expectations, but after the first couple of chapters – discovering that the mother is Mrs Bennet to the nth degree, and observing the love-tangles – I was fairly sure that I could rely on Kowal to subvert some aspects but not the basic premise of the comedy. The second is the really wonderful description that Kowal employs throughout, which makes both the setting in general and the idea of glamour in particular come alive. There is no attempt at really explaining how glamour works – just like Austen never attempts to explain how music works. It’s simply a part of the world, this idea of folding light to create illusion.
I enjoyed all of the characters, in the same way that one does with Pride and Prejudice; Mrs Bennet may be a car crash in motion, Lydia a tornado and Wickham a particularly nasty form of blight, but they’re still fascinating to watch. A similar principle applies to Shades, although I shan’t reveal any of the character parallels (some are obvious from early on, others not so much). Jane is an appropriately plucky, thoughtful, and sensitive heroine, one that I at least could certainly empathise with. She deals with her family, friends, and neighbours in the sensible and demure way expected of a Regency lady, always aware of her her social standing and the need to protect her own and others’ reputation. The reader is afforded more of an insight into her thoughts that Austen allows, though, so we also get some of the alternatives she runs through before doing The Right Thing, which modernises her a little but not to the detriment of overall believability.
The one omission I was surprised by was the lack of reference to church, which gets just one mention I think towards the end. I would have been quite interested to see how Kowal imagined her Regency working with the actual one, where church was one of the foci of village life and the minister an important member of the community. Perhaps we will get this in the sequel, which is apparently due early next year (hooray!).
Overall this is a really lovely, gentle, engaging and joyful novel.
Diplomatic Immunity: Miles really needs it
Tehani and I approach the end of our mammoth Bujold re/read with the (currently) penultimate novel in the Miles universe. Many many spoilers for this one and all the preceding! The others can be found here.
This is a fantastic book because it brings together a whole heap of elements from books gone by. It’s a very nostalgic read, while still being centred very much on Miles in the “present”, learning to be a husband (and father-to-be!) and an Imperial Auditor. It’s got lots of Ekaterin, which is great, but we also get Bel Thorne! And Cetaganda! And quaddies! And of course, mystery, misdirection, action and danger. All par for the course in a Vorkosigan adventure!
If anything could be said to be a ‘standard’ Miles adventure, this probably comes close. It includes many aspects of previous adventures, as you mention, and it’s definitely a Miles-solves-the-mystery-and-saves-the-day. And it doesn’t have the excruciating embarrassment that A Civil Campaign sometimes offered! ‘Nostalgic’ is indeed the word I am searching for here. 😀
Adding to the nostalgia, and something that I loved, is the fact that we are brought back Miles’ own birth in many ways with Miles and Ekaterin waiting for their babies to be born… from their uterine replicators. While they are in a tizz about getting home at the right time, the reality is that missing the birth would be sad but not actually tragic – and how weird to think that this applies to both father and mother! That it’s not the end of the world for, ostensibly, a pregnant woman to be off having adventures! (Makes me think of Gail Carriger’s latest Alexia Tarabotti novel, Heartless, where her heroine is seven or eight months pregnant, and still running – or waddling at least – around.) This compares directly with Cordelia and Aral’s immense worry over Miles – that he had two births! – and of course with Count Piotr’s immense distaste for the very procedure that Miles now sees as, if not routine, then not abnormal. (Also? I’m quite sure every mother reading this either fainted in horror or hilarity at the suggestion that if they wanted to have four children, they should just get them all out of the way at the same time…. I’m not a mother, and even I couldn’t decide between my reactions, and feel sympathy for Ekaterin for having to deal with such a manic as Miles.)
I hadn’t even thought of the parallels to Miles’ own birth, but you’re completely right. The bit where Ekaterin and Miles are jaunting off round the solar galaxy while officially eight months pregnant? FRUSTRATING! *I* want that!! 🙂 And yeah, twins is enough work I reckon, although people do have more at once even NATURALLY, so I guess it could happen – but four lots of baby Miles? Eep.
Plus: Bel Thorne! Not forgotten! Hooray!
One of the best elements of the Vorkosigan Saga is that Bujold builds on what has gone before, allowing growth and change in her world but still giving the reader familiar elements to cozy up to. The use of Cetaganda in Diplomatic Immunity is far better here than the match up between Ethan of Athos and the book Cetaganda – Bujold played to the strengths of the better worldbuilding this time, ensuring continuity.
