Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've been making my way through the celebrated Vorkosigan Saga and it has been a real treat so far. A delightful and often moving series. "Delightful" and "moving" are not words that I usually associate with space opera but Bujold has crafted something rather different here. It has all of the fast pace and explosions and space battles and galactic span of your standard space opera but what it lacks are the operatic yet two-dimensional characters that often populate such enterprises. The characters here act real and feel real. They feel genuinely human. It is a human-sized space epic, and it is lovely. Hey that's another word I usually wouldn't think to associate with the genre. Lovely.



Shards of Honour  (Vorkosigan Saga, #1)Cordelia Naismith is the captain of an astronomical survey ship from the peaceful Beta Colony. Lord Aral Vorkosigan is the leader of a secret military mission from the warlike planet Barrayar. the  title "Shards of Honor" no doubt refers to the small bits of honor that Aral must cling to as he finds himself a central figure in a massive undertaking that will sacrifice thousands of innocents for the greater good; it also may refer to the honor that Cordelia herself gains and loses and gains again as her fate becomes increasingly intertwined with that of the unjustly infamous Aral - also known as "The Butcher of Komarr". this excellent novel is the first in the massive Vorkosigan Saga, which currently numbers over 25 novels and short stories. it is also Bujold's first full-length work - an impressive achievement.
the novel is a chamber piece with a galactic background. space opera boiled down to two major characters and several intriguing supporting characters, with acts of policy and war that become palpable moral and ethical conflicts for those characters. it is space opera made intimate and personal; space opera where the psychology of its characters is writ as large and made as important as the various exciting twists and turns of the narrative. it is also a romance - one that is by turns surprising and moving and life-affirming. there are no ridiculously giddy or angsty moments that made me roll my eyes. Cordelia and Aral are decidedly adults, with a whole lifetime of pain and experience behind them. watching them matter-of-factly fall in love was key to my enjoyment.

it is a novel with some teeth as well. its issues are timely and timeless... is a terrible sacrifice worth all of those lives to stop the deaths of even more lives? should nationalism be a thing that we live and die for, a thing that defines our lives' trajectories? and what is "honor" anyway - a personal thing? a public thing? the thing that we cling to that gives our lives some kind of meaning, some sense of purpose? all are interesting questions to contemplate.
the prose is smart, clean, unfussy. our heroes veer towards the nonchalant rather than towards the melodramatic - they are life-sized, not larger-than-life - and so the prose is a perfect match for the characterization. the whole novel is excellent and thoroughly entertaining, but my favorite part may be the opening third - which is basically a two-person trek across an unknown planet. the reader gets to enjoy interesting bits of xenobiology (not delivered via massive world-building infodumps) while Cordelia and Aral's intriguing and entirely sympathetic personalities slowly unfold, to the reader and to each other. it was lovely. "lovely" may be an odd word to use for a novel that encompasses war, assassination, depraved villains, forced drug use, attempted rape, the children of rape, a mental breakdown, and the abandonment of one's home... but Shards of Honor is indeed a lovely thing - a quietly moving experience.



Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga, #7)Barrayar continues and completes the story of former survey ship Captain Cordelia Naismith and her husband Aral Vorkosigan, Regent of Barrayar. it is pretty enjoyable. is Bujold becoming one of my favorite scifi authors? i'm surprised at that realization. her style is not particularly striking, often rather plain and unadorned. i don't usually gravitate to those sorts of writers - the straightforward ones. but her themes, her careful way with characterization, her undramatic recognition of the complexity, fallibility, and occasional heroism of the human species are all things that this usually impartial robot observer finds himself genuinely responding to, with uncharacteristic human warmth.

characterization is clearly Bujold's major strength and this novel supplies ample opportunity for intriguingly multi-leveled characters to shine. in particular Bothari - poor Bothari! - so damaged by life and the terrible things done to him that he has become a person who will take on the persona of whoever he is needed to be. his need for someone to guide him, his craving for validation and for purpose... made so palpable by Bujold.

the first half of the novel is pretty intimate in scale. it mainly concerns various domestic issues (and by "domestic" i mean "in & around the home" rather than "homeland") as Cordelia acclimates to the overly formal, high-strung, and resolutely warlike Barrayaran culture. it feels odd and a little wrong to use the words domestic and intimate when describing a (low-key) space opera whose first half includes two assassination attempts and various other dramatic incidents. but that is the feeling i got and it worked really well. the reader gets to know Barrayar in an unhurried fashion, just like Cordelia. and the reader continues to understand Cordelia in that same deliberate, slowly unfolding sort of a way. i liked the lack of hustle & bustle and i appreciated the calm, unrushed pace.

it all changes in the second part. and so swiftly! from slow acclimatization right into a fast-moving adventure narrative, things happening pell-mell... a flight, a rescue, a secret journey, confrontations, deaths, a raging fire... my gosh, a head gets cut off and carried in a bag to be dramatically tossed onto a boardroom table! awesome. it was incredibly satisfying to see how well Cordelia adapted to her new world, how easily she is able to win others to her side, how passionate and furious and even murderous she can get when dealing with people who have attacked her loved ones. Mother Bear! yet she still stays herself - compassionate, warm-hearted, saddened & angered by the small-mindedness of others. she's an awesome character. and this is a satisfying book.



