Tehani and I continue our very enjoyable review series of the Miles Vorkosigan saga with the first story from the third Miles omnibus – the novel Cetaganda. (We have discussed Cordelia’s Honor and the Young Miles Omnibus previously.)
I really enjoyed this story! Miles – and Ivan – are sent on what ought to be a relatively boring diplomatic mission to bear witness to the Cetagandan Empress’ funeral, and of course things go haywire from the first moment. Mischief certainly seems to dog Miles’ footsteps. There’s an attempt to frame him as part of a conspiracy against Cetaganda (Barrayar’s longstanding rival) and several attempts to wound and/or assassinate him – as a result of which Miles ends up investigating a potentially enormous Cetagandan conspiracy, involving the genetic inheritance of that race. Miles falls in love (well, in lust), goes to parties, gets hurt, and meets the Emperor… pretty much a standard fortnight, as far as I can tell, for him. There were a goodly number of twists and mysteries and surprises to keep me guessing and intrigued – it was much more a detective story than a space opera. It just happens to be set on an alien planet with a whole lot of genetic engineering going on (those kitteh plants are just weird). I allowed myself to be carried away by the story and didn’t spend too much time trying to outthink Miles (or Bujold), so the ultimate revelation – that it was a haut woman married to a ghem man, conspiring with a planetary governor – was a surprise, albeit one that made perfect sense.
I was certain I remembered this as one of my least favourite Miles books, but on rereading, I found it really enjoyable. I think I know the source of my mistaken assumption though – it is very much, as you say, a detective story, with barely any space opera-ish events! Nothing wrong with that, but when read in the wrong order (ie: after a bunch of action-packed Miles adventures), it was a little tamer by comparison…
I can understand that coming at it from a more adventurous story would be weird. For me, it worked – The Vor Game isn’t exactly packed with space battles.
On the gender politics: I though the revelation and discussion of the intricate power balances within Cetagandan society were really interesting from a gender point of view. Miles’ surprise at the power that the haut women had, and the way in which it manifested, was perfectly appropriate: he wasn’t surprised they had it, but the way they had it, I think. The very idea that they have power over the development of the ghem and haut genetic development is a neat twist on the idea of maternal responsibility for children, I think. I’m not sure what to make of the ending, in light of this – the Emperor ‘marrying’ the Handmaiden, attempting to gain control over it? Will Rian give up control, or is the power structure too embedded?
That’s a good point and I hadn’t really picked it up! I think that Miles, for all that he has grown up in a male dominated society, is pretty damn accepting of women in powerful roles (mainly thanks to his mother, no doubt). So you’re right, that was expressed well here, and it was mostly Miles trying to adjust his own notions of what an imperial society looks like, and who has the power.
To me, it seemed that Rian cemented her power base by “marrying” the Emperor, and I really couldn’t see how it would benefit him more than her. However, it was a smart move by the Emperor, at the same time!
hmm, perhaps you are right about Rian. Perhaps it’s both being pragmatic about how best to deal with a dangerous situation, and do what is best for the haut, which seems to be the overriding concern for both anyway.
On Cetagandan society: there have been references to the ghem and haut in other novels, if briefly, so it was good to get some greater understanding about what the heck is going on in this society. I still can’t say that I entirely understand it! It’s a fascinating way of thinking about genetic engineering as a way for society to express itself, and as a way of bettering itself too. Miles has some interesting insights into their collective attitude towards expansion which I still need to think about; there’s certainly an assumption – on Miles’ part as well as the Cetagandans – that expansion must happen, but quite why this is so imperative is opaque to me. One of the unfortunate things about the name choices is Bujold’s habit of saying “the haut Rian,” because I couldn’t help but read that as “the hawwwt Rian”…
It is a really interesting way to consider genetic engineering. Expansion I think is a theme right from the beginning of the saga though – after all, Cetaganda invaded Barrayar when it was rediscovered; Cordelia and Aral met on opposites sides of a planetary claiming of Sergyar. It’s almost like the Wild West – who can claim the most planets, even when (like Komarr and the Betan colony), they are barely livable! But expansion is the reason Earth went a-colonising in the first place I guess, and despite all other advancements, humans are STILL overpopulating their habitats.
We need to talk more about the portrayal of the Cetagandan society when we look at Ethan of Athos – this book was written nine years AFTER Ethan, even though it precedes it in the internal chronology, and I think it’s one of the few places where Bujold mucks up her consistency with all the popping around. I like what she does with Cetaganda here better, for the record.