Yes, I was very pleased that Cetaganda made a comeback; they seem like far too important a part of Barrayar’s universe to not interrupt Miles’ life again. (I loved that the Emperor sent a delegation to Gregor’s wedding, as of course he had to, in ACC – and Miles’ interaction with Benin and the haut Pel.)
There’s only one tiny point where this falters, and that is easily explained. Diplomatic Immunity was published before “Winterfair Gifts” was written. In “Winterfair Gifts”, Roic has an interlude with Sergeant Taura, which would be a pretty important memory to him, and Ekaterin is nearly poisoned by a wedding gift. However, when Taura’s visit and the wedding are mentioned in Diplomatic Immunity, there’s no note of this (understandably, as Bujold probably hadn’t conceived of it at that point!). What grated though, was the reference to Ekaterin’s “tense, distraught state the night before the wedding” which “reminded Miles forcibly of a particular species of precombat nerves he’d seen in troops facing, not their first, but their second battle. The night after the wedding, now – that had gone much better, thank God.” Having just read “Winterfair Gifts”, this jars significantly because Ekaterin’s “nerves” or behaviour had nothing to do with worry about her first marriage or what lay in store for her in her second. But we have to allow for these little issues, I guess!
As someone reading these now, in internally chronological order, it still weirds me out to see these inconsistencies because overall, the series is so consistent – for something not written thus!
Other than that, this is a brilliant book. Miles is learning to rely not just on his on manic wits, but on Ekaterin’s thoughtful observations as well (and his own reliance on her to moderate him and calm him is becoming very sweet). The extra element of needing to be back on Barrayar to open the uterine replicators for the birth of their first children gives a very important deadline to wrap up the case, which naturally means the case gets more and more complex! The actual plot of this one is nicely twisty, and it’s the sort of mystery that ONLY Miles, with his rather varied background, could have solved, at least without a major interplanetary incident.
I really liked Miles’ comment on basically wanting to use Ekaterin to help his investigation – recognising that some people would be more willing to talk to her about things, in order to relay information. Of course this only works because Ekaterin is herself more than willing to be involved, at least to some degree, and readily acknowledges that she does indeed have talents and uses that Miles just doesn’t. They are delightfully complementary.
I was bemused at the start as to how all of the various skeins would end up tying together – because I knew that they would. I certainly didn’t expect the ‘herm’ to actually be a ba! And a renegade ba at that! The tie back to Cetaganda was very neatly accomplished, I thought, and of course Miles’ dealing with the whole thing was perfect.
Was very cleverly put together indeed – Bujold working her magic as usual!
Great to see Nicol back, and with Bel – so sweet. Bel’s departure from the Dendarii was a bit heartbreaking, so it’s really good to see what happened to it, and where it ended up.
It was also interesting to see how other places react to Barrayaran ships and their crews at a local level – we know that Barrayarans are generally regarded as fairly brutish by civilised races, but this is drawn more explicitly in Diplomatic Immunity. It’s particularly interesting given that we’ve seen such a lot of gentility on Barrayar more recently, as well as the brutality (particularly towards mutants), and could have been fooled into thinking this perception may have changed.
I was intrigued by the idea of a Barrayaran having deserted in order to be with a ‘mutie’ – one of the quaddies – and then of course his shipmates’ responses to this. I can’t help but see it as a comment on responses to mixed-race couples, personally.
In all, it’s a great book. But so sad because we’re getting so close to the end…!
ONE MORE! Well… one more published so far, anyway… oh my, I’ve joined the ranks of Bujold fanatics rather hard…
This chick digs time lords… although maybe not as much as them
I got sick, realised that I had this to read thanks to the Hugo voters’ pack, and read it in a day. Well, there were a couple of entries that I skipped over a bit because they weren’t that engaging for me and my experiences, but I swear I read almost all of it.
I love Doctor Who, but I do not LOVE it. I am a fan, but I am not a FAN. I don’t think I ever realised the difference between the two before meeting people like Tansy and other serious, mad FANS (in much the same way that I didn’t really know about or understand about SF fandom before attending conventions). That is, I will watch Doctor Who anytime it is on TV, and go out of my way to do so, but I don’t own any DVDs, and I’ve never read the books; I’ve not watched the entire history, although I watched a fair chunk of the First Doctor when the ABC put him on a few years ago. So… love, but not obsession, perhaps?
