Thursday, December 1, 2016

Brothers In Arms - Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers In Arms is a novel in Lois McMaster Bujold’s extensive “Vorkosigan Saga” sci-fi series. I’ve been working my way back through the series this year, and in large part, it’s been as good as I recall.

The majority of the text takes place on Earth, which hasn’t really turned up in the series before now. Rather than Compared to the exotic allure of the Cetagandan Empire in the previous volume, Earth feels at once more prosaic, more familiar – and distinctly different to the worlds we’ve visited before. This is a world of embassies, of diplomatic overtures and quiet, dignified assasinations. Here, it seems, is the place to be if you need to do some really good shopping – from living clothes to starships. Earth is an amalgamation of cultures, drawing in influences from everywhere around it. 

Admittedly, the reader is limited, largely, to shopping centres and embassy compounds – but seeing the allies and enemies of the previous books left dealing with each other across a third party is intriguing. Both Barrayarans and Cetagandans are keen to avoid a war – but can’t resist doing a bit of back-handed blackmail, violence and occasional diplomacy at the same time. There’s the feeling of a cold war conflict coursing through the setting, reminiscent of classics like The Third Man – with a fair degree of cloak and dagger antics on display (or not, as the case may be).

Miles is conflicted, perhaps more than ever. After some time spent with his mercenary troops, he’s back under the government’s thumb, trying to explain why, amongst other things, he needs quite so much money. He’s thoroughly energetic, but still caught in the desire to make something of himself, to be something – if he can work out what that is. To live up to his famous parents, to have access to power, to change the universe – these are all things that can be done by Miles as a mercenary admiral, but perhaps not as Miles Vorkosigan, Barrayaran junior officer. On the other hand, the Vorkosigan name is at the core of Miles’ self-belief – he struggles to match up to the examples he would have to renounce in order to match. It’s taking its toll here, as he sometimes drifts toweard being subtly schizophrenic, a man not entirely sure who he is, but also not certain who it is he would like to be.

He’s backed up here by the long-suffering Ivan, who is determined to avoid as much of Miles’ shenanigans as possible. Ivan remains a delightful straight man in the face of Miles’ mania –and an excellent contrast for the reader. They’re joined by the eternally competent Elli Quinn (fresh from her role in Ethan of Athos). Elli remains straightforward, honest, and with a streak of ruthlessness against her enemies. Between them, she and Ivan make unlikely but effective body-men for Miles, who uses them both unapologetically and effectively – though with a degree of affection on all sides.

They’re faced by a string of antagonists – though I’ll leave exactly who they are and what their goals are out of this review, for the sake of spoilers. That said, Bujold has pulled out the stops to provide a cool, calculating antagonist with a long term view, and a willingness to use harsh and outright lethal approaches to get what they want. There are some more sympathetic characters on this side of the line as well, and a few that seem to straddle the space between allies and enemies for Miles. Quite whom to trust, and what their end goals actually are, remains somewhat shrouded, even to the last.

On that basis, the plot rockets along rather nicely. There’s a brief lull at the start, as we’re brought up to speed and introduced to the world, but quite soon there’s what feels like a myriad of plots being juggled – and a steadily ratcheting tension, as Miles tries to work out what’s going on, and why it’s happening quite so explosively. This one is largely a slow burner, an investigation into hidden secrets – and a character study, with some top notch dialogue between Miles and his foes, which reveals quite a lot about both sides in the process.

Is it worth reading? If you’re invested in the Vorkosigan saga to this point then I’d say yes, it’s worth your time. If you’re coming to it new, there’s perhaps a little too much assumed knowledge to make for a straightforward read. It’s still a decent standalone novel, but it really should be read after the works which precede it. 

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