The Warrior's Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga, #2)ah, Miles. what a great creation he is! clever and sharp-tongued, vaguely ambitious, shorter than most, the opposite of a physical threat, kind and even-tempered, clear-eyed in his self-assessments, a little bit self-sacrificing but not in an eye-rolling way, queasy at the thought of causing others harm, full of both self-doubt and ego, always the girl's trusted best friend rather than the object of her passion, the wittiest man in the room and he knows it but he is going to try to keep that to himself so that you don't get upset and take it out on him in surprise smack-attacks. and he talks and he talks and he talks. i love Miles. his character is usually the supporting character, the hero's best friend, the brother who dies, an amusing cameo. it's a great thing for me to know that there is a whole series practically devoted to this lil' guy. he's endearing i suppose, but i personally don't see him as "endearing" because i don't see him as a cute character type. he feels very real to me. part of that may be due to reading all about his parents in the prior books - i know where Miles comes from, i understand the context, i get how his background informs his present. part of that may be due to how much i empathize with him and his various personal travails.

the novel itself is about Miles leaving his home planet of war-like Barrayar and inadvertedly creating a mercenary army. oops! for me the plot is really secondary to just sitting back and enjoying Miles. the writing is fine, nothing special but certainly nothing problematic either. Bujold veers towards the bland. style is not the selling point in her skill set - readers come to her for the surprisingly grounded and rich characterization. and so The Warrior's Apprentice may have space battles, mercenaries, revolutionaries, mechanized war-suits, etc, but that's almost besides the point. Miles is the point.

Miles - and Bothari. the latter character - a former brainwashed rapist and sadistic torturer who now acts as Miles' bodyguard - is the other big selling point of the novel. Bujold does not downplay his past or excuse it - although in some ways it can be excused (i would say that brainwashing excuses many things) - nor does she overplay his redemption. she gets the character right, she doesn't leave out the ugly or disturbing parts, and yet she still allows the character grace and dignity within his tragic arc. Bujold definitely knows how to write characters that the reader can feel. i felt Bothari, i felt Miles, i felt Elena and Ivan and i am looking forward to feeling the rest of the characters that will be introduced to me in this saga.



The Mountains of Mourningi'm getting old - i'm 42! that is definitely old to a lot of people. happily, i've always felt i was born old so getting older doesn't really bother me. but what does bother me is the idea that in a couple decades my viewpoint may have become so inflexible, so stubbornly outmoded, that my opinion will simply have no value. i think that to be relevant, pretty much every thing and every one needs to be considered as a work in progress. capable of change and adjustment and re-evaluation. fortunately i have met many older people who are fully capable of such things. fully capable of revisiting concepts and laws and ways of interacting with people that are now understood as potentially offensive and demeaning and dehumanizing. i would like me and my age-peers to be that kind of old person. and so, in a way, not really old at all. not a barrier to change, but instead a positive part of the living, breathing, ever-changing world.

but i have also met many older people who are truly "old". who are so stubborn in their narrow viewpoints and who view change as automatically threatening. who uphold disgusting laws and repulsive ways of interacting with people. who live within some nonsensical so-called moral high ground that they had to deal with all of their lives and so everyone should deal with the same. hell no they're not going to change because they've always been this way and plus why should anyone get away with what they never got away with, what gives them the right when they never had that right? it's a simplistic, toxic mind-fuck that they seem to embrace. i can't help but look at those sorts of folks with both pity and scorn. and then wait for them to die - because that's the only change that they can't stop.

so this thoughtful little novella is about Miles Naismith Vorkosigan and his encounters with both types. it is melancholy and tragic and, somehow, uplifting in the end. nice work, Bujold.



Miles be nimble!
Miles be quick!
Miles jump over the candlestick any situation or dumbass that gets in your goddamn way!

Go, Miles, Go!

The Vor Gameso Miles finds himself stuck in a miserable freezing arctic station as his reward for graduating from the Barrayar military acadamy with top honors but also with a serious issue of not treating authority with the respect and passivity and obedience that authority apparently deserves. and from the arctic station he finds himself tossed pell-mell, willy-nilly, etc, right into the middle of a plot teeming with ruthless villains, a young emperor trying to escape his duties, nervous colonies, anxious bodyguards, two mercenary camps, new space gadgets, and reunions galore with characters from prior novels. the novel is fast and fun fun fun.

