For only the second time in Hugo history, an author wins back-to-back in the novel category. And, as with last time (Ender’s), it’s for books in the same series. This is a prequel of sorts to The Vor Game, and it fills in some important gaps in the chronology (as I mentioned before, I’m reading the Vorkosigan books in internal chronological order, and I’m not sure they’d make as much sense in publication order).
The main focus this time is the birth of Miles, and his mother, Cordelia, is the central character. She’s recently moved to the semi-feudal planet of Barrayar from the more democratic and higher tech Beta Colony, and she’s married Count Aral Vorkosigan, who is serving as Regent for the 4-year-old emperor. Most of the novel centers around her interactions with the complicated and often bloody politics of the planet. There are duels, political rivalries, and the threat of civil war. A lot of time is also given over to relationships within the Vorkosigan household, especially three of the family bodyguards. It’s very character-centered. In fact, it would translate very easily to a fantasy setting (with its romance, court intrigues, and loyal retainers), except for some of the material dealing with Miles’ troubled birth.
Bujold’s prose is strong with some very nice moments, and Cordelia is a very likable character. The plot can go a little over-the-top – there’s a daring raid near the end that really should not have gone as well as it did, for instance – and the characters can be a tad too wonderful and loving, but it’s a fun experience. And, the crazy action and ultra-perfect characters are dialed down a bit from The Vor Game.
It also deals with slightly deeper themes than The Vor Game. Miles’ disability slid into the background in that action novel, but here, the question of whether the damaged fetus should even be brought into the world is foregrounded. The prejudices in Barrayaran society depicted here lead to very interesting conflicts that clearly overshadow Miles' life to come. And, Bujold’s portrayal of Cordelia as a dedicated mother felt real in some very unreal circumstances. Honestly, the character work was so strong that I didn’t even need the action sequences that dominate the novel’s third act.