The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Anthony G Williams

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However they are fiction and they are well (engagingly) written and I do enjoy them. But they are not the great military masterpieces that they are often presented as.
If you want that, try Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series. The author was a naval officer, and it shows.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
Not sure which condition you're referring to, Vertigo, in Mirror Dance?

I'm reading Memory at the moment. I'm not sure I quite agree. He is cashiered by the military and does not regain his military career in any guise. His role with the Emperor is a personal one granted, mostly, because of his role in the aristocracy and by an Emperor who is a personal friend. But it's not a military role - that's made clear. And it's also made clear that he is going to have to continue to function in the social sphere since he is going to be a count one day, and has done nothing to lose that role. (I suppose, technically, he is offered the intelligence role, which he refused. But it's made clear if he took it he still would not have a military position with it.)

The only book I've had major plot problems with is Cetaganda. Also, as you say she's not writing a military series and anyone who says she is is missing the point of the books, I think. She's writing a fun series that shouldn't be taken too seriously, and enjoyed for what it is.
 

Vertigo

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Agree absolutely with your last point Springs and for that they are great and I'd also recommend Mike Shepherd's Kris Longknife series for something similar, although they are possibly slightly less plausible again but still good fun reads.

What I'm getting at here is, personal friend or no, Miles would not be forgiven, and he would certainly have lost his Dendariis; no mercenary would ever work for someone who had endangered them in that way. I'm not sure a non-military person can fully appreciate the level of betrayal that his behaviour represents - I was truly horrified by that whole part of the book. As I say it angered me and definitely spoiled that book for me and is probably why I have taken so long to move onto the next one. Which I will do, as they are enjoyable light reads.

Anthony, agree on the Lost Fleet series, I found them one of the more realistic military SF series, though I do think Weber's HH books come close with only a little more handwavium. I've not read the follow on series yet but plan to get to them soon.
 

Werthead

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Book 7: Brothers in Arms

The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).
 

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Book 8: Mirror Dance

Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural. The novel is available now as part of the Miles Errant omnibus (UK, USA).
 

Werthead

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Book 9: Memory

A horrendous error of judgement sees Miles Vorkosigan summoned back to Barrayar to face disciplinary measures from his superior, head of Imperial Security Simon Illyan. As Miles contemplates a future outside of the military, he becomes aware of a growing crisis in ImpSec. Things are going wrong and the cause may be to horrible to contemplate...

Memory is, chronologically, the tenth out of fourteen books* in The Vorkosigan Saga and marks an important turning point in the series. For the previous eight volumes Miles Vorkosigan as been masquerading as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, carrying out missions for the Barrayan military with total deniability. In Memory that abruptly comes to an end after Miles - suffering the after-effects of his death, cryo-freeze and revival in Mirror Dance - inadvertently slices the legs off a fellow agent he is supposed to be rescuing and then covers it up. The result is the most game-changing novel in the series. Such long-running series tend to do well out of stasis, maintaining the status quo and bringing readers back each time to enjoy the same cast of characters and the same format. Whisking that away can be creatively liberating for the author, but dangerous if the change does not go down well with fans.

In this case the change is well-judged, although it takes a while to execute. At a bit less than 500 pages Memory joins Mirror Dance as one of the longest novels in the series, but it's also a lot less active a book than its forebear. Mirror Dance had multiple POV characters, clandestine infiltrations, full-scale combat missions and a huge amount of character development packed into its pages. Memory, fitting its title, is more relaxed and reflective a novel. It gives Miles a chance to dwell on everything that's happened to him and what he is going to do with his life now his default position has been snatched away.

This reflective mode works well for a while, but it starts to bog down the book. As amusing as seeing Miles tackling getting a pet cat, hiring a new cook or going fishing is, it goes on for a bit too long. When the mystery kicks in and Miles is granted extraordinary powers by the Emperor to sort things out, it's a relief and soon the mystery is unfolding nicely. However, the longueurs at the start of the book lead to the investigation and resolution taking place quite rapidly and a little too neatly. There also isn't much personal jeopardy for Miles. This may be the point, as the book is more about Miles's growth and maturing as a character, but there is the feeling that this story could have been told a little more effectively as a novella. That said, it does bring about some dramatic changes in the set-up of the series and is among the best-written books in the series.

Memory (****) opens slow but finishes strong and succeeds in its task of resetting the series and giving Miles a new job to do. It is available now in the UK and USA.
* If you count Falling Free, which is set in the same universe centuries earlier but isn't part of the core saga.
 

Werthead

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Book 10: Komarr

Komarr, second world of the Barrayaran Empire, is slowly being terraformed over the course of centuries. Key to the terraforming effort is an orbiting soletta, a massive mirror which increases the amount of sunlight being directed onto the surface. When the soletta is damaged by a spacecraft collision, the future viability of the planet is put in jeopardy. Newly-anointed Imperial Adjudicator Miles Vorkosigan is sent to investigate whether this was an accident or deliberate sabotage.

Komarr is the first novel in the series to focus on Miles Vorkosigan in his new role as an Imperial Adjudicator. Bujold wanted to freshen things up by taking Miles away from his support network of thousands of loyal soldiers and a fleet of powerful starships and it's a move that could have been mishandled. The loss of most of Miles's supporting cast from the Dendarii Mercenaries (who only warrant cameo appearances and the occasional mention from now on) is a blow and it was initially unclear if Miles as a (mostly) solo investigator is a compelling enough idea to replace the military SF feel of the earlier novels.

Komarr lays those fears to rest. This a well-written, crisply-paced and masterfully characterised novel. Bujold develops a new POV character in the form of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a young woman and mother married to a difficult husband involved in the terraforming project. Komarr has the reputation of being a "romance novel", with Ekaterin brought in as a serious love interest for Miles, whose relationships up until now have mostly been more like casual flings and friends-with-benefits arrangements. However, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Komarr as a light or frivolous book because of this.

Instead, Komarr is a serious book about adult relationships, motivations and fulfilment, and it layers those themes into a thriller storyline involving betrayal, murder and intrigue. Bujold has said she enjoys writing about "grown-ups", and the romance in the novel is between two adults who have been through the wars (literally and figuratively) and find something in each other they like and respect, but have to overcome personal issues before they can turn that mutual attraction into something more tangible. It's an approach rooted in character that works effectively without overshadowing the SF thriller storyline, which has all the required twists and turns of a solid mystery before Miles and Ekaterin can resolve the problem.

Komarr (****) is a solid entry in The Vorkosigan Saga which sets the books on a new course and does so effectively. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).
 

psikeyhackr

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Book 10: Komarr

Instead, Komarr is a serious book about adult relationships, motivations and fulfilment, and it layers those themes into a thriller storyline involving betrayal, murder and intrigue.
Strictly speaking there were no murders. But Komarr involves something that almost no reviews mention, a callously scientific universe. This story contains an aspect similar to Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations, the universe works the way it works. It does not care how we want it to work. It can kill you if you get it wrong.

psik
 

Bugg

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I could be wrong, but it looks like at least the first couple of books are going to be re-issued, starting January 2016, with new cover art. About time, I think, cos some/most of the existing covers are truly awful, imo.

Vorkosigan - shards-of-honor-9781476781105_hr.jpg Vorkosigan - barrayar-9781476781112_hr.jpg
 

Vertigo

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For all that I like many of Baen's principles and they way they operate, I've always thought their covers to be generally pretty tacky.
 

psikeyhackr

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I could be wrong, but it looks like at least the first couple of books are going to be re-issued, starting January 2016, with new cover art. About time, I think, cos some/most of the existing covers are truly awful, imo.

View attachment 23728 View attachment 23729
What's wrong with this cover?



This one is more accurate to the story but doesn't convey the intensity:



I have found I can like a picture but it probably says very little about the quality of the story and you can't determine that until after reading the story. This last picture could be a nearly accurate scene but Cordelia wouldn't have been carrying a uterine replicator in that scene.

psik
 
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Bugg

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^^ They're even worse than the ones I've got :D
 

Werthead

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Book 11: A Civil Campaign

Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, is due to wed Laisa, an heiress from the (reluctant) Imperial client-world of Komarr. For the Emperor's diminutive cousin Miles Vorkosigan, the great social event provides the perfect cover for his courtship of the Lady Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, events are complicated by the complicated love life of Miles's clone-brother Mark, two landmark legal disputes in the Barrayaran Court...and a whole ton of butter-producing bugs.

A Civil Campaign (subtitled A Comedy of Biology and Manners) was originally conceived by Lois McMaster Bujold as the second half of Komarr. However, she separated the two books out for reasons of length (A Civil Campaign is the longest novel in the series by itself) and also for tone. Komarr is a serious book but A Civil Campaign is a romantic comedy that at times descends into flat-out farce.

It's hard enough to carry off romance or comedy or science fiction by themselves, so for Bujold to tackle all three genres in the same novel suggests either cast-iron confidence or outright insanity. After completing the book, the key to its success seems to be a bit of both. A Civil Campaign is flat-out crazy, a dramatic change in tone from the rest of the series to date. For starters, the novel has five POV characters, which is unusual given that most books in the series have just one, Miles himself. This novel adds Mark, Ivan, Kareen Koudelka (Mark's own romantic interest) and Ekaterin to the mix. This makes for a busier and more tonally varied novel than any of the preceding ones. Even more interesting is how Bujold mixes up the POV storylines: the normally frivolous Ivan gets the serious, political stuff to deal with whilst the emotionally-scarred, PTSD-suffering Mark gets the farcical butter-bug storyline to handle. Expectations are subverted throughout with great skill.

