Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — and my journey into the Vorkosiverse

The Ivan Book is out! Or at least available from Baen in e-arc. I think I’ve figured out what I’m reading on my Kindle while travelling tomorrow. 😉 It’s always exciting to wake up and realize that the book you thought you wouldn’t read until October is a click and fifteen dollars away….

The Vorkosigan Saga is a series that I’ve fallen for, and hard, in the last year and a half or so. It started with an offhand reference on some website comparing the relationships of Raoul of Goldenlake from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books to those of Aral Vorkosigan from the Saga not quite named for him. I went ahead and Googled and came across a character profile from Jo Walton’s fabulous series of articles on the series of books (dative very important there.) Looking back at the article, I don’t think I really read it at that point, but two things struck me: 1. that there were people — published authors — writing in depth character studies on this pretty mid-list series and 2. the fantastic quote from Aral’s son who says, “He isn’t like anything, he’s the original.” Intrigued, I headed to the Wikipedia page for the series, skimmed through to get a general sense, checked on TV Tropes and saw the indication that the books were funny, and mentally filed the information. I think this was roughly in January, during winter break. I figured I would look at the books when I had a chance. That March, on the way either to or from home during spring break, I picked up the Omnibus Miles, Mutants, and Microbes, which contains the novels Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity and the novella Labyrinth.

Falling Free was an introduction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, and I liked it very much as a stand-alone work. It didn’t, however, really get me hooked on the Saga — it’s only loosely connected, as it takes place approximately 200 years before the rest of the Saga begins. Many of the connections — uterine replicators, Beta Colony — only resonated upon rereading it after reading the rest of the Saga. Diplomatic Immunity, one of the later books in the series, is more firmly rooted in the Saga, surrounding the adventures of one rather petite Barrayaran Lord Auditor, the irrepressible Lord Miles Vorkosigan, and his wife Ekaterin and an assortment of characters/sidekicks/innocent bystanders both new and old of the type that Miles — actually, the Vorkosigan family in general — tend to collect. I found the novel at various points funny and charming and exciting and enjoyed it. I still had a mental note to try more Vorkosigan Saga novels later. Sometime. It wasn’t pressing or anything. As clear evidence of this, I had Labyrinth remaining unread as I completed the second half of the semester. Sure, I had classes and lots of school reading during that time, but I was also read several rather long-winded and heavy works of literature then — think Zhviago, Notre Dame de Paris — so I  certainly could have managed the novella if sufficiently motivated. By the time finals were wrapping up and I was packing up, I felt like something a little lighter, and while surfing the web, I came across the Baen Free Library. Awesome site, by the way, and other publishers should totally take note. (And yes, I just said awesome and totally in the same sentence. I also read Pasternak and Hugo. It’s all good, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.)

I read Mountains of Mourning and fell hard. I read Warrior’s Apprentice, on the same site, and gobbled it up, but mostly delighted in the parts on “Admiral Miles Naismith”/Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan’s home planet of Barrayar. (Medieval Ruritania. In Space. With linguistic conflict. And secret police. And fabulously strong women who are fabulously strong despite it all and who are changing Barrayar, really, I promise.) I returned to Labyrinth and found that I could fall just as hard for Admiral Naismith’s space-based adventures. (Yes, the books have lots of confusing identity issues. Yes, they’re even more confusing for the characters.) And then I acquired another omnibus volume, Cordelia’s Honor, containing the first books in the chronological order of the main series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. I fell and I fell hard all over again. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, the mother of Miles, wife of the aforementioned Aral, and protagonist of the first two novels of the main Saga. Cordelia is one of those characters for whom epic is more than just teenager-y hyperbole. She may not have launched a thousand ships with her face, but she most certainly did with her force of will, intelligence, and (yes, Cordelia) even honor. She’s a scientist, an explorer, a reluctant soldier who’s no less strong for her reluctance, and an incredibly caring friend, wife, and eventually mother. She’s a woman who quite literally changes worlds on her “shopping” trip and she manages to effect changes on Ruritanian Barrayar even as she hails from progressive Beta Colony, a sort of Berkely-cum-The Netherlands-cum-Sweden of a planet.

