This is the 16th–sixteenth–book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve read every book and the related short stories at least once, and several of them I’ve read multiple times. And yet, every time I read a new Vorkosigan book I’m surprised. This one was no exception. I, for instance, did not realize that Aral and Cordelia meet in Shards of Honor on what will later become Sergyar. It gives a whole new emotional resonance to the whole Viceroy thing. Also the name. Also, ow. I’ve been informed by Twitter people that this was a known thing, but I somehow missed it.
Besides the fact that I am apparently lacking in reading comprehension skills,* Bujold is in fact doing something quite tricky here. We’re given (as far as I know) totally new information about Aral, and about his relationship with Cordelia, which runs the risk of feeling like a retcon. But here, Bujold sold me on both the setup and the personalities involved and instead it was a bittersweet echo of a character who still casts a long shadow in the series.
Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is my favorite forever, and I really love that we finally have another book that’s about her. She’s so much different than her earlier, brasher self and yet she has an authority that has been deepened over the years. She’s acted in many ways as the moral center of the books, and in this story we see both the strength that gives her and the toll it takes. We’re in her head, and she has fewer pithy insights than in other books. In fact, Jole has perhaps my favorite moment, which is about her:
“And there was Cordelia, summed. Not the empire would have fallen, but people, just people called into existence or erased by the chances of her life. He did not know if she thought more simply, or more deeply, than anyone else he’d ever known. Maybe both.” (p. 215 eARC)
It also introduces Oliver Jole (Admiral of the Sergyaran fleet after Aral’s death), who I really liked as a character. I’m not saying much about who he is or the function he plays in this book, because I don’t want to spoil it. But I think Bujold did a marvelous job of contrasting his interior landscape with how he’s seen by other characters, most notably Cordelia. She plays with names a bit in this regard–when Cordelia thinks about him, he’s almost always Oliver, but in his own sections, he’s Jole. It’s the opposite of expectation, and yet it works marvelously well to convey her warmth for him, and his own reserve even where he is concerned.
As far as the plot goes, all I’ll say is that at one point I said on Twitter, “Miles is going to explode.” And then by the end of the book I realized that no–the person whose reaction I really want to see is Ivan. Because he might not survive. (I am giggling to myself right now.) As usual, Bujold mixes SF technological advances with the social and personal reactions to those advances in a way that I find plausible and thoughtful.
This is not as light a book as Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (although there are certainly humorous moments!), partly because it is dealing with the aftermath of grief and the facing of mortality, partly because Cordelia and Oliver are not Ivan and Tej, or even Miles and Ekaterin. I loved the story that Bujold gives us: surprising, moving, and thought-provoking. It doesn’t retcon Aral so much as shade him in, and it gives Cordelia a resolution that I found wholly satisfying.
* When I was in 7th grade & obsessively re-reading Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, I somehow managed to skip over a paragraph with a Very Important Plot Point the first, oh, six or seven times I read the book.
Book source: eARC downloaded from Edelweiss
Book information: 2016, Baen; adult SF