Saturday Reflection: 9.18.2021

A mug of coffee with a frothy top sitting on a wooden table

Hello, friends! I thought I might try out a new thing here, namely an occasional Saturday post that’s a space to share what we’ve been reading and thinking about this week. I’m drinking a fancy homemade coffee (a milk frother is truly a wonderful invention) and I’m about to start a groupwatch of Nirvana in Fire.

I’m almost finished rereading Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold. I had, uh, forgotten that the plot involves a deadly microbe. This bit struck me as a little too resonant in September 2021:

He suppressed his unstrung urge to explain to them Bel’s superior right, by old valor and love, to survive. Futile. He might as well rail at the microbes themselves. Even the Cetagandans had not yet devised a weapon that triaged for virtue before slaughtering its victims.


I’m in a bit of a rereading mood at the moment. I was just talking to my friend Kate (hi Kate!) about how the return of fall makes us want to pick up familiar books. I often try to read some Tam Lin retellings in September and October, so I’m trying to decide which one I should go for first. Or should I buck tradition altogether and read The Girls at the Kingfisher Club on the grounds that it’s been too long?

Fall also means folk rock around here. I’ve been listening to a lot of Steeleye Span in the car. I have to be in a truly majestically bad mood to resist the charms of Cam Ye O’er Frae France. Offa Rex, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention are also favorites.

My groupwatch is about to start (so excited!) so I’ll sign off for now, but please tell me all about what you’re reading and/or enjoying right now!

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What I read: week 7

My mom was visiting last week, which was lovely! And I’m starting grad school on Monday (all registered for my first classes in a MLIS program). So all in all, I’m in a bit of a transition phase. We’ll see how much non-academic reading I get done in the near future; I will be sure to keep you all apprised. Anyway, if I disappear for long stretches, that’s why. On to the books!

Stephanie Burgis mentioned Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver as a good Golden-Age-style mystery. Since that’s basically catnip to me, I decided to check it out. It was a pretty solid mystery, though maybe not to the level of Christie. If you’ve liked, say, the Dandy Gilver books or Jacqueline Winspear, I suspect this would be up your alley. I do have the second book checked out on Overdrive as we speak! [read for the first time 8/12]

When I asked for graphic novel recommendations recently, Jenny instantly told me in no uncertain terms to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. She was very correct; I loved Valero-O’Connell’s art, and Tamaki’s story was a lovely, slightly melancholy look at teenage love and friendships and identity. Realizing that someone can be charismatic and beautiful and also not at all the right person for you is such an important, fraught moment. (I also kept reading the title as Laura Dern instead of Laura Dean.) [read for the first time 8/13]

Still rereading the Vorkosigan books! While I wasn’t over the moon about the first few, Brothers in Arms marks the place in the series where L.M.B. really hits her stride in terms of characterization, etc. I find that the introduction of Mark brings a whole new energy to the plot and series. It’s the next book that’s called Mirror Dance, but Brothers in Arms contains a ton of mirroring in both literal and figurative ways. (Interestingly, my Reading Notes post for this one isn’t nearly as on board with it. This is why I like to reread books–I have a different reaction almost every time!) [reread 8/14]

I wanted a good middle grade fantasy and Caroline Carlson’s newest, The Door at the End of the World, was pretty satisfying. It’s a bit Diana Wynne Jones in that there are lots of worlds and travel between them, but the tone is a bit more sedate and tense than I typically associate with DWJ. I liked the characters quite a bit, and would certainly recommend it for young readers who want a bit of thoughtful action-based fantasy. [read for the first time 8/17]

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What I read: weeks 3 & 4

I love a good middle grade graphic novel and that’s exactly why I picked up Kayla Miller’s Camp. The focus here is squarely on friendship and the strains camp can put on two best friends who rely on each other. It’s fine; I liked the way Miller tests the limits of friendship without letting it break, and the way one person in a relationship may need more space than the other. But I was a little disappointed that it was so white and straight, and in general I just wanted a little bit more. [read for the first time 7/15]

At this point I don’t quite know how many times I’ve read Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. It’s still a book I turn to when I want something that I know will be both healing and challenging. I loved the finale of Breq’s story, and especially the ending. There’s one line a little over halfway through the book that always makes me cry and the last chapter is one of my favorites, even if it’s also an emotional whallop. [reread 7/17]