I suppose one take-away from the series is ALWAYS QUESTION AUTHORITY. nice.

the character of Gregor le petit emperor really comes into his own here. a beautiful bit of characterization and not a little tragic as well.

my favorite part of the novel was the first third, in that freezing arctic station. watching hyperactive Miles practically bounce off of the walls trying to figure out what to do was wonderfully amusing. and the setting was certainly well-rendered. cooooooooold.

there's a spicy lil' villainess just like Miles is a spicy lil' hero. she wears some kind of sexy catsuit. or it may be a jumper but I much prefer to imagine it as a catsuit, plus I really wanted to type the word "catsuit". much like Miles, she has a quick and improvisatory way of thinking, always on the fly and always taking advantage of any opportunity she sees. for some reason the novel takes pains to compare Miles and Catsuit, at times even theorizing that if Miles doesn't watch out, he may end up like the amoral Catsuit sometime in the future. ha! as if. equally key to Miles' persona are his decency and his compassion and his refusal to see death as something that just happens so time to move on. those traits are hallmarks of this book and its predecessors as well. Miles ain't gonna turn into no Catsuit! although I do predict that he will eventually tap that Catsuit.

Ask the Reviewers - Benoit Lelievre

Today's guest is Benoit Lelievre.  Benoit also posts at Dead End Follies.

How did you discover Goodreads?
At the first and last writing conference I've ever been to. Authors Catherine McKenzie and Claude Lalumière mentioned being on it, so I checked it out and been a members ever since. I'm still following the two authors' careers from their Goodreads account also. Catherine is very active, she does a lot of contests and whatnot.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Reading "Most Read Authors" sections that blow me away. Most recently, Charles Gramlich's. If someone I share interests with has read 70 novels by an author and 100 by another, maybe he's on to something I should check out for myself. That's the beauty of literature. Just when you thought you've seen it all, you get hooked into a whole new world. A whole new current.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Caleb J. Ross. He mainly does video reviews, but sometimes he graces Goodreads with his tremendous, accurate insight. He's both pertinent and not intimidating, which I think is a rare gift.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Long story short, not much. I don't think Amazon is that supreme evil people make it out to be. At least not publishing-wise. They are not great by any means either, but they shuffled the board of an industry that abused writers and published crap for money since before them and I think they're making things interesting because other publishers will have to adapt.

Ultimately, the purchase of Goodreads is another step in their takeover of the publishing industry and that could become an issue given a multiple number of what-ifs. But right now, nothing really changed. If status quo remains, it won't change anything except that the business revenue will go in Amazon's pocket instead of whoever owner Goodreads before and that doesn't really affect me.

How many books do you own?
About 600-700. I have two and a half bookshelves filled, two with fiction only. Given the lack of storage in my home, I'll consider doubling up on my shelves' rows. They're big enough for me to do it.

Who is your favorite author?
Dennis Lehane. Many made my heart race, but not quite the way Lehane did. Honorable mention to Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami and Francis Scott Fitzgerald.

What is your favorite book of all time?
That's hard. I'd say it's a tie between Fight Club and Mystic River. The first turned me full-time reading and the second turned me to writing.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
They're fine. I own a Kindle. Most of them are a lot cheaper than paperbacks.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
It's a complicated question. I'm all for it, because as a book reviewer, I was lead to dive head first into the self-publishign revolution. Lots of people don't really understand what it is. Basically, it's powered by Amazon's Kindle Store, which is kind of a thunderdome for writers. Whoever has been unjustly rejected by publishing, feels unjustly rejected by publishing or has written something that was called great, but unpublishable has a fighter's chance there.

For now, it's like a parallel universe to print publishing. You will find a lot of writers who you've never heard about, who make a good name for themselves. People like Vincent Zandri and Dani Amore. The most beautiful part of that is that it's all part of Amazon's marketing plan. They're cherry picking the best selling authors and offering them contracts with their publishing company Thomas & Mercer. It's brilliant and they end up with the best new writers doing that. Self-Publishing and mostly the Kindle Store made the publishing democratic again with prose quality and online buzz being the only two variables that matter.

Any literary aspirations?
Yes. I think it's a normal reaction when you read viscerally and lots of people do that. I have about ten, fifteen short stories published. Crime fiction, mostly. Some published in places like Crime Factory, Needle Magazine and Beat to a Pulp, which I'm pretty proud of. I'm still figuring out how to write something decent that's over 10 000 words, but that's another story.