Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold
This is the 13th book in Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, which I've seen referred to as "space opera." Set in the future, the books are centered on the Earth-settled world of Barrayar, where the great families of the Vor class have ruled for centuries in a medieval-style hierarchy headed by the Emperor. The Vorkosigans are the highest of high Vor, so closely related to the imperial Vorbarra family in this generation that its sons stand next in line for the throne. But the youngest member of the family, Miles, is far from a typical Vor lordling. His mother Cordelia (an immigrant from a very different world called Beta and a clear-eyed critic of Barrayar) suffered a chemical warfare attack while she was carrying him, and Miles was born with physical deformities that on Barrayar, even in this modern day, lead to infanticide. He eventually left the constrictions of his home planet for a wild career as a space mercenary, while working undercover to protect its interest through Imperial Security (the dreaded ImpSec). In the later books, Miles returned to Barrayar, to his role as heir to his father Aral, Count Vorkosigan, and to make his own place in his home world.
Lois Bujold dedicated one of the later Miles books to "Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy" - as in Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers - and their influence is clear in her writing. She creates indelible characters, people with emotional and psychological complexity, and embroils them in multi-layered stories, some set on space stations, others on worlds with echoes of our own. She writes marvelous dialogue that can dance like the best screwball comedies, or lay bare someone's soul. Miles, and even more his parents Cordelia and Aral, are among my absolute favorite literary characters, on a par with Elizabeth Bennet and Peter Wimsey, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Freddy Standen.
Normally, I buy Lois Bujold's books in hardback, as soon as they come out (this fall we will finally get a book about Miles' cousin Ivan Vorpatril, who like a secondary Heyer hero has played the carefree aristocratic bachelor for many years, hiding his lights under the proverbial basket for too long). But Cryoburn came out in 2010. I finally bought a copy last year, and have only now read it for the first time. I put off reading this book, I confess, because it brings the death of one character in the saga, whose end has been foreshadowed but to which I was not resigned. What finally motivated me to read it is the Dorothy Dunnett-Lois Bujold crossover listserv I belong to, which has been reading through the saga for the past several months. Now I can follow the discussions without fear of further spoilers.
Cryoburn is set on the planet Kibou-daini, whose main industry is cryonics. The technical problems of freezing and reviving people have largely been solved by the research & development departments of the large corporations, or "cryocorps," which dominate this world. Most of its population chooses to become cryocorpses themselves, hoping for revival in a future where whatever medical condition they face, even old age, will have been resolved. Miles Vorkosigan has been sent to a cryonics conference on Kibou because one of the corporations is planning an expansion on Komarr, the second planet in the Barrayaran empire. Miles is now an Imperial Auditor, one of a select group assigned by the Emperor to investigate or trouble-shoot across the Empire, acting in his name and with imperial authority - a position tailor-made for Miles, who shares with Peter Wimsey an insatiable curiosity.
When he is kidnapped from the conference, and then meets a young boy whose mother, an activist working against the corps, has been frozen against her will, Miles follows the trail into the depths of the cryocombs. What he discovers there resonates on some level with the corporations of today. And as he investigates the different cryo-corporations, and meets their future customers, Bujold explores what it means to face the end of life, with the option to cheat death. What would it be like to return to life 80 or 100 years later, physically healed but out of your own time? She has a lot of fun with the cryocorps, each striving to attract more customers than their rivals, through marketing and branding. My favorite is NewEgypt, where the frozen customers pass through gates guarded by giant statues of Anubis, to rest in pyramids.
Though this book is about death, or about a frozen state of almost-death, it is never morbid. It couldn't be, with Miles in full Auditor mode. There is also an excellent supporting cast, some old friends from previous books. It is always great fun watching people meet Miles for the first time, particularly his fellow Barrayarans. Lois Bujold has gone on to write two other series, the Chalion books, set in a medieval-Renaissance world with echoes of our own, and a remarkable theology; and the "Sharing Knife" series, set in a world that resembles North America, peopled with Lakewalkers, who have mystic powers and Farmers, who don't and who distrust those who do. I love the Chalion books, and I enjoyed the later Knife books, but I would trade them all for more Vorkosigan stories. At least I only have to wait til November for Ivan's adventures.