I also reread a childhood favorite, Pepper & Salt by Howard Pyle. It’s a slightly unusual set of fairytales and in fact Pyle wrote them himself rather than collecting them. While there are some images and attitudes that aren’t okay with me, I did enjoy revisiting these stories. There’s an underlying pattern to a lot of fairy tales that I realized has really stuck with me over the years. [reread 7/18]

My friend Sophie recommended Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and I’m glad that I read it. While it’s not quite comprehensive, focusing fairly narrowly on a few people who were majorly involved in the political landscape of the Troubles, I appreciated the look at a time of history that I didn’t previously understand very well. Keefe is a good non-fiction writer and does not indulge in my pet peeve (constant speculating about what people might have seen). His sympathies are fairly clear and he’s making a case for the guilt of a particular person, but he also treats the people he writes about with sympathy. [read for the first time 7/19]

I decided to reread all of the Vorkosigan books, and Cetaganda was next up. It’s not my favorite; there’s an awkwardness to the underlying gender themes that doesn’t quite escape Bujold’s attempts to give the Cetagandan women some power. But there’s some nice Miles & Ivan stuff here, and I always enjoy that. [reread 7/22]

Jerry Craft’s New Kid has been recommended a lot recently, and I understand why. It’s a thoughtful look at one kid’s experience as a young Black boy in a private school. The micro- and macro-aggressions that Jordan and the other Black students and teachers experience are counterbalanced by the bonds he forms with a few other students. The art wasn’t my favorite style ever, but it’s in service to the story and I appreciated the touches of humor it added. [read for the first time 7/24]

I wanted to read something light on a Friday and Sarah Zettel’s A Taste of the Nightlife seemed like it would fit that bill. Urban fantasy about a chef who cooks for vampires, what’s not to like? It was fine for that mood, although I don’t know that I’ll read any more of the series. [read for the first time 7/25]

I liked Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year but just now got around to reading The Wicked King. Like the first book, I’d say this is a frothy, sharp story. It’s not doing anything particularly original plot-wise, but I enjoy Black’s fairyland here. [read for the first time 7/28]

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Favorite science fiction from the last five years

I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of my favorite SF from the last few years. These are not necessarily books published in the last five years, but ones that I’ve read in that time span. (I feel like I’ve read less SF this year than normal, but I know there are also several I haven’t gotten around to yet.)

ancillary mercyscorpion rulesconservation of shadows

Ambassador by William Alexander: I read Ambassador for the Cybils back in 2014 and loved it. It’s nice to have an SF book about a Latino boy, and Alexander does a great job of incorporating Gabe’s identity and culture into the story. The concept that drives the book works well as a way to combine kids and politics.

Quicksilver and Ultraviolet by RJ Anderson: This is a really fascinating SF duology from one of my favorite authors. I’m never sure what to say about these books, because they have some great twists I don’t want to spoil. But I loved the main characters a lot, and I enjoy the way they have an SF plot with kind of a fantasy sensibility–if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Dove Arising by Karen Bao: I read this YA for the Cybils last year, and it’s really stuck with me. Less the plot (I just had to Google because I couldn’t remember) and more the characters and worldbuilding Bao was doing. I really liked Phaet, and I felt like her outlook on life is one we don’t get very often in YA.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book. THIS BOOK. It’s terrifying and tense and smart and every time I drink apple cider, I wince. Terrible things happen in it, and yet I also cried because it’s so hopeful and affirming. I can’t say how much I love Greta, and Xie, and all the Children of Peace.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold:  I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in its entirety, as I’ve documented here many times, but I was really fascinated by some of the turns and choices she made in the latest installment. It was also really lovely to have another story from Cordelia’s point of view.

The Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh: If you’ve been following my blog for a few years, you’ll know that I’ve been glomping my way through Cherryh’s massive series. I love the way she writes the atevi and the political and social customs and issues that arise. While I occasionally quibble with the depiction of the human women, overall the characters are really engaging and wonderful as well.

Promised Land by Cynthia DeFelice and Connie Willis: This is a lighter SF romance, which has turned out to be one of my comfort reads. It’s kind of a space western, but in a very different vein than Firefly.

