The third and final winner from Bujold’s Vorkasigan books, and the series continues to walk the tightrope between ridiculous pulp and smart, character-driven work, though this one tilts more towards the latter pole than any book in the series yet.
Since we last saw him, Miles Vorkasigan has picked up an evil clone, “Mark.” No, seriously. Created by enemies of Miles’ father, the clone has been brutally trained for assassination and infiltration. In the previous novel, he rebels against his creator. In this novel, he goes on a crusade against the amoral cloning syndicate that created him with disastrous results for Miles and his crew of mercenaries. Once again, you really need to read the previous books in the series to appreciate this one, especially Brothers in Arms, which introduces Mark.
This novel is meatier than the previous winners in the series, and I do think Bujold is trying to do some different things here. Most importantly, Miles is sidelined for most of the book. The novels’ voice has almost always been third-person limited with a narrow focus on Miles himself, but here, the focus shifts to Mark for more than half of the novel. It’d be easy to call Miles a “Mary Sue” – his talents for tactics and manipulation are pretty supernatural. Mark, on the other hand, is doubting, socially awkward, tormented, and a little insane. It is a change of pace from Miles, and this novel is far darker than previous entries (as usual, central characters are captured by the villains, but this time we get vicious torture alongside the usual villain posturing and improbable escape).
The idea of a clone does feel like the corniest of pulp science fiction tropes, even though it’s probably the most realistic sf concept. I think it’s because they always tend to pop out of a vat fully grown and are innately evil, have a psychic link to the original or both, which is all very silly. Clones should be a great way to explore ideas of family and identity, and that’s, for the most part, the direction that Bujold takes here. However, she’s more interested in Mark’s identity, as he is doomed to live under the shadow of the uber-awesome Miles. It’s an excellent opportunity for Bujold to do the character work she does so well.
My biggest issue is probably with the pacing. There’s a thrilling, breathless action sequence early on, then a very long section on Barrayar with Miles’ family, lacking in the usual political intrigue, and it all ends in a bit of an anti-climax. But, Bujold’s prose is a pleasure to read, as usual, and she does try some interesting and new things here.
The Vorkosigan series doesn’t really feel like it should be the Hugo-winningest series of all time, but it is a fun experience, and the character-based adventures are a nice change of pace from the Big Idea books that tend to dominate the Hugos. This is the best entry in the series so far, and the most deserving of prestigious awards.