We now get a string of Hugo novel wins for Bujold’s Vorkasigan saga. I’m reading the series in internal chronological order, in which case this is actually the fourth novel. It’s the seventh by publication order. If I had to sum up the series so far in one word, it would be: ridiculous. But, I’ll come back to that in a minute.
This is the same universe as Bujold’s Nebula-winning Falling Free. There are several human-colonized worlds connected by wormholes. The wormholes are subject to blockade or collapse, and the planets are isolated enough to develop their own cultures and governments. The novels mostly center on Barrayar, a cold planet with an aristocratic, military-oriented culture (there’s a bit of a Russian flavor that’s reflected in some of the place names as well). The “Vor” in question are the aristocrats, whose family names all begin with “Vor” and who spend most of their time in deadly political maneuvers against each other. Aral Vorkosigan is a war hero, former Regent for the young Emperor, and current Prime Minister. His son Miles was wounded in an assassination attempt while still a fetus; he has extremely brittle bones and a somewhat misshapen body. The warrior society of Barrayar is highly prejudiced against people with such physical deformities.
This entry in the series finds Miles graduating from military academy. Despite his physical limitations, Miles is a phenomenal strategist and leader, but his intelligence and strong will can be detriments in regimented military life. Miles is given a six month assignment in Arctic exile to prove he’s a team player; he fails miserably when it turns out that his commanding officer is a murderous brute. He’s then exiled to an off-planet intelligence mission, which also goes spectacularly wrong, this time with massive interplanetary implications.
So, it’s ridiculous. I had a very hard time with suspension of disbelief in this volume, as we get a series of *extremely* contrived chance meetings with old allies and enemies. Apparently, it’s a small galaxy, as Miles ends up thrown in a prison cell with someone very important and familiar to him, despite being light years from their mutual home. And, of course, Miles overcomes astounding obstacles, including multiple imprisonments and devious villains, to triumph fantastically in the end. It’s much in line with the previous volume, Warrior's Apprentice, in which Miles built a large and incredibly successful mercenary army with a few simple deceptions.
If you don’t take the plot contrivances too seriously, however, it is very fun space opera. It’s vintage action in much the same way that Star Wars is, and even the oddly-twisting plot manages to give it a sort of serialized feel. Light-hearted space opera action doesn’t win a lot of Hugos though (I think Ringworld was the last example, though Downbelow Station is close). Is there more to this series? Miles’ disabilities do add some depth, especially in a work like “The Mountains of Mourning” in which Miles must investigate the infanticide of a child with a less debilitating disability than his own (it won the 1990 best novella Hugo). There’s not as much of that depth here, other than some discussion of power and responsibility. But, Bujold’s writing is crisp, her characters are well-developed, and it’s a fun read. Maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.
I should also add that you really do need the context of the previous novels (at least Warrior’s Apprentice but preferably all three) to get into this one.