The Flowers of Vashnoi by Bujold

flowersofvashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Yay! When I first heard that Lois McMaster Bujold had decided to retire, I was horrified, but now I’m kind of delighted because apparently she’s spending her retirement writing short stories instead of novels. And they’re coming out relatively quickly.

I’ve previously reviewed her Penric & Desdemona stories that I absolutely love and am desperately awaiting more of, but apparently she was feeling inspired recently to return to her Vorkosigan universe and wrote a short story about Ekaterin.

I am so deeply familiar with this series that I’m not actually sure how much that familiarity is necessary to understanding this story, but I believe it’s intended to be readable as a stand-alone.

“The Flowers of Vashnoi” strikes me very much as Bujold revisiting her previous short story, “The Mountains of Mourning” a generation later. Both stories deal with the fall-out of social progress and the heart-breaking necessity of hard decisions with no good solutions.

I loved the story, but I think I loved it most for being another peak into the world of these characters that I love. It was good to see what Ekaterin has been doing and how life on Barrayar continues.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Bujold

Captain Vorpatril AllianceCaptain Vorpatril’s Alliance
by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is an excellent fast-paced romantic adventure comedy. I sped through it in two days and kept giggling to myself. It just leaps from one ludicrous situation to another and yet, the plot still tracks beautifully. I can see why and how these situations came about, and I can also see why and how these characters managed to get themselves into these situations, even if I want to slap them upside the head for doing some of the things they do.

Interestingly, it takes place prior to Cryoburn, which might explain why Cryoburn made so few references to off-planet events in general, less to avoid spoilers than to avoid a sense of WTF?.

There’s an elopement with the use of a box of instant groats, a 100-year-old buried treasure, a 30-year-old hidden bomb, a handful of beautiful ladies (all of whom are extremely wily), a handful of wily men (many of whom are extremely beautiful), cross cultural laws and smuggling rings and bounty hunters. And, in the middle of all of this, is Ivan Vorpatril, who has, much to his dismay, lots of experience regarding such insanity.

In previous books in this series, Ivan generally gets drawn into his cousin Miles’ crazier plots despite his own efforts to remain an innocent bystander. In this book, though, Miles appears in only a quick cameo, and Ivan manages to get involved in a crazy plot all on his own. The book also develops a few other secondary characters from the series, showing more of Byerly Vorrutyer and Simon Illyan than we’ve gotten previously.

While it’s more than a bit self-indulgent, the book maintains its self-indulgence with aplomb and delivers an immensely fun roller-coaster of a story that I enjoyed immensely.

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

By Lois McMaster Bujold

So I finally got around to reading Cryoburn, which is a ludicrous statement for me to have made. I adore Bujold. I discovered her about fifteen years ago and have read her books ever since. She has three different series, set in three wildly different universes, each of which I love. I have read everything she has ever published and loved them all. She was the first author for whom I actually started purchasing new-released hardcover books and even now is one of only four authors for whom I have done that. So why, then, did it take me nearly two years to read this book, checking it out from the library?

When it was first announced, I was super excited. A few months before it was finally due to be published, the publisher posted the first several chapters online as a teaser and I raced over to read them… and found myself kind of, well, bored.

First of all, this is the fifteenth book set in this universe and the eleventh book following the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan. And it is the first book in which there is no major character development.

It makes a certain amount of sense. Miles was introduced in The Warrior’s Apprentice (incidentally, that book (awesome-awesome-awesome) is available for free online, because both Bujold and Baen Publishers are very cool) as a high-born teenager in a military culture who failed to pass the military entrance exam due to physical disability despite all the nepotism in the world. He’s an awesome character: a brilliant, hyperactive dwarf with brittle bones, a lot of high-ranking family connections, and a deep desire to prove himself. It gets him into and then out of So Much Trouble.

But he does, slowly and painfully (and awesomely!), grow up. He grows into himself and faces set backs and failures and grows into himself again and changes who he is and what he wants and if the teenage years were hard, the twenties were driven, and the thirties were vicious, but now he’s settled. He’s happy with who he is and where he is and what he’s doing.

This makes me very happy for him.

But, well, there’s a reason most stories end with the whole “happy ever after” summary of the rest of characters’ lives. Happy settled people aren’t really as interesting as manic, driven people.

Now, character development isn’t the only thing that Bujold does fabulously well.  Her world-building is amazing and rich and deep. Her plot lines and mysteries are complex and tricky and hilarious. And Miles does remain an excellent character and driven in his investigations once they get going.

Cryoburn absolutely demonstrates Bujold’s skills at both science-fiction world-building and tricky plotting. The problem is that since the storyline is a mystery, and the reader only sees Miles’ discoveries as he’s making them, it takes a while for both Miles and the reader to get the momentum going.

Once it gets going, though, the book is excellent. I love the twisty plots and plans and characters and Miles’ manic investigation into them all.

It occurs to me that this book actually might work best as a stand-alone, without having read any of the previous books in the series, and thus coming to it without expectations.

The only thing that needs real background to get the full impact is the epilog, after all the plot ends have been tied up. The epilog, oh, the epilog: it hits like a punch to the sternum and makes my heart skip a beat. (You do need to have read the series to get the full impact, but oh, my heart, oh Miles, oh Bujold, love-love-love!)

So expect to slog a bit through the beginning, but the later two-thirds are really, really good.