Just One of the Boys

       “Good Lord, woman, where have you been?” he cried furiously.

      A morbid lunacy overtook her.  She smiled fiercely at [Piotr] and held up the bag.  “Shopping.”

. . .”Want to see what I bought?” Cordelia continued, still floating.  She yanked the bag’s top open and rolled Vordarian’s head out across the table. . .It stopped face up before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.

Piotr’s mouth fell open.

. . . Aral was perfect.  His eyes widened only briefly, then he rested his chin on his hands and gazed over his father’s shoulder with an expression of cool interest.  “But of course,” he breathed.  “Every Vor lady goes to the capital to shop.” (Barrayar, pg 353.)


The Vorkosigan Saga

Lois McMaster Bujold

(Baen Books, find them used)


         Do you like fancy military uniforms?  Shiny spaceships that blow things up?  Brooding aristocrats with hulking stone castles and dark secrets?  Snappy come-backs and one-liners?  Voluptuous women warriors?  Swords and secret passages? Surprising twists on standard military tactics of engagement?  Richard III?

            If you answered Yes to three or more you will like the Vorkosigan Saga.  I hear some of you saying, “Richard III?”  I threw him in because the hero of several of the books is a hunchbacked dwarf.

            Bujold started writing this series in the mid-80s, and began publishing in the late 80’s/early 90’s.  She is still cranking out books in this series although, with uncanny market instinct, she has moved to fantasy for her most recent novels.  The Vorkosigan books started out as space opera, even having maps of the various planets and star systems with those so-convenient wormholes linking everyone together.  Later books have become more grounded and sociopolitical.

            Originally, the stories had an outsider-not-fitting-in slant.  Cordelia Naismith, a native of the Beta colony, raised in a tolerant, sexually open, egalitarian, high-tech and seriously bureaucratic society, clashes with and ultimately falls for a warrior-prince from a rigid, military patriarchal one.  She marries him and moves to his provincial, backwater world, Barrayar. The usual culture-shock ensues.

            Actually, Cordelia, galactic survey captain and sometime soldier, manages to adapt very well, as you can see from the quote at the top.

            The books quickly shift to the adventures of the son of Cordelia and Barrayaran aristocrat Aral Kosigan.  “Vor” is an honorific given to an elite of families on Barrayar, changing the name from Ko-SEE-gan to Vor-KOS-e-gan. The Vor are the highest stratum of this highly stratified society.

            The Vor (and all the people of Barrayar) worship racial purity and physical strength, and are terrified of mutation, for reasons that are clearly and credibly delineated in the back-story.  Miles is the in utero victim of an assassination attempt against his parents (poisoned gas) and is born stunted, with very brittle bones.  In a society that values physical perfection, this is a serious drawback, made, perhaps somewhat more serious by the fact that his father is the Regent for the boy-emperor Gregor, six years Miles’s elder.

            In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles, at 17, has just failed the physical exam for the Imperial Military Academy.  Despondent, he goes on a family trip to Beta.  In short order he rescues an on-the-skids jump-ship pilot, co-opts a mercenary fleet, styles himself Admiral Naismith and saves the underdogs in a nasty civil war, pausing long enough to suffer pangs of unrequited love and jealousy over his childhood playmate Eleni, and pick up a Barrayaran military deserter who is a genius with engines. 

            It appears that Miles is also a flippin’ genius at strategy and tactics (years of dodging the neighborhood bullies at home?) but his real gift is that of inspiring loyalty, and to get people to work at their maximum capacity, or beyond it.

            As the series progresses Miles embarks on a long affair with one of his mercenary captains, Ellie Quinn.  In later books, Miles meets his clone-brother, who was created and surgically altered, again and again, to look exactly like Miles.  This entails breaking a bone every time Miles breaks one, which is about once every fifteen minutes.  Needless to say, the clone doesn’t like Miles much.  The clone is supposed to be the key to fiendish plot to murder Aral Vorkosigan, Miles’s father, and mess with Barrayaran politics.  Miles thwarts the plot and sets his clone free.  In Miles’s head are pleasant fantasies of finally having a brother.  In the clone’s head are many different fantasies, not so pleasant.

            By now Miles has two identities, his “real” Barrayaran identity and the cover role of Admiral Naismith, mercenary commander (secretly in the employ of Barrayaran Intelligence). The clone, now named Mark, is in effect a third personality—another “road not taken” by our diminutive hero.

            This is, in fact, one of the fun things about the early Miles Vorkosigan books—the idea that the bluffing, one-upping, dueling, raygun-toting, spaceship dodging, make-it-up-as-I-go hero is four feet tall and has bones that will crack if he sits down too hard.  He also talks as fast as a teenager on her seventh Rock Star energy drink, and like William Ryker on Star Trek, he never met a (female) alien he didn’t like.

            (Actually there are no aliens.  All planets have been or are being terra-formed—all allies and enemies are conveniently human).



            I like these books; they’re a romp.  I come away from them just a little dissatisfied. They lack. . .emotional resonance?  Gravitas?  I’m not sure exactly what.  While most of the stories aren’t dark, there is real darkness in the pasts of these characters.  The recurring theme of rape as a weapon of terror in Warrior’s Apprentice and Barrayar is disturbing and realistic.  In a novella called “Infinite Borders,” Bujold captures the power of brain-washing in a way that only the North Koreans have surpassed. Miles has a dark side and tendency to slide into despair—except sometimes it looks more like wallowing in self-pity.

            Part of the problem is something Bujold has dubbed “Son of a Great Man Syndrome.” She sees herself as a daughter of a Great Man, so this is a personal issue for her.  Because it draws so much energy from her, I would like to see it be more real.  The characters in this saga worry about being competent, not about being worthy of love.  That’s. . .admirable, I guess.  Miles is periodically desperate to have the love and approval of his strong and powerful father, and there’s the problem—he already does. Miles looks willfully blind to that fact as the books continue.

