Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2012

Some reviewers have the common courtesy to review previous books in a series before diving right into reviewing a sequel; as you can see here, here, and here, just for example, I'm not one of those, so read on at your own peril.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is, depending on how you count it*, the fourteenth entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, a long-running space opera extraordinaire following the adventures of a highly dysfunctional, highly intelligent, and highly entertaining family of aristocratic military crazies who range across the known galaxy, leaving broken hearts and mayhem in their wakes. Most of the books focus on Lord Miles Vorkosigan, born short and deformed due to his mother's gestational exposure to a military biotoxin. His tactical genius and talent for intrigue let him get away with having a lot more fun than he probably ought to be able to.

From reading reviews of other books in this series, I've noticed that some readers are annoyed with Bujold's habit of writing the books entirely out of their in-universe chronological order**, despite the fact that she provides a handy-dandy chronological list in the back of each book for those among us too stupid to figure it out for themselves. I happen to like this. Some of the books cover pivotal turning points in the main characters' lives; others are a little less important to the overall plot arc, and I love it when Bujold goes back and fills in some gap in the history she's told so far.

This is somewhere in between. It's almost a standalone title, since it follows Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Miles's cousin and an important secondary character in most of the other books, but it also includes far too many in-jokes related to the previous books to be a good intro to the series as a whole.

As the in-jokes (and Bujold's dry, witty sense of humor in general) are one of this series's greatest charms, I would highly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series all the way through. And not just for that reason; the earlier books are much better than this one for a whole host of reasons, the series-itis that afflicts Captain Vorpatril's Alliance being first among them.

I've written about series-itis before, when I reviewed Charlaine Harris's Deadlocked. This is a phenomenon that primarily manifests as flatness in previously well-rounded characters, perhaps better expressed as characters becoming caricatures of themselves. While Alliance isn't as bad in this regard as Deadlocked or the latest Stephanie Plum book, it definitely veers in that direction. (For those readers who are already familiar with this series, Emperor Gregor is the worst victim here.)

It's too bad that this book suffers from such a major flaw, because it's otherwise a good entry in the series. The last, Cryoburn, took a bizarre left-turn into a completely different narrative style from the rest of the series. Some people (you know who you are) really enjoyed that book; it left me exhausted, both from the effort of pretending I wasn't disappointed and from the clearly cathartic emotions the author poured onto the pages. Worse, it really suffered from series-itis, because there was no damn way in the world anyone would give a damn about it if they hadn't already read the rest of the books. The main character's struggles -- and particularly the struggle he encounters at the end, though I'm trying not to give a spoiler here -- have no emotional resonance taken out of context of his previous experiences.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance reverts back, in tone, to A Civil Campaign (which is, both chronologically and in the order the books were written, a couple of books before Alliance). The title character's marriage (as the title would indicate) is central to the story, and this marriage brings with it a pack of genetically modified and pseudo-criminal in-laws, a couple of awkward formal parties, and the utter destruction of a historical landmark. In other words, Bujold at her farcical comedy-cum-occasional tragedy best. As a result, this entry in the series was stronger. I appreciate what Bujold was doing with Cryoburn, but it just didn't showcase Bujold's strengths.

As an unapologetic nerdy fan of all things space opera***, I've always loved the Vorkosigan Saga. There are quite a few books to which I'd give, again, an unapologetic five stars, and most would get four. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance scrapes a three and three quarters -- not that such a rating isn't respectable, mind you. It's just not up to Bujold's standard for this series.

With deep regret, feeling as I do that this recommendation marks the end of an era: Lois McMaster Bujold, this should be the last of the Vorkosigan books. Leave this series behind while you're still arguably on top.

* A couple of the books I've included could reasonably be counted as a different series, sort of, and I've also left out a couple of books that are tangentially part of the same series. Feel free to debate passionately amongst yourselves.

** For any of those readers who happen to stumble on this review: get over yourself, princess.

*** My ultimate dream is to see Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen performed by someone in a mugato costume, but I'm not holding my breath.
Just imagine the poison-fanged soprano goodness.

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