Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 2012
Series: The Vorkosigan Saga
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:
Ivan Vorpatril has a relatively peaceful job as an assistant to Admiral Desplains.  His personal life, though, becomes much less peaceful when he reluctantly opens the door to his cousin, Byerly Vorrutyer of Imperial Intelligence.  Byerly has the seemingly harmless request that Ivan, ever the ladies’ man, work his charm on a certain lady that may be in danger.

Ivan is not the sort to leave a lady in harm’s way, especially a very attractive lady, but he soon learns that Tej and her blue companion Rish are in much more trouble that he bargained for.  Ivan makes a brilliant and unexpected move to ensure Tej’s safety, but his tactics may leave the two of them stuck together for quite some time…” ~Allie 

This is the 9th book I’ve read of the Vorkosigan Saga, so I am nearly two thirds of the way through reading the entire series!  I’ve been trying to read them in internal chronological order, but I’m also reading the latest ones when they show up in the Hugo nominations. I still recommend Shards of Honor/Barrayar as the best introduction to the saga, but Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance seems designed to also give a kind of crash course intro to the universe.

This is part of a series, so there may be spoilers of the series.  There are a few slight spoilers of this book as well, since I was unable to find a way to discuss it that avoided them entirely.

My Thoughts:

In long-running series of any media format, the growing wealth of information on the universe, characters, and notable events may eventually become a barrier to new fans, or even old fans that haven’t read the books in a while.  This saga ranges over a couple of decades of published novels, so I can see how it might be past that point for some readers.  I feel like this novel fills the role of a recap story, designed to revisit and remember characters and events for old readers, and to introduce them for new readers.  The current-time plot is a mix of a romantic comedy and a heist story, with plenty of humor and fun dialogue.  The story seems a little constrained, though, by the intent to touch on as many topics from previous novels as possible, and this also sometimes made it feel a little crammed with information.

The protagonist this time around is Ivan Vorpatril, who I find hilarious, though he is the sort of person that would annoy me to tears in reality.  He’s basically a friendly, professionally un-ambitious pick-up artist.  He has kind of a laid-back cheerfulness that I’ve always thought plays well against Miles’ energy (though Miles makes only a small appearance in this particular novel). The second viewpoint character is Tej, a new addition to the Vorkosigan Saga.  In a lot of ways, Tej’s story, being taken in by a Vor and having to deal with Barrayaran culture, is very similar to situations from earlier novels in the series.  Tej was nice as a match to Ivan’s personality, but she was not a particularly engaging character for me.  While the story was entertaining, there also seemed to be something missing.  Bujold’s novels usually say something interesting about societal norms or gender, but Ivan and Tej fall pretty well in line with a pretty standard romantic narrative.  It was still fun, but just a bit more lightweight than I expected.

In addition to Tej and Ivan’s romance, the story contains a pretty funny heist subplot, and a lot of meet-and-greeting. The first part of the story, where Ivan and Tej meet, was probably my favorite—it was really funny, but Tej also seemed to be in real danger.  After this section, though, the stakes drop considerably.  Tej and Ivan attend a fairly constant stream of dinner parties, afternoon tea, and other social gatherings, where she is able to meet and react to many of the various characters of the Vorkosigan Saga universe as they explain various bits of personal and political history to her.  The heist subplot kept things interesting, but I would have to say this is the lightest novel I’ve yet read in the series.

My Rating: 3/5

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is suitably funny and entertaining, but it’s a bit more fluffy than what I would call the usual Vorkosigan Saga novel.  It’s mostly a romantic comedy featuring Ivan Vorpatril, with a small dash of intrigue thrown in from the side of his romantic lead’s ambitious family.  While I enjoyed the novel, I felt that it lacked Bujold’s usual examination of gender or social norms, switching in traditional ‘guy/girl’ jokes instead.  Tej and Ivan cover of lot of ground in introducing characters and events from the series, which made me feel as though this were intended to be a kind of series recap story.  It’s a fun, lightweight novel, but it’s nowhere near my favorite of the series (which is still Barrayar, so far).

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