Monday, July 8, 2013

The Long Answer

My Time With Captain Cordelia Naismith's Son

One of the author crossovers for Megan Whalen Turner fans is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Vorkosigan series is oft recommended to me. I loved Cordelia's Honor (which I've mentioned before) but only tepidly made it through a Miles book many moons ago. I decided to not mention to my fellow mwt fans how little Miles interested me due to the, as far as I could tell, universal love of Miles by my fellow fans. Time passed, my little Miles aversion remained hidden but a confession to discussion with jmc inspired me to give him another chance. She directed me to some of the later books in the series and I gave it a go again. I'm still not a fan of his series (though you wouldn't know it if you've been checking out my recently read stuff on goodreads) but I know exactly why now.

What I Like About Miles:
His refusal to accept "conventional wisdom" limitations. His loyalty. His faith in second chances. His "trust beyond reason." (I think that's the way Cordelia was described which gets him his mother's "results beyond hope.") He doesn't ask for more than he gives. His commitment to enthusiastic consent. :)

What I Don't Like About the Series/Miles:
I listed the heading that way because what I don't like about Miles is basically what I don't like about the series. I loathe Barrayar as a character. I don't find its social situations interesting as conflict for a series. If anyone has any links to articles/interviews with Bujold as to why she picked such a culture for her centerpiece culture I'd love to read them. I'm sure reasons for not liking Barrayar are pretty obvious (Quinn and I have identical thoughts on the issue) but I find the whole set-up so done. It's what's already been done, it's what's being done now (just see the news about this recent event in Texas where, incidentally, citizens who wish to participate in the political process are seen as disruptive), and these characters aren't bringing anything new to the struggle. Maybe that's the point, I don't know but repetitive social problems without new applications of conquering said leaves me cold. And Miles is so Barrayaran. In a feat of characterization that impresses me no end he's galactic but psychologically enmeshed with that "backwards hole." Ugh. Specific things that stand out to me about the Barrayar Issue that I can't let go of while reading.

1. Miles' determination to be successful with "the hand he was dealt" is completely self-serving. His actions are to prove that he can still be Vor and worthy but he doesn't seem to participate in any way with a greater representation of disabled/disadvantaged Barrayarans. How is this being part of the vanguard for galactizing Barrayar?

2. I read somewhere that Bujold chose for Miles to be disabled as it would be one of the hardest things her characters, Aral and Cordelia, could go through being parents on Barrayar but, in fact, she should have made him female. He is assumed to be a mutant on a mutant-phobic planet and yet he still managed to get to the Academy and get into Imperial Service. Turns out a vagina is even more disabling on Barrayar.

3. Miles doesn't escape Barrayar's patriarchal respect for women. I find this line from Mirror Dance particularly telling: "Miles sometimes wondered how much of his on-going maintenance of the Dendarii Mercenaries was really service to Imperial Security, how much was the wild self-indulgence of a very questionable aspect of his own faceted--or fractured--personality and how much was a secret gift to Elena Bothari." How revoltingly insulting! To me, this is the equivalent of his parents coming up to him and handing him a Miles-scaled Barrayar with lower physical requirements because without them doing that he would not have had his successful life as a result of his choices and hard work. (To be fair, I think Cordelia later pointed out the fallacy of this as a strategy with Ekaterin's garden. Cordelia is so awesome.)

4. Marriage is death to female characters getting to do much of anything interesting on the page. I know the series is about Miles but do the wives have to end up in the hinted at behind the scenes stuff all the time? I find Ekaterin to be the most egregious example of this. Seeing her in Komarr and A Civil Campaign and then comparing that to her "have you eaten anything yet sweetie" and "you just listen to him right now" role in Diplomatic Immunity makes me sad. (This is where you need to hear Cordelia saying Barrayarans! as a curse.)

5. Miles accepts his mother's love/respect without question but has to perform worthwhile work to obtain his father's??? See #3.

6. This isn't a Barrayar specific issue but the series is riddled with darker skin being described with food (and sometimes even as exotic!) which maybe it's time to move past that in the literary landscape we are living in today. Unless, of course, we're going to start using exotic water chestnut hues (or similar) to describe lighter skin.