This book was written largely by women who are closer to the obsessed end of the spectrum. I don’t imagine that I would ever attend a Doctor Who convention, but it seems most of the women here have done so. That’s ok, though; I certainly don’t think any less of them for it! In fact it was really fascinating to see what it would be like to be fully in a fandom on which I am at best on the periphery. What many of the writers were writing about, at heart, was the sense of community that being in Who fandom allowed them to experience: the cosplay, the acceptance of a child with special needs, people who shared a wider range of interests than Who but which converged on that central point. The fact that frequently, the cast and crew of Doctor Who featured in these reminiscences adds to their overall appeal, too. (The fact that I too have been on the receiving end of the warmth of Rob Shearman’s generosity and boundless nuttiness made it all the more amusing.)
When they weren’t writing about that community aspect, writers tended to be dissecting aspects of the Who universe and their own love of it, despite its flaws: the role of companions was a particular topic. I remember one of my university tutors remarking once that there are some loves that can withstand ruthless and relentless examination, and that others just can’t (her example for the latter, I recall, was Home and Away…). Who clearly falls into the former category for these authors, and it was with great joy that I read critical (in the best sense) examinations of Donna, Martha, and Rose – often different from person to person.
The thing that I haven’t mentioned yet about this anthology, of course, is that it was entirely written by women. Not being a part of Who fandom either during the Wilderness Years or even with New Who, it had never really occurred to me to consider whether it was a boy thing or not; I guess I’ve always just read and watched whatever and not been fussed by it – and been lucky enough not to be told not to by anyone I met. So it was also very interesting to read a little about how female fans have been treated, and also about how people (especially women) coming to Who lately have been treated by old-school fans (badly, often). I am led to wonder just how different this book would be were it written by men. I think it probably exists, but honestly I have little interest in seeking it out. I may be wrong, but I harbour a suspicion that it would be more hung up on internal consistency (or lack thereof), and lavishing attention on gizmos. This is probably a dreadful generalisation, and I apologise to male fans to whom this is insulting, but….
Miles in luuuuurve
Tehani and I continue our voyage into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles-land, in a conversational review utterly replete with spoilers. Other reviews can be found here.
It seemed logical to do the whole omnibus at once this time. We had both raced ahead of ourselves, more interested in reading the books than reporting on them, and before we knew it, Komarr, A Civil Campaign and “Winterfair Gifts” were all done! These three works are very strongly tied though, with the arc of the love story between Miles and Ekaterin, so it makes sense to talk about them as a whole.
Yes, absolutely. Reading them in the omnibus, I just… kept right on reading…
Now an official Imperial Auditor, Miles tags along with Imperial Auditor Vorthys to investigate an incident on the Barrayaran colony world Komarr, and finds himself imposing on the hospitality of Vorthys’ niece, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, and her husband and young son. The Vorsoisson household is not a happy one, with Ekaterin’s husband Tien hiding a secret. Miles finds himself drawn to Ekaterin, although his honour forbids him ever to act upon this, and Ekaterin, miserably trapped in a marriage she long grew out of, can only dream of a happier life. Despite his change in status, trouble still follows Miles wherever he goes, and the Komarr situation is no different. Balancing a diplomatic disaster in the making with the mystery of the solar mirror accidents, Miles, as always, finds more problems than he bargained for.
And it’s not like Miles doesn’t half COURT danger, let’s be honest. Nosey little git is a NICE way to describe him, most of the time! Anyway, there are indeed two narratives going on her. First, the detective business that the Auditors essentially find themselves in and bring them to Komarr, figuring out what happened to the soletta – deliberate or accidental damage? – which in turn leads to a much bigger issue: someone trying to close Barrayar’s wormhole permanently. I really enjoyed the investigative aspects of the story, and the way in which Miles used and explored his new Auditor powers. Pairing him with Vorthys, much older and much wiser, with different skills and a more relaxed take on life, was clever from the Emperor and from Bujold – it sets Miles up nicely to work the way he works best, as well to continue growing as a character. And I really really liked that the issues at stake got so much bigger from something quite small; it developed over the course of the novel very smoothly.