Jupiter Pirates by Jason Fry: A fun middle-grade space adventure about a family of space privateers. Tycho and his siblings have to compete to win the captain’s seat, but there are also bigger contests going on. Fry has written a number of Star Wars chapter books, and he clearly knows what he’s doing.

And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst: I love Höst’s books, and this was the first one I read. It’s an intimate story, almost quiet, even though it’s about a terrifying world-wide event. Rather than a sweeping epic, Höst keeps the scale on a human level, and makes me care so much about Madeleine and her friends and the outcome of their story.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: I basically always want to be reading this trilogy; Leckie writes ambitiously about identity, loyalty, families, and imperialism. She also pulls it off, mostly because of her rich characters and worldbuilding which also give an emotional core to the big concepts she’s engaging with.

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: I was really impressed by this short story collection, which features so many fascinating and strange worlds, as well as some really striking characters. The prose itself is also beautiful, even when the subject matter is not. I can’t wait till I get a chance to read Nine Fox Gambit.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but it turns out that near-future socio-political thrillers are very much my thing when Valentine is writing them. Persona is smart and sleek and tense. If UN + red carpet + spies sounds intriguing, this book is probably for you.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

gentleman joleThis 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

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Bujold Week: Mirror Dance

mirror danceAfter the relative lack of plot in Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance starts out with a bang and never lets up. Also, it may contain a few of the most heartbreaking lines in the entire series, some of which are heartbreaking after some of the later books. (Contender, Cordelia about Aral: “I think Simon Illyan would still turn himself inside out for you after you were dead and buried.”) This is probably why my notes for this book are just a bunch of frowny faces and the word “ow”. Also, spoilers for this book follow.

Once again, LMB sets up a lot of the themes at the very beginning–in this case, the technical details of cryogenics and the risks of survival. Also, in the title, the image of mirrors that she plays with over and over and over again. It’s not just Mark and Miles, who are the obvious pairing (literal mirror images, at times), but the Vorkosigan brothers and the Barons Fell and Ryoval; Elli and Elena; Mark and Taura; Mark and Elena. All in different ways, all giving different shades of meaning to the story.

I was thinking yesterday that the unintentional theme of this re-read is Cordelia’s Children, and that seems to be borne out here. Mark’s journey from defiantly isolated and family-less to being part–his own unique and perhaps tenuous part–of the Vorkosigan-Naismith family is one of the major threads of this book. Cordelia herself is central to this negotiation, being the one who can accept Mark unquestioningly. (Another candidate for heartbreaking lines, Elena to Mark: “Mark. She’ll mean you.”)

The other major thread is Miles and his slow disintegration as Admiral Naismith. This isn’t finished in this book–that won’t come until Memory–but it’s first forshadowed (“I won’t really begin to worry for his sanity til he’s cut off from the little admiral.”) and then begun. There’s a sense overall through this book of times changing; Bel leaves, Elli Quinn has to step up, Aral has his heart attack. But most of these strands aren’t completely resolved, which explains the unsettled feeling I had at the end of the book.

There aren’t many light points, but I had a moment of foreshadowed hilarity when Simon shows Mark around the ImpSec headquarters. And Mark and Kareen! Yaaaay.

The rest of the time, especially after Miles dies, is a heart-stopping read, both in the “What’s happening now” sense, and in the “How do I stop this from happening?” sense. Basically everyone is in emotional or physical pain (Ivan crying in the gazebo), and it downright hurts to read, even when they’re growing, even when it turns out to be all right.

Gregor is actually one of my favorite characters (Who am I kidding? They’re ALL my favorite characters.) and this book illuminated part of his role in the series that I hadn’t really considered before. For both Mark and Miles, he’s a catalyst of identity, helping them define themselves. In a less positive way, for Miles, perhaps–he’s so much what Miles might have been, despite his loyalties. But his tendency to give people rope sometimes results in them saving themselves, and discovering who they are.

Speaking of saving themselves–the first time I read Mirror Dance, I was too horrified to really appreciate Mark and his choices/reactions. But this read, the conversation between Elena and Mark came across as very powerful. (“I will not allow you to turn my victory to defeat for the sake of your damned…feelings.”) Mark becomes himself, messed up and reactionary as he is, in this book.

So, this is a painful book to read, but it’s extremely well done, despite all my ows and frowny faces. It’s a measure of how well written the series is, that I care so much about all of these characters, flawed though they are.