Ivan Vorpatril is Cordelia’s nephew, or something close enough, and the son of another one of Barrayar’s force to be reckoned with grande dames, Lady Alys Vorpatril. Ivan’s related to Cordelia through her husband, Aral Vorkosigan. Aral Vorkosigan’s titles, official and loathed and unofficial (you could make a Venn Diagram there) are too varied to ever combine in one breath, though LMB comes close in a few points. He’s Count Vorkosigan, one of the highest of the high Vor lords; Admiral Vorkosigan, the youngest to reach that rank; the Conqueror of Komarr or Butcher thereof (it comes down to POV there); Hero of Escobar (or…something); Lord Regent of the Barrayaran Imperium and virtual dictator of three planets; Prime Minister of Barrayar after Emperor Gregor reached his minority; and even more later. Oh, and he has a better claim to the throne in his own right than said emperor, though the Vorkosigans and Vorpatrils don’t like to talk about that, thankyouverymuch. (Except when they do.) Basically, he’s a tough act to follow as a son, and he may be an even harder act to follow as a nephew, particularly when you consider his son’s approach to the problem. (Treason laws? What treason laws? I’ll become an admiral earlier! And change even more worlds!) The importance of Uncle Aral being Uncle Aral isn’t just that he’s the Prime Minister when Ivan comes of age, though, or the ex-Lord Regent, or the man whose name inspire fear, loathing, and grudging respect throughout the galaxy. It’s that both Aral and Ivan’s father Padma were the descendants of Barrayar’s favorite historical Emperor, Dorca. So that claim to the Imperium Aral likes to tidily ignore? Ivan has just as strong of one, perhaps even stronger when one considers that Ivan is a handsome and strong young soldier never accused of murdering any wives or foreign governments or harboring any “mutie” genes. Ivan’s approach to the problem involves doing exactly what he has to and no more and generally playing as stupid as he can get away with. He may be charming and funny and have an enviable way with women, but “That idiot Ivan” and “Ivan, you idiot!” are recurring jokes throughout the series, though he has on many an occasion shown glimpses of greater depths. When his cousin-with-the-very-different-approach Miles asks if he considers himself an innocent bystander, Ivan sighs, God knows I try to be.”

Ivan’s always a supporting character, though A Civil Campaign is partially from his point of view. But like all the best supporting characters, he never quite just supports. He intrigues and distracts the reader, inspiring questions and speculation and strong opinions.

Basically, Ivan has his own book!!!! 😀 😀 😀 And there’s more Vorkosigan Saga!!! 😀 😀 😀 But also, if you like really character-driven, character-centric series, consider picking up the Vorkosigan Saga even if you normally don’t care for science fiction. There are many possible starting points, and I’m happy to advise if you give some indication of your usual literary preferences, but they really have a lot more to offer than the covers or publishing company might suggest.

A side note for any pre-existing Vorkosigan Saga fans out there: yesterday I found out that I’m allergic to a class or two of sedatives and I have idiosyncratic drug reactions. (Well, yes, Kelsi and Lizzie probably could have helped them figure that out a bit faster, but somehow the dots didn’t connect that Benadryl = sedative until it was a bit on the late side.) Those phrases seemed vaguely familiar but it wasn’t until I was reading about CVA this morning that it clicked. Miles! At least I didn’t recite Richard III in its entirety, so my parents were spared what poor Duv had to endure….

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Rereading

Looking back through my lists of books read from the last year or so, I see some patterns. I’ve read Macbeth five or six times. I read my favorites of Eva Ibbotson’s adult novels (A Countess Below Stairs; Morning Gift) more times than my records show, because last summer I wasn’t recording rereads fully. I’ve been through the entire Vorkosigan Saga several times, which I really don’t have an excuse for — I only discovered those novels last year! I’ve reached for Harry Potter in times of physical stress (wisdom teeth removal; a stomach flu that wouldn’t go away experienced at a remove of 5000+ miles from home.) I’ve revisited books like Jane Eyre that, while certainly Great-with-the-big-almost-Adler-approved-G, aren’t even among my favorites. I went for some vacation rereads of a selected array of Tamora Pierce novels, much like I’ve done every year since I was ten. I’ve reread books almost back to back with the initial read. And the lists don’t even show the many, many times I revisited favorite or informative or otherwise familiar passages, chapters, sections, without reading the entire work.

