I actually read this book a couple of weeks ago, and have been pondering the review ever since. I really like Lois McMaster Bujold’s work (she would be the author). However I have been avoiding her books for the last couple of years.
For starters, most of the Vorkosigan series, which this book is part of, have either subtle or unsubtle parenting analogies. Major plot points. This can sometimes be ok, and sometimes not.
Secondly, and I think this one matter more, one of the main themes (unconscious to begin with I suspect) is the impact that changing reproductive technology can have on a society. This is pretty explicitly discussed now. One of the central pieces of technology in this universe is a uterine replicator. Civilised worlds do not see many body births anymore, most people use the replicator. Many of the plot points through the series have elements that rely on this. The main world, Barrayar, is one that was cut off from galactic civilisation for centuries, and as a result retreated into feudalism. The impact of the uterine replicator on this society is subtly rippling out. The impact on the wider galaxy has been one that allows for significant genetic modification, in very interesting ways. While this is a very pertinent and interesting issue to focus on, it is somewhat hard to read, because now one of my reaction is jealousy over the replicators. If those were available, much of my issues would be gone. It sounds so petty, but it is true.
So, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a book I was fairly certain would not be heavy (some of the books in the series are darker than others) and would not be overly focused on the parenting metaphors. It is the story of Ivan Vorpatril, who is the cousin and foil of the main hero of the series, Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is an extremely bright physically disabled individual. He has compensated for significant damage done in utero (his mother was poisoned) by being an overacheiver, in a society that is very very hostile to birth defects. Ivan has always been the contrast, perfectly formed, charming to women but not that bright. Ivan was the comic relief in many of the novels, although in later ones he has started to develop more personality.
This is the story of Ivan in love. It turns out that he isn’t stupid, he just isn’t as fiercely intelligent as his cousin, and he has cultivated the art of being bland and not triggering political maneuvering. This is necessary because both he and Miles are potential heirs to the Emporer, and subject to plots.
The story opens on Komarr, a conquered planet subject to Barrayaran rule. Ivan, who serves as an aide to a high level military man, is asked by another cousin to seek out and protect a young woman. He is only on Komarr for a short stay, an inspection of spaceships. She turns out to be a little paranoid, and he ends up as her (and her sister’s) captive. In the process he foils an attack on them, and is forced to take them back to his apartment in order to keep them safe. He thinks everything has been smoothed over, then everyone descends- the cousin who sent him after them, the immigration officials, the local police. In a panic, to ensure that neither he nor the two women are taken away he proposes to her. (I’ve forgotten her name and am too lazy to go and find the book !) They have a hasty traditional marriage with the cousin and her sister as witnesses (traditional for Barrayar) and she is now protected as his wife.
This foils more than one plot. Then he, his wife and her sister head back to Barrayar along with his boss and the assorted military contingent. The two women are refugees from another planet. Their parents ran one of the Houses on this planet which is a planet full of criminal syndicate organisations. Their House was aggressively taken over and they are on the run, not sure where their family is.
So Ivan is offering shelter. Once they return to Barrayar, they learn exactly who he is, and where he fits in the puzzle- not quite the unobtrusive fall guy they thought he was. Then their family shows up, both to “rescue” her, and to dig up some long lost treasure. The plot becomes a bit of a madcap comedy at this point.
Essentially both the heroine and Ivan are the non-ambitious underacheivers of their families, but have to work hard to convince their families to accept them for who they are and allow the marriage to continue.
I enjoyed the book. It’s light and entertaining and allows us to catch up on one of the more significant characters from the series. I really like the way the author uses different perspectives on the same story. One of the more interesting segments is a story of Ivan’s birth, in the midst of a civil war. Long time readers will already know this story from an earlier book, Barrayar. The perspective in that book is Cordelia Vorkosigan, and here it is Alys Vorpatril. The tale is slightly different. Bujold has done this with other stories and characters, and I like it, because it is a reflection of how life is, we all see different stories.
Another enjoyable element, especially after reading romances, is the acknowledgment of sex but the lack of sex scenes. Badly written sex scenes can be very jarring, particularly when the book is focused on elements other than the relationship. Dated sex scenes can cause undue hilarity as our preferences for wording change Sex is acknowledged, and exists, but is not overly described. It’s nice to see a relationship develop through the emotions of the participants, not their lust at first sight.
It could be read as a standalone, but for full enjoyment, is best read as part of the continuum. If you are looking to start the series, I would recommend starting with The Warrior’s Apprentice. It isn’t the first in chronological terms, but it is the best introduction. the first in chronological terms is Shards of Honor- and it is a tough read.