Actually, I have a pretty clear winner for foreshadowing heartbreakers. This is a spoiler for the end of Cryoburn, so if you haven’t gotten there yet, don’t keep reading: “It had scared the hell out of him, retroactively, this whole cardiac episode. Not that his father must die someday, perhaps before him—that was the proper order of things, and Miles could not wish it upon the Count for it to be the other way around—but that Miles might not be here when it happened. When he was needed. Might be off indulging himself with the Dendarii Mercenaries, say, and not get the word for weeks.” I literally said, “Nooooo!” and shoved the computer away from me. And then cried.

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Bujold week: Brothers in Arms

brothers in armsAfter my re-read of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, I decided to jump ahead to the Brothers in Arms/Mirror Dance/Memory arc. Re-reading Brothers in Arms was an interesting experience–it’s actually one of the few that doesn’t re-read as well as I expected. The rest of this review is fairly spoilery, so if you haven’t read BiA and are planning to, probably skip it.

So the problem with re-reading this one is that a lot of the plot is driven by the question of Duv Galeni’s identity and loyalty. When we first meet him, knowing who he is and where he ends up, there’s the fun of recognition, and the pain of all those echoed scars on both sides. But the worry of whether he’ll betray Miles and Barrayar isn’t there, and in the absence of that worry, the plot is thinner than usual.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of fun stuff. The introduction of Duv AND Mark, in one book. Miles’s frantic juggling of identities, cover stories, and plans. IVAN! (I love Ivan.) All the relationship stuff with Elli Quinn (and a bit with Elena Bothari-Jesek). Plus, it all takes place in London, though I feel this was not explored quite as well as it could have been–granted, Miles doesn’t always get the nuances of Earth geography and history, there could have still be something. But I do like Bujold’s triple image of fathers and sons, which drives the whole series anyway, but is especially prominent here. Ser Galen and Duv Galeni, Aral and Miles Vorkosigan, Mark and who? Ser Galen? Aral? Miles? They all give a different shade to the picture.

There’s something really weird, and a bit heartbreaking in Miles essentially describing Mark before he knows of Mark’s existence. It’s also a huge coincidence, one of several which I noted but which Bujold somehow manages to carry off, in my opinion. (My favorite was Miles’s line: “Ivan, how many four-foot-nine-inch black-haired gray-eyed huncbacks can there be on this damned planet? D’you think you trip over twitchy dwarfs on every street corner.” FAMOUS LAST WORDS.) And there’s a lot, which will be explored in the next few books, with Miles coming to terms with the fact that Mark is not the little brother he always wanted, at the same time that he is.

It’s interesting to note how at this point Mark really doesn’t have a self. He’s not Mark yet, he’s not anyone yet; he’s defined almost solely in relationship to Miles, mirroring him so well that even Ivan and Elli only have minor misgivings. Which, of course, ties into the whole theme of family and defining oneself in relationship to them. It’s just that the Vorkosigan clan is a bit, well, unique. Also worth noting that in a weird, roundabout, and slightly wrenching way, Cordelia gets her herds of little Vorkosigans at last. Ow.

I did also like Duv’s slow, unwilling admiration of Miles, which I remembered from the first time I read this one. Generally, his characterisation works well for me, though he doesn’t have quite the roundedness that he gets later. Also, I loved the notes between Simon Illyan and Aral, especially when Simon lets himself be forthright.

This isn’t one of my favorite books in the series, especially after the first read. But it sets up some of the books that are, so I’m glad I’ve re-read it.

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Bujold week: Cordelia’s Honor part 2

barrayarI’m bringing back an old feature I did a few times–reading notes! I tend to use these when I’m re-reading a book and having Thoughts that aren’t quite a review. In this case, I’m taking a look at the first two books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, handily collected into an omnibus and titled Cordelia’s Honor. Spoilers for the first two books should be expected.

On to Barrayar!

Again with Simon described as puppyish. No, my brain just refuses to give me that image.

Ah, of course–Aral is dismantling the Ministry of Political Education, ergo it doesn’t appear in the later books. It is interesting, though, how completely it disappears even as a bogey-man. (Imp Sec serves that function.)