This wasn’t remotely unusual for me. In fact, it was probably reigned in considerably by the fact that I spent most of the year in a foreign country, away from my home library. I reread books. I always have. When I was very small, before I knew how to read, I would beg my parents to reread the same books — not just the typical picture books, read until memorized, but longer works. I heard The Wizard of Oz several times before I managed to read it for myself at six or seven. Once I could read myself, I continued to reread incessantly. Part of this was feeding my voracious appetite for books in my childhood — even with the many trips to the bookstore and library, I could never keep myself in fresh reading material. But there was more to it. I loved revisiting familiar characters, language, and stories.  I delighted in discovering something new about works I had already enjoyed. It wasn’t only the classics that held new treasures for each read, though oh, how those books did. It was never about memory — I often remember books I’ve read only once as well as those I’ve repeated my visits to. It was about the experience. You wouldn’t listen to a song you liked only once, I reasoned, would you? (We’ll save my habit of playing the exact same song 400 times on repeat on iTunes until I drive everyone around me absolutely insane another time. 😉 )

But there was something more to it. I reread some books until they almost fell apart. There were some books I read until they almost fell apart, surely having discovered any depths they contained. But the experience was still there. Reading them was — is — like visiting an old friend. Yes, it’s a cliche — Some of My Best Friends Were Books and all that. But for bookish children it’s a reality. Books could be, as I alluded to in my story of the last year, a source of great comfort for me. In elementary school, when I was sick but well enough to read, I read The Wizard of Oz. It was one of my absolute favorites and reading it again became a comforting little ritual. Rereading is, indeed, very comfortable.

Sometimes now I’m torn about rereading. For the most part, I don’t worry about rereading the classics (the Great Books, whatever you wish to call them.) You’re supposed to reread the classics. Calvino suggests that at a certain age, the classics become those books you only want to admit to rereading, not reading. While I think that might be more applicable in a certain European intellectual milieu than in general North American culture (by, you know, a lot) no one will really say there’s anything wrong with your rereading The Illiad or Hamlet a second time, unless they adequately steeped in anti-intellectualism to oppose reading those in the first time. Even then, I wonder about excess. It was great that I reread Macbeth a first time this year, making for two reads in my life, but rereading it six times, some of those only a few weeks apart? When I haven’t even really grappled with King Lear?

And the popular literature is harder to justify. Alright, I reread Harry Potter. Everyone does that in my generation. Even people I know who don’t like to read, went through the series twice. That’s an acceptable aberration to a general pattern of not rereading. But I’m not just rereading Harry Potter. I have a number of series I’ve reread many times, and even more individual books. Part of the reason I own so many books is precisely because I reread them, and I intend to reread them when I buy them. I would venture to say I’ve reread most of my collection. These books aren’t all Great or Good. But they provide me with something, and they can provide it more than once.

Ultimately, I suppose, I compromise. I do reread. But I keep an eye on it and, unless I’m in a foreign country without access to much English language literature in pre-Kindle days (hello Holy Mother Russia), I strive to strike a balance between reading new-to-me books and rereading. Because there is a very real way in which rereading means not discovering a new book, not reading something else, not creating those new favorites, and it’s not sustainable or desirable or practical. I have too many books I want to read not to read new works. But I also need my comfort, and benefit from my re-explorations, and I’ll keep doing that. I think the ratios work out, in the end. Sometimes I read only new books, as I discover the delights of a new library or get hooked on a new author or delve into a topic. Other times, I throw caution to the wind and reread without any guilt, because that’s what I need. Right now, I’ve been mostly reading new books, even though I’ve just returned home to my familiar collection, because there are so many things I want to read. (Well, not counting the airplane ride home. Or listening to the delightful Harry Potter audiobooks courtesy of Oxfordshire Overdrive.) But I have a medical procedure this morning and I know that when I get back this afternoon, if I’m up to reading anything, it’s going to be something old hat.

Any thoughts? Do you reread? Do you think I should reread less?

What’s Whimsical Desperation?

UNDERSHAFT. Well, have you seen everything? I’m sorry I was called away. [Indicating the telegrams] News from Manchuria.

STEPHEN. Good news, I hope.

UNDERSHAFT. Very.

STEPHEN. Another Japanese victory?

UNDERSHAFT. Oh, I don’t know. Which side wins does not concern us here. No: the good news is that the aerial battleship is a tremendous success. At the first trial it has wiped out a fort with three hundred soldiers in it.

CUSINS [from the platform] Dummy soldiers?

UNDERSHAFT. No: the real thing. [Cusins and Barbara exchange glances. Then Cusins sits on the step and buries his face in his hands. Barbara gravely lays her hand on his shoulder, and he looks up at her in a sort of whimsical desperation]. Well, Stephen, what do you think of the place?

STEPHEN. Oh, magnificent. A perfect triumph of organization. Frankly, my dear father, I have been a fool: I had no idea of what it all meant–of the wonderful forethought, the power of organization, the administrative capacity, the financial genius, the colossal capital it represents. I have been repeating to myself as I came through your streets “Peace hath her victories no less renowned than War.” I have only one misgiving about it all.

–George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara