This is the 15th book in Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga. From the title, I had an idea of what might happen in this book - and it did. But alongside the expected plot development came a revelation, slipped quietly into the story, which knocked me sideways.** I don't think I have ever read a book, coming so late in a series, that changed so completely my understanding of what came before. It took me a little while to adjust, and to pick up the threads of the story again. In the end I enjoyed this book, though I definitely would not recommend it as an introduction to the series.
It is set on Sergyar, the third planet of Barrayar's empire (with the homeworld and Komarr). It opens three years after the death of Aral, Count Vorkosigan, for many years the regent of Sergyar. His wife Cordelia, now the Dowager Countess Vorkosigan, has carried on as Vicereine in her own right. Because I read the series in story order (rather than publication order), I met Cordelia first, when she was surveying what became Sergyar, for her home planet of Beta. There she met Aral Vorkosigan, serving in Barrayar's space fleet. After some adventures together, she went home to Beta but later came to Barrayar to marry him. They became the parents of Miles, who suffered severe physical damage in utero from a chemical -weapons attack while Cordelia was pregnant. Neither he nor his parents let his physical frailty define or limit him. After the first two books, the story shifted from Cordelia and Aral to follow Miles. I'm always sorry to see them exit center stage, and their cameo appearances in later books are never enough.
It was fascinating to be back on Sergyar, to see how the planet and the Barrayaran colony has developed since the first book. As Vicereine, Cordelia still faces formidable challenges governing what's known as "Chaos Colony." She works closely with Admiral Oliver Jole, Aral's former military secretary, who commands the troops and ships guarding the wormhole jumps around Sergyar that make inter-planetary travel possible. I was interested to see that these troops now include women, in the Imperial Service Women's Auxiliary, primarily it seems as support staff rather than as combat troops. Still, that's a huge step for Barrayar, whose military-based society kept women firmly in the home and denied them equal rights.
**Okay, major spoilers follow from here.
I figured that Cordelia, three years after losing Aral, would have recovered enough to be open to a new relationship. From the title, I considered Jole the likely candidate. I thought this book would be about the development of that relationship, and I expected that her son Miles would have some issues with it. Yes, and yes - but oh is that only the top level of complications. I've read most of the books in this series two or three times. Granted, they focus mostly on Miles, but I can't remember Oliver Jole playing a part in any of the books. For obvious reasons, people are now trawling the books looking for him. I'd noted that he is one of Aral's pallbearers (in Cryoburn), and there are apparently some references to him in the last book before this one, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Nothing of that prepared me for the revelation that Oliver and Aral were lovers, in a long-term relationship for more than twenty years. Cordelia, from liberal Beta, accepted this as she had always accepted Aral's bisexuality (which we the readers did know about from the beginning). She more than accepted it: when Oliver joined them on Sergyar, their marriage became three-sided - in every way. Cordelia is one of my favorite characters, a ship's captain who leaves her world behind for love, and then proceeds - with Aral's willing help - to subvert the limited "female" role available to her on Barrayar, and encourage other women and men to do the same. She and Aral make such a great team, partners in every way, as lovers, then parents, and as political figures. Again, the main saga shifted from them to their older son Miles, but it was still a shock to find out that their story was so very different than what their appearances over the years suggested. It is some consolation that Miles is just as blindsided by this revelation as I was. I did feel for poor Oliver, who got to explain it all to him.
The story opens with Cordelia returning to Sergyar from a visit to Barrayar. She brings with her another bombshell. Cordelia always wanted more children, but for medical and family reasons, Miles was their only child (until Mark showed up, a clone of Miles created in a byzantine political plot against the Empire, but deflected from that and absorbed into the clan). She and Aral had prepared for more children by storing eggs and sperm. More than forty years later, Cordelia is ready to use these to create six daughters for herself. (Barrayar has long used uterine replicators, which free women from carrying children, and it's catching up on more advanced reproductive technology.) She offers some genetic material to Oliver, to create his own children, who would share some of Aral's genes. In the course deciding whether to accept this offer, and working out the complications, Oliver and Cordelia resume their relationship, or rather build a new one around their mutual loss. Cordelia is 76, and though as a Betan she can expect to live to 120 or more, it is still an unexpected age to start a family. And when her relationship becomes public, people can't help but note that Oliver is twenty-five years her junior. Nor can her son Miles, arriving unexpectedly with his wife and six children in tow, to find out what the hell his mother is up to. Now that's a fraught reunion - something the Vorkosigans specialize in. I was sorry that his clone-brother Mark didn't get to visit as well, but I was happy to see that he gets to shine for a change, by getting his mother what she really needs: an industrial construction company for her growing colony.
Once I caught my breath from these bombshells, I did enjoy this book, particularly its focus on Cordelia and its exploration of Sergyar. I'm wondering now if we can expect stories of the next generation of Vorkosigans - Cordelia's daughters or Miles's children. Cordelia carefully gives her daughters her own name of Naismith, though; she wants Barrayar to have no claim on them.