Title: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Series: Vorkosigan Saga #15 (ish, depending on what you count and whether you're using chronological or publication order)
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Subgenre: SF Romance, Space Opera
Full Disclosure: I'm a Bujold fangirl going way back.
Captain Ivan Vorpatril sometimes thinks that if not for his family, he might have no troubles at all. But he has the dubious fortune of the hyperactive Miles Vorkosigan as a cousin, which has too-often led to his getting dragged into one of Miles' schemes, with risk to life and limb -- and military career -- that Ivan doesn't consider entirely fair. Although much practice has made Ivan more adept at fending off his mother's less-than-subtle reminders that he should be getting married and continuing the Vorpatril lineage.
Fortunately, his current duty is on the planet Komarr as staff officer to Admiral Desplains, far from both his cousin and his mother back on their home world of Barrayar. It's an easy assignment and nobody is shooting at him. What could go wrong?
Plenty, it turns out, when Byerly Vorrutyer, an undercover agent for Imperial Security, shows up on his doorstep and asks him to make the acquaintance of a young woman, recently arrived on Komarr, who seems to be in danger. That Byerly is characteristically vague about the nature of the danger, not to mention the lady's name, should have been Ivan's first clue, but Ivan is no more able to turn aside from aiding a damsel in distress than he could resist trying to rescue a kitten from a tree.
It is but a short step down the road of good intentions to the tangle of Ivan's life, in trouble with the Komarran authorities, with his superiors, and with the lethal figures hunting the mysterious but lovely Tej and her exotic blue companion Rish -- a tangle to test the lengths to which Ivan will go as an inspired protector.
But though his predicament is complicated, at least Ivan doesn't have to worry about hassle from his family. Or so he believes. . .
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of my favorite series of books of all time. I've read them more times than I can count, and I frequently am reminded of lines or moments from them in both my own writing and in my day-to-day life. But recent Vorkosigan novels have been kind of. . . lightweight, and I got the impression that this one was going to continue that trend, which is why I am only reading it now, over a year after its release.
And it is lightweight. It's the "Ivan has some adventures not caused by Miles and finally settles down" book. Science fiction romances don't have to be lightweight -- Komarr wasn't, just to give another Vorkosigan Saga example -- but this one definitely is, because while there's plenty of plot happening there are very few consequences to the plot for Ivan, very little risk. (This was my major issue with Cryoburn as well.) There are consequences for Tej, the other major viewpoint character and Ivan's love interest, but they're never really sold as urgent and potentially catastrophic, and because she's new to the series we aren't grounded in her POV by previous books.
The whole book just feels. . . loose. Part of it is the viewpoint: norally Bujold writes in a tight third person POV, most often with just one viewpoint character, and while recent Vorkosigan novels have have multiple viewpoint characters (still in that tight third person) the switch in viewpoint character has always been signaled by line or chapter breaks. Here Bujold slides in and out of Ivan and Tej's heads at will, and sometimes dips into other characters' heads for a moment as well, though I wouldn't call it a true omniscient viewpoint.
And part of it is also the peculiar challenge of having Ivan as the protagonist -- Ivan is a very passive, reactive character, one who has spent his entire life trying to make as few waves as possible, to slip by under the radar. Tej is very similar. Neither of them has an ambition, nor do they have any burning desires; they just want to be left alone by larger events to pursue what small (mostly domestic) happinesses they can. Neither of them is particularly reflective either, and they aren't above lying to themselves (by omission at least). All of this ends up making both of them somewhat opaque as our viewpoint characters -- I knew, at every moment, what Cordelia or Miles (or even Leo Graf and Ethan Urquhart) wanted in a scene, but with Ivan and Tej I could never be sure what they wanted, or (possibly worse) I had the sneaking suspicion they didn't want anything at all.
This made the romance rather unsatisfying. It's clear from very early on that Ivan and Tej will be happy together -- their similarities make them very compatible -- but it's never clear what's special about that particular compatibility, what makes it different from their relationships with anyone else. This would have been fine -- really I would have loved it! -- if the resolution of the romantic plot was that their own inertia is what kept them together, and they lived happily ever after just because it was too much work to do otherwise; but Bujold kept trying to shoehorn in rather more sweeping conventionally romantic feelings instead, that seemed to sit badly with both characters.
(It also might have helped matters if Bujold had managed to write them any convincing sexual chemistry, but she really, really didn't. Both characters seemed far too prudish and uncomfortable in their desire for each other given their supposed sexual experience and broad-mindedness. Which was deeply surprising to me, because I thought Bujold managed that part of The Sharing Knife: Beguilement really well, and even Ekaterin's thwarted desires in Komarr were more visceral and engaging.)
Despite all of this, there was still much to like and admire about the book. The plotting, as always with Bujold, was fairly tight and well-paced; there were some absolutely delightful moments that were especially rewarding for long-time fans of the series (a thing happens with ImpSec headquarters that is just perfect); and there were a few moments of stunning emotional clarity, where events that had been percolating for books and decades suddenly got a new twist that was a sucker-punch to the gut. (Lady Alys has one that made me shiver.) I also do want to commend Bujold for finally writing a major character of color -- Tej, though completely divorced from our modern racial definitions because she's genetically engineered, is described as distinctly brown-skinned (white-washed on the cover of course), and though Bujold falls into the usual traps (her skin is repeatedly described using food comparisons, and she's "exotic") it's still better than she's managed before. (She makes Byerly a lot straighter, though, which disappointed me.)
And even though I don't think this is ever going to be one of my favorites (either in the series or in Bujold's larger body of work), I have to admit that I actually appreciate that she kept Ivan so true to character, that she let him continue doing everything possible to keep his head down and avoid being "given another job." That's an extraordinarily rare character trait in western fiction in general and western SFF in particular -- Ivan's wants are simple, his happy ending just a nice comfy home and the rest of the world leaving him alone, and he stays that way 'til the end.
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★
Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★
Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★
Read this for: The characters
Don't read this for: The world-building? The prose? I don't know, nothing stands out as exceptional but nothing stands out as awful either.
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Will I read more by this author? I will be buying Bujold's books until she dies.
- Current Mood: mellow