The second narrative, of course, if Miles falling in luuuurve with Ekaterin – already married, and then widowed, partly through Miles’ own negligence. And doesn’t that play on his conscience…
One very interesting aspect of this book is that it’s the first time we get another point of view character for a big chunk of a Miles story. And this in itself is a dead giveaway as to Ekaterin’s importance to the world. Elli Quinn and Elena Bothari-Jesek were never given the narrative. Obviously things were a bit different in Mirror Dance, when Miles was dead or missing for much of the book, but in this case, it is as much Ekaterin’s story as it is Miles’, if not more, and this is very telling.
I loved that we got Ekaterin’s perspective! I’ll admit that I had accidentally looked over a chronology of Miles’ life and saw “Miles and Ekaterin on honeymoon”, so there was no surprise for me in their relationship developing – although I did wonder what we were going to do with Tien! – which I was a bit cranky about. As you say, that she gets so much personal airtime in the book is indeed a giveaway. The insight into the more domestic side of things, and how Miles impacts on people, was a fascinating one.
I didn’t feel like Komarr was the most engaging of the newer books, but really, that’s a comparative issue – when the two books that precede it are Memory and Mirror Dance, it’s a challenge to stand up and be equal or better! It’s still absolutely solid storytelling, giving us action, drama and mystery, with a little glimpse of love thrown in.
I really enjoyed it! It’s a very different book from either Mirror Dance or Memory, and it benefited from that. There’s a bit less introspection from Miles, and a bit more action, which helps to distance it from Memory in particular. It’s a nice change of pace, given we still get to keep Miles being Miles.
I’m really glad Bujold didn’t leave poor Miles in the lurch again here. It’s really been so unfair that all the women in his life are not interested in being Barrayaran wives, and while of course, happy ever after is not where we leave the book, at least we know the possibility is now open.
Ekaterin herself plays an important role in Komarr. She’s not there to be Miles’ love interest or complication, although there is that aspect. She plays a big part in the plot as well, but I think the most interesting aspect is her insight into what it means to be a Vor woman. We’ve seen a bit of this with Ivan’s mother and some others, but here, Ekaterin is in the spotlight and she is true Vor. Miles has been our benchmark of Vor, supplemented by Ivan, Aral and many other MEN. now we get the other perspective, one that Cordelia, being Betan, could never offer – that of what it’s like to grow up, and live, as a Vor woman.
The insight into being a Vor woman was utterly captivating – as you say, Cordelia is so totally off the map for Barrayar that she can’t offer this sort of perspective. My heart ached to see Ekaterin’s personal life… and realise that actually Bujold is talking about the experiences of many women today. Her relationship with her son Nikki was interesting too, for being (it seems to me) very real. I was so pleased that she got an action part to play, too – although I will admit that when she and her aunt got nabbed at the station, I had to put the book down and walk away for a little while, because Bujold just KEEPS DOING NASTY THINGS TO HER CHARACTERS. I was fairly sure she’s be ok, but the stress was no good for me. And then Ekaterin destroyed the weapon and it was all ok. Thankfully. Also, I really really liked Aunt and Uncle Vorthys and their relationship – which is developed much more in the next book – that they both have successful, professional careers and have a good marriage says that the Vor aren’t completely and totally useless.
A Civil Campaign
THIS BOOK IS SO. MUCH. FUN!
I adore this from beginning to end. Bujold once again demonstrates her incredible ability to cross genres, writing a marvellous romantic comedy with intrigue and gender bending and politics and Miles bumbling about! There’s a name for that, right?
There are lots of plot threads crisscrossing this book. Underpinning it all is Miles’s attempts to woo Ekaterin, now living back on Barrayar with her aunt and uncle Vorthys (side note: I ADORE Ekaterin’s aunt – she’s up there with Cordelia for awesome) and Nikki, her young son. We know how well Miles does in the romance stakes, so his concerted efforts go rather awry – he really must get used to the fact that his vision is not always the same as the vision of those around him!
Oh heck, that dinner party!! That was another moment when I just wanted to crawl under the carpet on behalf of Miles and his shame. But honestly, why the hell did he go around talking about her?? I guess I understood, a bit – hard to keep your trap shut about being in love – but at the same time, he was telling himself so firmly that he had to WAIT… and then it got out of hand… and then it all came good! Hurrah! I think this is one reason why I don’t tend to read or watch romantic comedies, actually; I do not enjoy other people’s embarrassment; I feel it too keenly myself.
