Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest novel in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. Only the e-ARC (e-book of the advanced reader copy) is available yet; you can find out about it from Bujold’s blog and buy it from the publisher’s website.
Spoilers are in white; highlight to read them.
1) You should read the rest of the series first
The Vorkosigan Saga mostly covers the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan. It has a science fiction setting, where humans have colonised other planets by travelling through wormholes, but the stories include romances, coming-of-age tales, war novels, mysteries, and political thrillers – sometimes several at once. Bujold excels at creating characters that are relatable yet awesome, and for decades – the first book was published in 1986– readers have adored her disabled, ferociously intelligent, hyperactive main character.
I love this series; I want everyone to read it; and I don’t think Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the best place to start. It’s great, but it’s not the best book in the series, and a lot of its emotional impact comes from the culmination of character arcs that began several novels ago. Much of the Vorkosigan Saga can be read online for free, legally; see here for information on how to find it.
2) Ivan is not Miles
Miles was damaged in utero by a poison gas attack aimed at his father. He is five feet tall, has suffered from extreme medical problems all his life, and is determined to succeed in a culture that abhors mutation – and sees him as a mutant. He does this through incredible determination, charisma, intelligence and sheer balls. His catchphrase is “forward momentum”. His ambition is to outdo his father and grandfather, who both played critical roles in determining the fates of three planets for several generations.
Ivan is different. Ivan was born healthy and good-looking, to an overprotective mother and a dead father. His catchphrase is “it’s not my fault”. His ambition is to live a comfortable life. His greatest fear was, until recently, that Emperor Gregor would die without heirs and Ivan, as his closest undamaged relative, would be forced to take his place.
This means that Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which can be thought of as Ivan’s book, is unlike earlier books in the Vorkosigan Saga. Instead of charging into the action, breaking rules and bones along the way, the main characters are dragged unwillingly into a mess of a situation and have to fight their way out of it.
3) The characters are not traditional heroes
The two main characters in this novel are Ivan Xav Vorpatril (Ivan) and Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua (Tej). On the face of it, neither character is hero, or even anti-hero, material. What they are is relatively ordinary, good people thrown into crazy situations by their extraordinary families.
In the previous Vorkosigan Saga books, we have seen Ivan from the point of view of his cousin Miles. Ivan is healthy; Ivan has a traditional role in the military; Ivan has lots of girlfriends; Ivan doesn’t feel the need to develop a split personality to accomplish everything he wants to be. But in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, we finally get to read what it might have been like for Ivan all those years.
‘Gave it up?’ said Ivan. ‘That’s no good. Just because someone else is some sort of natural flaming genius, doesn’t mean you’re an idi…um.’ Um.
Tej is a new character to the series and at the start of the story she has already lost most of her family. However, through flashbacks and the reappearance of the family later on, it becomes clear that this huge tragedy is almost less important than the numerous burdens placed upon her by being ordinary and unambitious in a family that is neither. At age 25, Tej still feels herself bound to promote her family’s interests and fall in with their plans, even though they endanger her life and happiness. At one point she protests against making herself available for a “genetic alliance”.
‘Dada wouldn’t ask me this.’
‘Dada shouldn’t have to ask you this! Isn’t it about time you stopped being such a maddening deadweight in the House?’
4) This is a romance novel
This story very much follows the formula of a romance novel – boy and girl meet, dramatic events happen, boy and girl start liking each other, more drama, happy ending. The focus of the story is on Ivan and Tej’s relationship. There’s even a marriage of convenience. The book is, however, a very good romance novel.
5) The plot is slightly ridiculous
Yes, I loved this book. However, don’t go into it expecting a tightly plotted adventure tale. There are no huge flaws in logic or anything particularly annoying; it’s just that some of the coincidences appear a little contrived. On the other hand, it’s fun, which is why Bujold gets away with it.
6) It’s hilarious
Bujold’s prose is very unobtrusive. The humor doesn’t come from the words themselves, but from the characters, their dialogue, and the situations they find themselves in. Because they are described so well, it’s as funny as if you were actually there – and often a lot funnier than the characters find it.
That said, this book isn’t frivolous; the funny parts generally play an important part in developing the characters. There are many parts which are almost-funny and almost-heartbreaking, with one balancing out the other.
In my opinion, the best scene of the novel is when Ivan and Tej try to obtain a divorce (which they agreed to do before getting married) but are denied. No quote can do it justice – you have to read the book to appreciate it fully.
7) You should read it
This book is great, but it’s not perfect. If you have the willpower (unlike me) it’s probably worth waiting for the price to drop, which will hopefully happen after the official release. However, assuming you enjoy one of the following, it is well worth buying eventually:
- the Vorkosigan Saga
- romance novels
- science fiction
It’s funny, the characters are adorable, and the plot is entertaining.
There’s no need to worry about buying the ARC copy – I didn’t notice any errors at all.
Reread score: 3+