Monday, October 14, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1991 The Vor Game

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 10/11/2013, reviewed 10/14/2013
2 stars

Miles Vorkosigan, a recent military academy graduate, gets assigned to a lousy post as an ensign at an arctic weather station on his home planet of Barrayar.  Always the upstart, Miles survives an intense confrontation with the base commander and is transferred to Imperial Security to investigate suspicious military build-up near a wormhole port.   He gets caught in interplanetary intrigue as well as finding his accidently missing friend Gregor, the Barrayaran emperor. 

Sounds like fun, no?  No.  It’s JATSO:  just another tedious space opera.

“The Vor Game” is the 6th book in the (still) continuing saga of the Vorkosigan family.  It is also an expansion of a previously published novella.  The novella consisted of the first six chapters, Miles’ assignment to the Artic station of Kyril Island.  The ensuing interplanetary intrigue comprises the rest of the novel.  Thus, the book reads like two stories in one.  Unfortunately, Miles adventures on Kyril Island are great, while the interplanetary intrigue is boring.

Kyril Island is cold and remote.  Most of the activity on the island consists of tedious duties, alcoholism, and dangerous pranks.  Miles spends much of his time trying to keep himself from going crazy from the boredom while trying to avoid interaction with the bitter and possibly insane base commander. 

This part of the book was my favorite.  Miles is forced to deal with various adverse situations.  In the midst of this, he discovers a dead body frozen in a drainage pipe.  This gives you the feeling that the unfolding events are setting the scene for an intriguing mystery.  This is where you begin to learn who Miles is and what he is made of.  Granted, he appeared in several books before this one, so there is a lot about him we miss by not reading all the books in the series.  But you do get some pretty strong character development during his time on Kyril. 

However, the story line with the dead body is abandoned, the conflict the evil commander is (partially) resolved, and Miles is whisked away to a new adventure.   This plot device feels completely contrived.  It’s as if Bujold thought to herself, “My fans will be bored with this Miles on Kyril Island.  They want action, space battles, pirates, seduction, and betrayal.  I better fall back on the plots of my previous books.”  And fall back she does.  The whole second section brings back and inundates you with old characters and story lines.  And at the same time, she creates a terribly convoluted double-double-cross “game.”

I had the opportunity to read Barrayar first.  I loved the book.  It was written after “The Vor Game,” but the action takes place with Miles' pregnant mother, Cordelia.  It is the second book about Cordelia.  Yet “Barrayar” stands on its own.  Even though it often references the earlier novel, it doesn’t overwhelm you with it, developing the plot and characters on its own.  It is what space opera should be.

“Vor Game,” in contrast, never finds its own voice.  Miles never gets to be more than an action hero.  There are some moments which come together, particularly in the scenes with Gregor, the emperor he grew up with.  It’s where you generally see a more human Miles.  I don’t just mean simply seeing him with emotions, but as a three-dimensional character. 

Miles is created so interestingly:  the child of Barrayar’s regent and prime minister, his growth stunted and bones made brittle because of surviving in-utero exposure to a deadly toxin, and growing up with the child emperor as a foster-brother.  He also has an alter-ego as Admiral Naismith from a previous novel, who acquires command of a huge mercenary space fleet and leads them to an interplanetary victory.  The rub is that he can’t ever talk about this accomplishment because it’s classified.  So he’s stuck as an ensign with a huge ego and alter-ego.  Lots of great fodder, right?  But instead of going somewhere profound, the book just falls flat.  Even the dialogue becomes trite.  (BEWARE, the next sentence is a SPOILER, but, really, it’s not like you don’t see it coming)  When the nemesis is foiled at the end, you can just hear her shouting, “Curses! Curses!”  She even threatens to turn Miles into “hamburger.”  I audibly groaned when I read that tripe. 

I gave this book two stars, all on the strength of the first six chapters.  The rest is a Saturday morning cartoon.  Of the three Hugo-winning Vorkosigan books, I have one more left, “Mirror Dance.”  The premise sounds good.  I’m praying it’s more interesting than this piece of pulp.

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