Once again I enjoyed Ekaterin’s perspective – that she is coming to understand herself so much more, in particular with how she treats her would-be suitors and her relatives. That she is still trapped to an extent in Barrayar legalities and expectations is excruciating. I also really enjoyed her love of gardening – it’s nice to have at least one person expressing an appreciation of the native flora, rather than just wanting to totally terraform the place. On the Miles front, being privy to her turmoil in thinking about him was very cleverly done. Also, it ends up giving us a whole new insight into Miles himself – and finally a proper tour of Vorkosigan House!
But the side plots are such fun. The butter bugs, brought to Vorkosigan house by Mark, under the erstwhile care of the mad professor (that’s totally what he was, right?), and Mark’s own love affair with the wonderful Kareen Koudelka gives us a madcap zaniness, which while often under the surface in the Vorkosigan saga, is rarely so overt. And seeing Mark really becoming a person, with a girlfriend and a business, is just lovely. Lady Alys is still organising that darn imperial wedding, keeping everyone, particularly Ivan, hopping. And poor Ivan, now left on the shelf, thinking he might have a chance with a three-time widow who goes and has a sex change in order to take legitimate success of a District … well, that’s just typical for Ivan, isn’t it? I do love that Ivan gets a chance to be a hero here though – without him, the outcome of the meeting of the counts would have been rather different. And you know I’ve always had a soft spot for Ivan 🙂
BUTTER BUGS!! So gross. And Mark turns up, hurrah! I like Mark – the sub-plot with him and Kareen was also a very interesting one, with Kareen paralleling Ekaterin in some ways, with her trying to figure out how to be herself with her parents as well as with Mark. I love Mark for his love of her – and I really love the way Cordelia deals with Kou and Drou, dragging that couch out of the attic!! Ivan… see, Ivan lost some of my goodwill, for trying to be nasty to Miles in upsetting the Ekaterin applecart somewhat. Grrr.
This book shows Barrayar itself growing up too. The count with the replicators, the one who finds he has Cetagandan heritage, and the Donna/Dono subplots demonstrate ways in which Barrayar is becoming more galactic, and how well her people are, or are not, dealing with this change. I think it’s a very important change Bujold is making here, because while Barrayar has been so set in its cultural ways for many generations, things HAD to change (and it’s a nice tip of the hat to Aral and Cordelia’s own efforts to bring about change).
The Donna/Dono plot was AWESOME. I had so not expected that, and it was a marvellous challenge to the stuffy Counts! I did get a giggle out of the fact that they were, in the end, more scandalised that one of their own could attempt an assault – and worse, fail – than by the sex-change. Additionally, Gregor and Laisa finally get married (with almost no problems!), which provides a nice bit of development/improvement for Barrayar as a planet too; ties to a colonial possession at a very personal level certainly help.
This book is full of misunderstandings, miscommunications, missed opportunities and mischance. It’s surprisingly long, but is the most amazingly quick read. The characters are so dryly funny, even in their utter despair, and the story absolutely belts along in pace, weaving the myriad plot threads into a gorgeously fun tapestry of a book. I think this has to be my favourite book, for the sheer fun of it (with its underlying serious elements), despite my adoration of Memory and Mirror Dance. I can’t imagine being like Tansy and STARTING with this book, because the back story adds so much more depth, but I can see how it would provide a brilliant introduction to the madness of Miles!
The idea of starting with this book makes my head HURT. This is indeed a whole lot of fun, but it can’t rate as my favourite, I’m afraid; there were too many cringe-moments!
While not next in the publishing schedule, “Winterfair Gifts” is a neat little tie up of the events of A Civil Campaign. Miles and Ekaterin are finally getting married, and this sweet little tale tells that story. Again we switch point of view, this time to the young armsman Roic, who gives us a fresh perspective into what being around the Vorkosigans is like. Naturally, nothing is easy on Barrayar. Sergeant Taura comes to the wedding, shocking Barrayar with her fearsome appearance (but the Lady Alys handily takes her under her wing and helps Taura understand her own beauty) and uncovering a nasty plot that would destroy not only the wedding, but Miles himself, by killing Ekaterin. In a fairly short piece, all is resolved and tied up in a bow of the beautiful winter wedding.
