Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1986
Series: Vorkosigan Saga (order is debateable)

The Book:
“Ethan Urquhart is a head reproductive scientist on the planet of Athos, in a colony that was founded on strong religious and ideological principles.  Due to advanced technology, they’ve been able to create an all-male society, and they believe that women are dangerous and demonic. However, when their new batch of ovarian cultures come in completely sabotaged, Ethan is sent on a dangerous journey to Kline Station, to secure his world’s reproductive future. 

Almost as soon as he arrives, Ethan finds himself in deep trouble, for no reason he can fathom!  Apparently, the sabotaged ovarian cultures were just a hint of the deeper game being played.  Ethan soon finds himself in way over his head, with the beautiful female mercenary Elli Quinn (of the Dendarii mercenaries) as his partner in crime.” ~Allie

I’m in the long-running process of reading the Vorkosigan Saga, but this one is a bit of an oddity. It doesn’t feature any of the central cast of the storyline (though Elli Quinn is a minor character), and it appears to be a one-shot story. However, it was short, humorous, and fun, and it was nice to get a story from another area in the Vorkosigan universe. As a note, I still recommend Shards of Honor/Barrayar (also sold together as Cordelia’s Honor) as a good starting point for the series.

The Book:

Ethan of Athos felt mostly like a side story in the Vorkosigan universe, but it was a light, entertaining read.  Miles never made an appearance, but the story was packed with the same kind of humor, adventure, intrigue and likeable characters that I associate with the series.  The story plays into some common tropes, but always seems to either take them a bit tongue-in-cheek or subvert them entirely.  The main plot is basically a spy thriller, with Elli Quinn as the one experienced in espionage and Ethan as the ordinary guy reluctantly dragged into the mess. I don’t think Ethan of Athos is the most memorable or profound installment I’ve read of the series, but I enjoyed taking a bit of time to read a fun and undemanding adventure.

While many of the minor characters were forgettable, Elli and Ethan were very pleasant characters to follow.  Ethan in particular was a very lovable guy—responsible (ordinarily), nurturing, compassionate, and extremely clueless about international plots and espionage.  Elli, on the other hand, was skilled and resourceful, and newly beautiful as a result of some post-injury reconstructive surgery.  It would have been easy for this novel to feature Ethan realizing women were hot and falling for Elli, and I really appreciate that it didn’t.  He did come to realize that women were not the demons he’d been taught, and he and Elli worked really well together as a team.  However, he never stopped loving his home planet of Athos, and his love interests in the story were never women.

As is probably obvious from the description, some topics addressed through the story were perceptions of gender and culturally imposed gender roles.  This is not new to the series, as previous novels have introduced the extremely patriarchal Barrayar, gender relations in the aristocracy of Cetaganda, and the equalitarian Beta Colony.  In this case, the treatment is similarly unsubtle, but manages not to seem too overbearing or preachy. While the set-up appears quite simple, Bujold doesn’t portray any society as wholly good or bad.  Athos has its problems with misogyny and Kline Station has issues with homophobia, but both societies still seem to produce many perfectly decent and some not-so-decent people.  Ethan needs to come to terms with his bizarre view of women, but the outside world also needs to come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the all-male structure of Athosian society.  Overall, I really enjoyed seeing the clash of the characters’ different perspectives, as they made their way from one crisis to another.

My Rating: 3.5/5

 Ethan of Athos is a fun side story to the Vorkosigan saga, one which I don’t think needs to be read at any particular point in the series.  While it may not be the most impressive installment in the Vorkosigan saga, it still had plenty of adventure and humor, and a few really likeable characters.  Most of the story followed the unlikely partnership of the mercenary Elli and a reproductive doctor of an all-male society, Ethan, as he tripped into a heap of trouble while trying to secure an ovarian culture delivery.  The interplay between various characters’ views on gender and gender roles added another interesting aspect to the story. Altogether, it was a light, entertaining novel, and reading it was a fun way to pass a few hours. 


  1. I think my favorite thing about the series is Bujold's treatment of gender.

    1. Yeah, I agree with you there, even if this particular book is not one of the strongest novels in the series. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on her treatment of gender in "Paladin of Souls". :)