Ethan of Athos, up next!
On the characters: I so knew Maz was going to end up with the ambassador. Saw it a mile off. I enjoyed Lord Yenaro immensely – the idea of scent-work being a worthy art to pursue is delightful. Rian was… I was going to say impenetrable, but that gives all sorts of nasty implications. She was appropriately hard to fathom, I guess. I liked that she was mysterious and that it made sense for her character. Having Miles fall in love/lust with her makes sense, because of her great beauty and her untouchability. Miles continues to develop here, although it was hard to remember how young he was supposed to be – so much has happened to him! And Ivan isn’t nearly so annoying as he threatened to be in earlier books.
I loved Maz! And I loved that the Ambassador loved Maz. I think it’s a very clever thing Bujold does with her minor characters – it’s very subtle and I wonder if you’ll notice it. Frequently there’s some little side story or a throwaway characterisation that shows about how some Barrayaran person or other has taken a step outside the old-fashioned, quite restrictive societal norms of the planet. Look out for these! They are showing the progression and modernisation of the planet from a sideways view!
I also loved Ivan in this. You need to watch Ivan closely too, as the series progresses. I want to talk more about him, but I won’t, til you’ve read some more books 🙂
ooooh you are giving me such teasers! I did wonder whether she was going to keep Ivan in a cute-Obelisk kinda role, or whether he would develop greater diplomatic insights as time went on. On Maz etc, t’s so nice to see secondary characters actually having a life outside of their interactions with the principal cast.
Questions: will Miles indeed have more to do with the Emperor Giaja? Will Miles ever be allowed to leave the planet again? What are Elena Bothari and the Dendarii Mercs up to??
You know, I can’t remember if Miles runs across the Emperor (or Rian) again! Could they really STOP Miles from going space-side? 🙂 As for the Dendarii, just wait… 🙂
ARGH. Mooooore Miles to come!
Tehani and Alex forge on to the end of the second Vorkosigan omnibus, watching Miles grow up and cause havoc. Alex falls further in love with the universe and Tehani watches gleefully. Spoilers! (We’ve reviewed Cordelia’s Honor here, and The Warrior’s Apprentice here.)
“The Mountains of Mourning” was an early foray into the Vorkosigan world for me. It was available for free from the Baen e-Library and I downloaded it, among a bunch of other stuff. It’s a novella, not a novel, and it is somewhat different to most of the other Miles books. It’s a rather introverted story, in which Miles is given an opportunity to consider the Vor aspect of himself and what it means, at the same time as confronting some ingrained social issues in his society that relate directly to him. “Mountains” gives us a rather more thoughtful Miles than we saw in The Warrior’s Apprentice, and fills out a bit more of his personality, and, again, grounds his honour more solidly. It’s a sad story, but one that ultimately fits in very well with the overall world-building.
Tehani and Alex continue their conversational review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga – Alex for the very first time. Spoilers ahead. (We have previously discussed the omnibus of Cordelia’s Honor here.)
Young Miles omnibus: Warrior’s Apprentice.
Warrior’s Apprentice was actually one of the last Vorkosigan books I read, despite it being the very first Miles book in the internal and publication date chronology. I probably couldn’t tell you which book I actually started with, but I know Young Miles (which contains this novel) was the last omnibus I worked through on my first time read. It was quite strange at the time, reading it with all the knowledge of what was to come but absolutely fascinating to see where the split personality that is Miles – Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and Miles – Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, really began. It absolutely encapsulates everything we come to know of this mad little man – the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants ingenuity, his hyperactive intelligence, his sarcastic dry wit, his absolute faith in the abilities of those around him to do everything he thinks they can and more. We as the reader can’t help but fall in love with him as he careens from crisis to crisis, almost falling flat on his face more times that we can count but with that incredible brain working ten steps ahead of anyone else.
Well, that answers my question about the significance of the mercenaries! I figured they would continue to crop up; it seemed like too much perfect setting-up to simply have them only play a bit part in the continuing saga. Your assessment of Miles is spot on, and I think his faith in others is one of the more interesting aspects of his capabilities as a leader. It’s a much more realistic view, for a start. I guess you could argue that it allows Miles to get away with stuff that he really shouldn’t, and perhaps he could be seen as grasping too high/too fast; but really the ability to inspire others, and knowing when and how to use others (in good ways) is key to any leader actually succeeding. I was amazed by the careening – it was like watching someone who is just on the brink of falling flat on their face but instead manages to turn into semi-competent running. Also, the speed with which he went from washed-out wannabe officer to recruiting his first fellow-washouts was hilarious. Watching the development of the Dendarii force was mesmerising… like watching an avalanche and not knowing whether this is a good thing or a bad. It’s so unlikely, and yet… it works.