It was nice to have this next in the omnibus – although I did wonder at Ekaterin’s nerves and whether Bujold was going to actually make Miles WORK in this one! It was awesome to get Roic’s point of view, this time – his discomfort at not being from the military was sweet, and his reaction to Taura was awesome – as was Taura’s reaction to Lady Alys! But, a winter wedding in the garden? The man is crazy.
If I have one disappointment it was that we didn’t see any more than a brief glimpse of Elena and Baz and their baby, and more of Ekaterin than as a plot device here. That said, Taura and Roic were lovely, if sad, and I liked that it showed the backwater boy learning to understand a bit more that looking different doesn’t mean being different. I don’t know that we had to have “Winterfair Gifts” to complete the Miles/Ekaterin love story, but it’s a nice touch.
True. I was a bit sad Quinn wasn’t there, but I guess having one old flame and one old lover in the place for the wedding was enough for Miles’ potential discomfort…
Onwards, to Diplomatic Immunity where Ekaterin once again gets to demonstrate why she really is a great match for Miles and we run across some old friends!
Galactic Suburbia, #37
The Locus Awards
Prometheus Award winners
Sturgeon and Campbell Awards
Recent announcement – Gollancz announces the SF Gateway, huge project to digitise & make available thousands of SF classics as ebooks.
Linda Nagata on ‘What’s in a Name’ and her career trajectory as a female writer of hard SF
Chris Moriarty on label in the women & SF conversation
via Thoraiya Dyer, women and the chilly climate
Liz Williams at the Guardian on the way science fiction reflects human belief
Alastair Reynolds to write Doctor Who novel: Tansy and Alex’s obsessions in one package!
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Maureen Johnson on www.whyy.org/podcast; Twin Peaks; Mercy (not genre but interesting feminism);
Alex: sooo much Bujold (3rd, 4th and 5th omnibi, and Memory); lots of books, because of holidays! But particularly Heartless, Gail Carriger; Blackout, Connie Willis; Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin… also Harry Potter 7 and Transformers 3.
Tansy: The Demon’s Surrender, The Holy Terror & Robophobia (Big Finish), Subterranean’s YA Issue
Pet Subject: Feedback from our Joanna Russ episode
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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
I received a hard copy of this book in my Swancon bag, and have just read it in my effort to read all of the Hugo-nominated works before I have to actually vote in the Hugos. I’d heard a lot about the book and therefore had high expectations, although without the time incentive I don’t think I would have read it any time soon.
Yeine is a half-breed, basically; her mother, of the ruling tribe? clan? family? ran away with and married her father, a noble of a very minor and backwater clan, much to the disgust of her own father, the not-quite-ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Now, though, Yeine has been summoned to Sky – the centre of the world – after her mother’s death, and discovers that she has the dubious honour of being named as a potential heir to the throne. Naturally things are not going to proceed easily for her, not least because Sky is a weird weird place: the humans are a scheming, devious, unpleasant lot in general, and then you add in imprisoned gods who still have a remarkable amount of power….
I did enjoy the book, overall; not as much as I had hoped, but more than I feared. There were some engaging and clever plot twists, which made me glad I read properly rather than skimming – which I considered doing at about the 1/3 mark. Some of the characters developed nicely, particularly T’vril and Viraine, and some of the gods too. The backstory, about the God’s War, was nicely woven in – and the creation story was beautifully told with some neat original aspects – although overall it wasn’t that original.
However, I have not become a huge fan, and probably won’t bother with the rest of the series. Yeine did not engage me nearly enough to want to find out more about her character and story; I didn’t feel like she developed enough over this book, and the ways in which she did change were to become, largely, more unpleasant. And in terms of the story – actually I think that this works really, really well as a stand-alone. I was really surprised by the end because it feels like just that: a genuine end, a conclusion that makes sense and wraps up a lot of issues. Of course it left questions, but so do the conclusions of a lot of trilogies. So for me, this will almost certainly stay as a standalone; one that I enjoyed but that hasn’t had a huge impact on me.