Little Gregor! With a robot stegosaurus. Awwww. And charming his mother out of cream cakes–I love that little glimpse, but given what’s about to happen, what he’s about to lose, it makes me so sad at the same time.

The few years between the writing of Shards and Barrayar actually show up pretty clearly. Re-reading with the grace of hindsight, you can see how LMB wove in the thread of Barrayar’s reaction to physical and mental difference, from Koudelka and his sword-stick to Aral and Cordelia’s conversation about him and Bothari and Barrayaran customs. That is, her ability to set up the plot has improved. This shows up later too, when a key point of the plot hinges on that moment–forgotten except by Bothari–when Aral gives Cordelia the authority of his voice.

I didn’t expect the emotional blow of seeing what Miles’ name should have been, because of course at this point he’s just Miles and has never been anything else. But ‘Piotr Miles’–ow, ow, ow. And then continued blows in a one-two of Padma Xav Vorpatril (gives Tej’s Ivan Xav a different shade of meaning) and Cordelia’s imagining of herds of little Vorkosigans. This book is turning out to be much more traumatic than I expected.

The awful part is, I like Kareen. She comes through a marriage to someone awful in a remarkably sane way (even with Ezar’s help) and is then thrown into this probably sometimes uncomfortable relationship with Aral and Cordelia and deals with it with a lot of grace.

When I read this the first time, my sympathies after the soltoxin attack were entirely with Cordelia. And they still are, but I also see the conflict for Aral–wife, or father. Actually, it’s not a conflict exactly; he always chooses wife, but it’s hard to do so. It’s breaking his heart in two. (Or perhaps three, when you consider how quickly he’s forced to use his position as Regent in a personal matter.)

“The chill of the Dendarii night.” Oh. Well, there’s echoes for you. (Gives a new shade of meaning to Miles’ choice of names–rebellion, homage, ?)

I suspect the thread that ties this story together is Cordelia’s moving from a passive ‘just a wife and mother’ model (which of course, no one ever is) to, well, herself. The Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan that we know and love, where being a wife and mother is part of who she is, but not the sum of it. It starts becoming apparent when she and Gregor are hiding out in the mountains.

Oh, Kareen.

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Bujold Week: Cordelia’s Honor reading notes, part1

shards of honorI’m bringing back an old feature I did a few times–reading notes! I tend to use these when I’m re-reading a book and having Thoughts that aren’t quite a review. In this case, I’m taking a look at the first two books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, handily collected into an omnibus and titled Cordelia’s Honor. Spoilers for the first two books should be expected.

Today: Shards of Honor

It is quite strange to re-read these earliest of books; the Barrayar that is shown in the beginning of Shards of Honor is so manifestly not the Barrayar that we see later on. Of course, we are very much in Cordelia’s point-of-view, and yet there are also things like the Ministry of Political Education which I don’t remember seeing in any other book. On the other hand, there are tantalizing glimpses of things like the importance of spoken oaths in Barrayaran culture (which later translates into Miles’ authority as the Imperial Auditor).

I think what I continue to admire and value in both Aral and Cordelia (and their subsequent offspring) is the sense of duty and trying one’s best. It’s not as simple as patriotism, and especially not the unthinking and uncritical variety. But it’s the duty of care to those around the characters which drives them forward, and which is often rewarded.

Ugh, Vorrutyer is so awful. How is By related to him? (By is awful in his own way, but it is decidedly NOT this Vorrutyer’s.)

I think partly, dovetailing off of this and also Prince Serg, I’m so used to the fearsome and sometimes questionable but also sympathetic grouping of The Gregor, Miles, Aral, and Simon that I forget what a dark period Barrayar had just passed through. Serg and Vorrutyer are the last hurrah of the old bad times, in a way.

ILLYAN!! It’s so fun meeting the people who become important later on, this time knowing who they are, or rather who they will be. Also, Simon with a bland puppy face is almost unimaginable. But for that matter, Simon spying on, instead of for, Aral is almost unimaginable.

Part of what’s interesting to me is Cordelia’s journey from seeing Barrayar as completely evil, to understanding it a bit better, to going home and seeing the flaws in her own society. Although she’s quite a bit older than a teen, it has a kind of YA coming-of-age feel to it.

“We’re going to have a family. I’ll not risk them in those gladiator politics.” Oh, ow.