In this book, we get our first glimpses of the darkness that dogs Miles, a counterpoint to his hyperactivity and seemingly endless hubris. Always the outsider on Barrayar, set apart by his physical deformities as well as his intelligence and questioning mind, Miles suffers greatly when facing rejection or personal failure. This ties into both his sense of honour, instilled by his family and his social environment, and his own desire to prove himself. In Warrior’s Apprentice, he faces down defeat and finally feels like he’s made something of himself. But of course, what he’s made is completely made up! It’s a fascinating premise, and the action and characterisation, of even the most minor characters, is what makes it work.
Honour is clearly going to play a seriously large part in the whole series – the Cordelia books set that up, of course. I was amazed by the fact that he failed his physical, and deliberately within those first few pages! Not exactly an auspicious start for a hero. And the continuing darkness that, indeed, dogs him, is fascinating. It too lends Miles a sense of reality; he’s closer to three-dimensional because of it. I’m going to be really interested to see what Bujold does with that. I can see ways that it could be done badly – wallowing, or using it as a mark of a hero, getting repetitive or eventually letting it slip away without explanation… I hope none of those come about!
I’m assuming at this point that one of the reasons for Miles’ despondency in later books is the loss of the lovely Elena. Their relationship was a really fascinating one. I had assumed from early on that Elena and Miles would end up growing up together, and was curious to see where that went. I was saddened that it didn’t out with her! I really liked the honesty of Elena’s reaction to Miles’ declaration of love, though – that she would be swamped by him, which is I’m sure a fair assessment. To see her develop as a character, and to see Miles encourage her in that even as it means she’s growing away from him, was a really nice touch of character development. It must be said that Elena’s wedding to someone else was not the moment at which I had tears in my eyes, though. No, that was reserved for Bothari’s funeral. It was heartbreaking! And I was surprised that she got rid of him so early in the series, but I guess it would have been awkward for a cadet in the Imperial Forces to have a bodyguard all the time. Connected with Bothari is the other rather raw moment of emotional honesty: when Miles stupidly tries to bring Bothari together with the original Elena. Her hatred and revulsion of Bothari are so appropriate, and it was nice not to have an author thinking that should be smoothed over for … I don’t know what reasons can be used there, but I know it’s been done.
Oh, Bothari! I always forget that he dies here because Bujold lets him live large in Miles’ life in future books, simply by way of the enormous presence the Sergeant had in his early life. It was a spectacular way to demonstrate that no-one is safe in Bujold’s books, no matter how much of a staple they might appear, and also a very apt way to resolve (sort of) Elena’s mystery. To be fair, it also ties into helping Elena say no to Miles’s mad proposal – knowing the truth about her origins could have only strengthened her knowledge that realistically, a marriage to Miles would in no way be condoned on Barrayar. And Elena too was brought up with the same strict sense of honour that surrounded Miles, so it was something she could no way get around. Poor Miles – with the mother he has, only a certain type of girl is ever going to appeal to him, but finding the one who can cope with him, and his background, is never going to be easy!
I was impressed by Bujold’s treatment of Miles’ disability in this book. I had wondered whether it would simply pop up when it was narratively convenient, but the reader is hardly ever allowed to forget it – like Miles – not because it’s being forced down your throat but because she keeps reminding you that his legs drag, or limp, or that he’s slow and wears braces, and so on. It’s genuinely a part of the story, and that’s really really nice.
Also, one of the nice things I picked up – eventually! – is the fact that the pilot is Mayhew: presumably the same Mayhew who has a cameo as the pilot gulled into helping Cordelia escape Beta Colony. Nice tie in!
Ooh, I never figured that out! I’m a terrible reader – I am hopeless at noticing cameo characters!
I continue to be hooked. Questions raised: where will the Dendarii fleet end up next? What assignment will Miles end up with at the end of his training? Will Elena feature in the later books?
Again, I only answer one questions – YES, we will have more Elena! 🙂
Alex has never read anything by Bujold. Tehani is a long-time fan. Welcome to a conversation of discovery and re-reading that will undoubtedly include a lot of squeeing, spoilers, and misdirected guesses from Alex. Also a fair bit of meta-commentary, since we can’t help ourselves. There will be spoilers.
It’s so wrong, isn’t it?