Hugo (re)reading: Troika
I read this novella in my lovely hardback version of Godlike Machines. It’s a re-read, since I read it last year for Last Short Story and had to re-read it now to reassure myself that it really was as good as I thought it was in the lead-up to the all-important Voting In The Hugos. And yes, it still really really is.
What’s often awesome about novellas is that they give a certain amount of tantalising world-building, but leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. Reynolds does that here; it’s maybe 40 years from now, set in the Second Soviet of Russia. There’s all sorts of wildly interesting stuff hinted at, about Russia and the rest of the world, but it takes a back seat to the plot. And it’s a marvellous story. A trio of cosmonauts were sent out to rendezvous with a mysterious artefact on its third go-around of a 12-year elliptical orbit… and things proceed. More than ‘just’ a first-contact story (or is it?), though, the story is told some years later as one of the cosmonauts visits an astronomer whose outlandish theories about the artefact – the Matryoshka – had been derided.
So there’s fascinating world-building, a really cool story, and intriguing character development too. I loved this story originally, and I still do.
Memories and Miles
Tehani and I continue our read of the Miles Vorkosigan series. This review contains lots and lots of spoilers! (Previous conversational reviews here.)
Well, where to start? I think this is one of the most powerful of the Vorkosigan books, for so many reasons. Having said that, it’s probably one that suffers for being read in chronological order, because it follows Mirror Dance, which is just brilliant and so emotionally draining!
I finally feel, with Mirror Dance and Memory, that here are books that I could really imagine reading again. I mean, I loved Cordelia’s books a LOT, and can imagine re-reading the entire series over the years, but these two felt like a massive step up in… complexity, I guess? In narrative depth, maybe. I’m quite sure that I have missed some of the subtleties going on, which I will enjoy on a second read. I quite liked this after Mirror Dance, because while it’s emotional and fraught it’s quite different – and this is another demonstration of Bujold’s complexity as an author, which I keep being impressed by.
Memory is very confronting in its own way, where Miles deals with the fallout of having died, and the long-term consequences of
this. It leads him to not only bring about his own downfall, but brings about a massive life change, leaving us, the reader, to come to terms with what could Miles possibly DO after having lived such a wild ride to date. No way could he sit at home just being Count’s heir!
Oh yes, I knew that no way was he going to end up being the lad-about-town with Ivan.
You know, when I said I thought Miles would take Illyan’s job, I didn’t want him to actually leave the job…
I know! Illyan has been such a staple of Miles’ (and Aral and Cordelia’s) life, it’s hard to imagine how the Empire will run without him!
Fortunately, Bujold doesn’t leave Miles on the shelf, and so he embarks on a new vocation, one which gives him even MORE power and authority than he had before, more than even he could have imagined. It’s a very sweet scene when he steels himself to beg Gregor for a post-discharge promotion to captain, and is given an Imperial Auditorship! Not thinking big enough for once!
I realised when he was granted those powers that of course, this was really the first book in which Auditor powers had been explained at all… but I never thought, from the conversation at the ballroom, that Miles would end up having those powers, even temporarily! I loved the scene with Miles putting ALL of his medals on, including the Cetagandan one – and that it made Miles Vorkosigan feel like he actually had some worth, apart from Miles Naismith. I think this has been the most intriguing part of Miles’ character arc so far: that he has genuinely divorced Naismith and Vorgkosigan in his head, that the latter is jealous of the former… exactly how that would impact on someone of barely thirty is a bit horrifying, actually.
That’s such a good point – Cordelia mentioned in an earlier book that she worried for Miles’ sanity if he ever had to give up the little
Admiral. Here, we have to worry too, because it’s not something he copes with immediately (and I love that Ivan, poor Ivan, has to deal with this).
Memory gives us a chance to see more of some backstory characters – Miles comes home to Barrayar and this means we get to play with Ivan, Lady Alys, Gregor and of course, Illyan. I love how Bujold draws her people together, and how we learn more about them over time. Lady Alys starts out as a young wife way back in Barrayar, and look how far she’s come (and still further to go!) past the overbearing mother/aunt of Ivan and Miles’ early life.