What I Do Like About the Series:
The world building. The humor. The characterization. The variety of characters. It can break your heart. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. Cordelia makes appearances. The MC shows that determination and persistence are more important than convention based limitations.

Below are the titles I've read and some thoughts. All titles by Baen Publishing. Click here for publication dates and internal chronological order of titles if interested.

Shards of Honor/Barrayar
As I've mentioned before, I love Cordelia with the power of a thousand burning suns and these books are on my keeper shelf and warrant rereads.

The Warrior's Apprentice
While my admiration for Miles' persistence was high, I find the inferior to daddy complex tedious and most of the time was just wishing I was reading another book about Cordelia. I also find Miles' idea of what he needs to do to be worthy of his father to be weird (does he not see the same Aral I see?). I actually think it's a displaced Barrayar complex but he expresses it as an inferior to Aral complex.

The Borders of Infinity (novella)
This has ended up being my favorite of the entire series. The amount of enjoyment I get out of a Miles title is indirectly proportional to the amount of Barrayarness that creeps into the story.

Brothers in Arms
Liked this one well enough. Ivan, Quinn and Cordelia are my faves* in this series so I like situations that heavily involve Ivan. I find his later appearances in the series to be jarringly off from our introduction to him as the guy who importuned Elena when she was young. Are we to assume that Ivan smarted up (he is also a great supporter of enthusiastic consent) or that Bujold didn't initially imagine him as so large a character in the series?

*Sergeant Bothari is one of the most fascinating characters of the series but it's difficult to list him as a fave due to his complexity.

Mirror Dance
Was really enjoying this one until the torture-porn made its appearance. Was Mark not interesting enough already?

Can't really decide on this one. I like Illyan so the mystery surrounding his condition was interesting but it felt a bit like MC cheating for Miles to do something so destructive and then get rewarded with a second career.

Can I still count this as a favorite if I skimmed almost everything that wasn't Ekaterin? No matter, the final conversation between her and Miles makes the entire novel worth it. I was laughing my ass off.

A Civil Campaign
I think it says a lot that I like this one despite it being completely on Barrayar. The plot moppet stuff got a bit over the top and cloying, though.

Diplomatic Immunity
I love the quaddies but Ekaterin was a disappointment.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Good times with Ivan but this book felt really series dependent. Like a twenty year summer camp reunion where everyone is "just happy to be here." Plus you have these two awesome women who lose all initiative once they are on the page with a Barrayaran. Barrayar strikes again.

I didn't read these in the order listed and found there really is no need at all. Any pertinent plot/character points from previous novels get explained to the reader. I don't care for this technique so didn't always read the re-caps.

My top three Miles books:
The Borders of Infinity (novella)
Mirror Dance (sans torture-porn)

Miles fans, your top three?


  1. The thing I like about the series is that there is a book to match any mood. I'm loathe to pick a favorite (although I do love Civil Campaign's Heyer vibe) because if I'm feeling in the need for something fluffy, I will pick up the Ivan book or Civil Campaign. If I want something less cute or with more true angst, there are other ones. I can't think of any titles, maybe one of the shorter ones like the one with the quaddies or an early Miles story.

    I haven't read one in a while so the titles escape me. I do know that I didn't particularly like Ekaterina and hadn't planned to revisit that first book. Then I got stuck where it and a Laurel Hamilton (eeek) were the only books on my kindle in a wifi-free zone, so I reread it.

    I liked her a lot better the second time around. I guess I'd read some Regency books, and Barayar is a combo of feudal Russia and Regency so I believed in her background of duty to king and country. (Also she's so much more real than the Laurel Hamilton heroine.)

  2. Hey Kate - excellent point on a book for any mood. There is a lot of variety in the series. I think that's definitely a strong point. Bujold has created such an immense world that she can do almost anything within it. It's nice that she does rather than having a strict formula to be repeated as needed.

    What I found so intriguing about Ekaterin is that she broke through a cage made by her socialization but didn't actually escape her socialization. I thought it was cool to see her discover more than one of being true to yourself within the same set of boundaries. Bujold's characterization is a constant delight to me whenever I am reading a novel of hers.

    I've not heard of Hamilton. I'm guessing you don't recommend her?