One of the worst parts of my recent move was that it left me disconnected from reading - and with the early cancellation of my internet service, also disconnected from my own and others' blogs. I had no attention for reading, no concentration, which is why the same books have been listed as "What I'm reading now" for weeks. When books have always been a distraction and a comfort, it was the strangest, most unsettling feeling, to sit down with a book and find myself unable to connect with it, almost as though it was in a foreign language. And I have to say, it was also a bit depressing to pack and unpack all the TBR books, though in the process I was able to let quite a few go.
Speaking of TBR books, I have to confess that I cheated on the TBR Double Dog Dare with the first chapters of Les Misérables. I'm trying to decide if that disqualifies me - and if I'm thinking that because I want to give in and read the rest of the book - or if I just count it as a first strike and carry on. I think since I only got 32 pages into an 1231-page book, I may give myself an exemption. After all, I'm not even counting those chapters in old favorites that I re-read here and there as I was packing them away into boxes.
But I did manage to finish an actual entire new book this week - only the second in the whole month, and I can't tell you the last time that happened. The book is Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I have been a fan of her books ever since I discovered them through a Dorothy Dunnett listserv. Her main series has revolved around the planet Barrayar, colonized from Earth centuries ago, whose semi-feudal society is dominated by the Vor aristocracy. Among the highest of high Vor are the Vorkosigans, a collateral branch of the imperial family, staunchly loyal servants of the Emperor and Barrayar itself. The central character in most of the 14-book series has been Miles Vorkosigan, who had a varied career in imperial service and as a space mercenary before settling down again on Barrayar.
Miles' mother Cordelia survived a chemical weapons attack during her pregnancy, which left the fetal-Miles severely damaged. He and his parents worked very hard to compensate for his disabilities, against strong social prejudices. One side benefit of Miles's very obvious physical issues was that despite his impeccable imperial bloodline, they apparently disqualified him from the imperial throne (coups and palace revolutions were a regular feature in Barrayar's history). With House Vorkosigan eliminated, the next candidate in line, for ambitious kingmakers, was Miles's cousin Lord Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan's father was killed in a civil war the day that his son was born, and his mother in her anxiety to protect and shield him nearly smothered him. At age 18, Ivan escaped to the imperial Service Academy and then into a career in the military.
Though tall, dark and handsome, Ivan always suffered in comparison to his brilliant, mercurial, wildly successful cousin Miles. He did not choose to compete, just the opposite in fact. To avoid both the political intrigues and his mother's plans for him, he built up the persona of a good-natured, rather indolent, rakish young man about town, rather like one of Georgette Heyer's younger brothers. He is a very competent officer but in a very quiet way, careful not to attract too much notice. He has played this part so successfully that he is routinely addressed as "Ivan, you idiot!" It has become clear over the course of the later stories, though, how much of a façade this is - and not just to the reader. On the Heyer listserv I belong to, we like to speculate about which minor characters deserve their own book. Many of Lois Bujold's readers have long wanted to see Ivan play more of a central part in the series. Here she gives us the "Ivan book," and great fun it is too.
In this book, Ivan is on Komarr, one of the Empire's subject planets, on assignment with his boss Admiral Desplains. Late one night he receives a visit from a contact in Imperial Security (the dreaded ImpSec), who asks him to help track a mysterious young woman, who may be connected with smugglers that ImpSec is trying to nab. Though he is intrigued by her beauty, he agrees only after some pressure. His first attempt to make contact with her ends with him stunned and tied to a chair in her living room, as she and her companion, who think him a kidnapper or worse, debate what to do with him. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Ivan ends up helping the two, who are fleeing an attack that destroyed their family back on their homeworld, the complications of which will eventually follow them to Barrayar. Along the way, Ivan gets his chance to shine, and also at long last to find love. Heyer readers might find echoes of Cotillion, The Unknown Ajax, and Friday's Child here, no surprise since Lois Bujold is a fan as well.
We were introduced to Barrayar in the first books, when Cordelia arrived from her very different home plant to marry Aral Vorkosigan. I wouldn't want to live there, it's still a bit too feudal for my tastes, but I do love to visit. Here again we get to see Barrayar through an outsider's eyes, and to note the changes over the 38 years that the series has covered (this story takes place before Cryoburn, which was published in 2010). When the action shifts back to Barrayar, we also get to meet old friends again, including Ivan's formidable dowager mother Alys and Ivan's equally formidable unofficial stepfather Simon Illyan (once the head of ImpSec). Though it comes so late in the series, this book might be a good introduction to the series, for anyone who doesn't mind a few spoilers, since Ivan is constantly explaining his family and his world to the non-Barrayarans (I finally learned from this book why Ivan has the title "Lord Vorpatril" though he isn't a Count's heir).
Lois Bujold has apparently let it be known that this will be the last Vorkosigan book for a good long while, if not forever. Though I've enjoyed her other series, and I will certainly read whatever she writes next, I won't give up hope that one day she will bring us back to Barrayar again.