I like that she keeps the supporting cast so consistent, with new people only brought in when necessary and quite appropriately. Also, I just knew where things were heading as soon as Illyan described Lady Alys as a reliable woman. Ha! Old people making out! Hilarious. Bujold likes pairing off her minor characters, which makes Ivan and Miles look very left out! I mean I know Miles Naismith is ‘with’ Elli, but it’s clearly not going to be a permanent relationship, which Miles certainly longs for and even Ivan may be sort of interested in…. Also, POOR GALENI. Having your ladylove stolen by the Emperor has gotta hurt. I was pleased that they made Gregor and Laisa’s relationship gooey but also sensible – and that both Galeni and Gregor came out well, which sometimes doesn’t happen when there are love triangles.
It’s also fun to see Miles assemble his own household. It really is the first time Miles has had to be a grownup, running a house, dealing with cooks, cleaners and all the daily minutae of this. He is, as always, very clever at getting good people, recognising in others what they may not have seen in themselves, and I think this is lovely to see in a domestic setting.
Domestic Miles! I loved it! And the fight to keep Ma Koti was a really awesome little side-play.
The plot in Memory is a twisty mystery, with the usual red herrings and wrong turns, which forms the backbone of this change of life story (not just for Miles, for Illyan as well, and to a lesser extent, the Dendaari and Elli Quinn). Bujold again demonstrates her mastery of writing in yet another form.
For me it was one of the classic “I bet it was him ooh no he’s let off the hook ooh maybe it WAS him!” mysteries, and cleverly done too. I was VERY sad about what happened to Illyan.
I love this book, which lays Miles bare, to possibly his lowest point, and forces him to reinvent himself. A definite favourite!
yup, it’s ranking up there for me too.
Tiptree book club: With Delicate Mad Hands
Welcome to July’s Tiptree Book Club story-discussion-thing, which I have inherited from TJ on the closing down of Dreams and Speculation. This month we’re looking at “With Delicate Mad Hands,” which marks the halfway point in the anthology Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (A note on the next few months – I’ve changed it around a little so that we’re reading kinda-sorta the same number of pages each month: August will be “A Momentary Taste of Being;” September “We Who Stole the Dream;” and “Her Smoke Rose up Forever;” October “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” and “On the Last Afternoon;” November “She Waits for All Men Born” and “And So On, and So On;” December “Slow Music” (yes those last two are not in the order given in the anthology).)
This discussion is completely riddled with spoilers, so don’t read on if you’d like the joy of discovery all for yourself!
It’s worth saying up front that this story did not go in any of the directions I had expected, which shouldn’t have surprised me with Tiptree. That a story could go from a discussion of how awful a girl’s life was because she had a squashed nose to her being the first human on a extra-solar planet, beloved by an alien and bequeathing an enormous amount of new knowledge… yeh, that’s pretty awesome.
Of course, to get to the awesome you have to struggle through some quite awful stuff. CP’s life is horrid right from the start – and I hope I’m not the only one slightly frustrated by the tantalising looks into this ?post-apocalyptic world offered by Tiptree, where you can rarely see the sky and Managers are the be-all and end-all. CP’s drive to get into Basic Space Crew Training eventually gets her there, and while I was initially impressed with a society that eventually lets girls in, that was rapidly quashed: she has to pay for her own sterilisation, which was awful on numerous levels, and, along with her other duties, she has to allow the men onboard to use her as a sexual ‘waste can’. My horror knows no limits…
The events on the ship, with CP eventually getting rid of the men and taking off towards Galactic North, I found surprising and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because of the no-nonsense way it was all described; and perhaps because CP’s preparedness for just this eventuality is chilling. I did, though, really enjoy her enjoyment of solitude, and finally doing just what she wants; that she went around and pulled off all the blinds to be able to see out felt so familiar that I think at this point I was able to identify with CP, just a bit. And then to have her find a roving planet… as I said, it was unexpected, and utterly utterly intriguing. That life could grow somewhere like this! That radiation could have a positive impact on life… that telepathy etc would develop, and the different ways that can be found to do science… Tiptree had a seriously amazing imagination. (Also, did anyone else feel like she might have been a little influenced by Yoda, in characterising some of her little aliens?? This story came out in 1981, so it’s just feasible….) The poignancy of discovering that yes, there really had been a voice in her head all that time, and that she was and had been loved, was a wonderfully touching conclusion.
Some questions to get discussion going:
How did you feel about CP, and did this change over the story?
Did the story develop as you were expecting?
What did you think of Auln, the alien world?