            The deeper problem is with the father, Aral, himself.  It’s not clear why he is so comfortable, so supportive and trusting of a son who looks likes a mutant and behaves like a loony.  Aral is a product of his environment.  His love for Cordelia made him change in many areas, and opened his eyes to many things, but it is impossible that he could change everything that made him Vor and still be successful in the Vor society. For one thing, there is no discussion about why Cordelia and Aral never had other children after Miles.  There is every indication that they could.  Aral lets his fragile, damaged only child and heir gallivant around the galaxy with nothing more than raised hands and an “Oh, well, what can you do?”  Then he finds out there is a clone; a second chance, only to discover that the clone has been deliberately damaged and made fragile.  I won’t say he doesn’t react—he does have a heart attack, but it is described as an aneurism, not related to the emotional stress of this situation of son/clone. The stories would work better if Aral loved Miles unconditionally but worried about him more.

            I have the same issue with Cordelia.  As a character, she is an awesome woman and an unconvincing mother. Part of this is because we are never in her point of view in the Miles books.  She’s just too darned enlightened and detached.  In Mirror Dance, here she is having a discussion with Mark, her genetic son (as a Betan, she considers him her son) about her husband, Mark’s genetic father:


. . .He took a small breath.  “A sodomite.”

She tilted her head, “Does that matter, to you?”

“It was . . . prominent in Galen’s conditioning of me.”

. . .

“Aside from Galen, does Aral’s private orientation matter? To you?”

“Truth matters.”

“So it does.  Well, in truth. . .I judge him to be bisexual, but subconsciously more attracted to men than to women.  Or rather—to soldiers.  Not to men generally, I don’t think.  I am, by Barrayaran standards, a rather extreme, er, tomboy, and thus became the solution to his dilemmas.  The first time he met me I was in uniform, in the middle of a nasty armed encounter.  He thought it was love at first sight.  I’ve never bothered explaining to him that it was his compulsions leaping up.” (Miles Errant, p528)      


Enlightened, or creepy?  You be the judge.

            Still, a younger, newlywed Cordelia gets one of the better lines in Barrayar, when she has this exchange with the villain, at a formal reception:


            He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral.  One corner of his mouth quirked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips.  “He’s bisexual, you know.”  He took a delicate sip of wine.

            “Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room.  “Now he’s monogamous.” (Barrayar, pg 85)


            However, the gold medal winner for too-perfect-to-be-true is Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar and Miles’s foster brother. Both of Gregor’s parents were killed—murdered—before he turned six.  He was the object of more than one abduction and assassination attempt after that.  Being a project of his environment, this doesn’t really shake him up too much at all, as we see in The Vor Game:


[Gregor] raised his head to say tiredly, “Commander Cavilo, both of my parents died violently in political intrigues before I was six years old.  A fact you might have researched. Did you think you were dealing with an amateur?” (Young Miles, p545)


            What we do see in Gregor is a fear that he will develop the same sadistic tendencies his father, Prince Serg, gave full rein while he was alive (by instituting rape as a weapon of terror among other things).  It’s good that Gregor worries about this.  Once. For the most part Gregor functions as an acerbic deus ex machina.  The most egregious example is in A Civil Campaign, when, a week before his own royal wedding, a wedding that will join two formerly feuding planets, in the middle of two votes in the High Council that will radically change Barrayaran society, Gregor takes a call from a nine-year-old boy, sends  his private troops off to address the boy’s situation, then leaves the council chambers to take a hands-on interest in these events. . . all without getting grouchy and snapping at anyone.  Was the little boy’s situation serious?  Yes, and for Gregor to handle it makes him a man of his word.  For him to do it without taking some irritation out on someone makes him unbelievable. He’s the freakin’ Emperor! If, in subsequent books, we see Gregor’s dark side and the cost of all this control, then I will say that this perfection works.  Until then, however, I just don’t think so.


            Two later books in the series, Komarr and A Civil Campaign, are the least successful for me.  A Civil Campaign is supposed to be a comedy of manners, and it doesn’t quite work.  Bujold doesn’t do Madcap well.  I will let her off lightly, however, because comic novels are hard.  It has to be serious enough to hold our attention but light enough to let the comedy come through; and I think she misses in both directions, but this book unfolds the new woman character of Ekaterin (introduced in Komarr) who is interesting.  Bujold uses Ekaterin as a template for Ista in her later fantasy novel Paladin of Souls. Ekaterin is a mother who can and does express worry for her genetically fragile son.


            My last quibble; her prose!  Oh, please!  Several hundred years in the future, on a planet colonized by Russians, Greeks, English and maybe some French, a character says, “Hot damn!” when things start going his way. Military slang is current-day. Commander Cavilo (see above) threatens to have some one “ground into hamburger.” Wow, you’d think meat processing would progress somewhat in a few hundred years. Periodically, when she is setting up a really good line, characters drop into ironic mannered diction, which functions as a flashing neon sign to the reader.

            That said, I repeat—I like these.  Great fun; a fine summer read.

            Several of the Miles Vorkosigan books have been reissued in omnibus, trade-paperback volumes:  Young Miles, Miles Errant and Miles In Love. I had no trouble finding them used.  The pre-Miles books (Shards of Honor, Barrayar) I had to order through Abebooks.  These books were actually written after Bujold wrote Warrior’s Apprentice.

            I may roll my eyes at her line-by-line prose, I may wince at the too-clever, too-perfect characters, I may shake my head over the studied drolleries of Aral and Cordelia, but I also stay up way too late into the night to finish one of these. For storytelling, that’s what counts. 





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