Most intriguingly, this is a novel about adults, relationships and how damaged people can help (or hurt, if they are not careful) one another or choose their own paths through life. Through comedy, tragedy, horror and humour, Bujold builds up each of her POV characters (and numerous supporting ones) and deconstructs them in a manner that is impressive and enjoyable to read.

That said, a key subplot revolves around a disputed succession between a dead lord's daughter and nephew, with Barrayar's laws of male inheritance favouring his nephew...until his daughter gets a sex-change. The resulting legal maelstrom is the result of a collision between fantasy cliche and common sense (and Barrayar has always felt it had more in common with Westeros than an SF setting) and signals an impending transformation in the planet's social order. It's also - arguably - the novel's sole misstep, with Bujold uncharacteristically more interested in the legal and political ramifications rather than the character-based ones. That isn't to say that Donna/Dono isn't a fascinating character, but it feels like Bujold did not engage with the issues raised by the gender reassignment with as much as depth as she might have done.

There is some action in the book (a single shoot-out, which feels a bit incongruous given the tone of the novel, and a more farcical, Bugsy Malone-esque battle sequence involving tubs of bug-butter) but primarily A Civil Campaign (****½) is a comedy of manners, a grown-up romance and a great big coming-together of almost every major subplot and character in The Vorkosigan Saga to date. It's a terrific read and is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).
 

Werthead

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Novella 4: Winterfair Gifts

Winterfair on Barrayar and the unthinkable is happening: Miles Vorkosigan is getting married. For his family this is a time of great happiness and joy. For Armsman Roic, one of Miles's long-suffering security officers, it's a time of paranoia, vigilance and stress. When things start to go wrong, Roic joins forces with one of Miles's old Dendarii comrades to ensure that the wedding goes off without a hitch.

Winterfair Gifts is a short novella set after the events of A Civil Campaign. It centres on Roic, a minor supporting character most notable at this point for engaging in combat with overzealous offworld security officers whilst half-naked and covered in butter (produced by insectoids from another planet, but that's another story). The novella actually feels a bit like an apology from Bujold to her character, giving him a chance to shine in his own story.

It's an enjoyable piece, with some laughs, some drama and some pathos in the relationship between Roic and Taura, the genetically-engineered soldier Miles rescued from Jackson's Whole. The drama part of the novel - including an assassination attempt and a dramatic arrest - feels almost tacked on, with much of the pivotal action happening off-page. Bujold's focus is on the two main characters, their development and their unexpected relationship, which is effective and touching.

A minor interlude in the overall Vorkosigan Saga, then, but one that is enjoyable and worth reading. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).
 

Werthead

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Book 12: Diplomatic Immunity

Miles Vorkosigan is enjoying his honeymoon...right up to the point that he is diverted to Graf Station in Quaddiespace to sort out a diplomatic mess involving Barrayaran warships, Komarran transports and some missing personnel. What initially appears to be a straightforward mission rapidly escalates into a major incident that threatens to break out into full-scale war.

After several novels in a row concerned primarily with Miles Vorkosigan's character development, Diplomatic Immunity sees Lois McMaster Bujold returning to something of a more "normal" approach for the series. She sets up a series of interconnecting mysteries built around some interesting SF ideas and then sets Miles loose to investigate and resolve the situation with a (relative) minimum of fuss. This time around Miles is accompanied by his wife, Ekaterin, and reunited with one of his old Dendarii compatriots, but for the most part it's Miles doing what Miles does best: fast-talking, quick-thinking and having a lot of fun in the process.

The novel is also a bit of a sequel to one of Bujold's earlier novels, Falling Free, which is set in the Vorkosigan universe but is not part of the core series. That book explored the development of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered to best exploit freefall by being given an extra pair of arms and hands instead of legs. Diplomatic Immunity also catches up with the quaddies and reveals what has become of their society in the intervening two centuries (Falling Free accompanies Diplomatic Immunity in the omnibus edition).

The book is standard fare for Bujold and Miles: well-written, with some clever ideas, some unexpected twists (the escalation of the situation from a minor drama to a massive diplomatic incident is sudden but convincing) and some nice work in terms of both characterisation and plot. It's a smart novel, although it is a little too reliant on coincidences. We are told repeatedly how obscure, bizarre and off the beaten track Graf Station is, so Miles running into two people he's met in previous adventures purely by chance is a little hard to swallow. Once you move past that, it becomes a more interesting story combining mystery, action and politics.

If Diplomatic Immunity does have a major flaw, it's that it feels a little slight in terms of Miles's own character development in the wake of Mirror Dance, Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign. But after a whole series of traumas, it is also kind of fun to see Miels not being put through the emotional or physical wringer so much and just getting on with his job.

Diplomatic Immunity (****) is a fun, enjoyable addition to The Vorkosigan Saga. It is available now as part of the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus (UK, USA).
 

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I agree with Springs in that Bujold isn't going for hard SF. She does well what most SF lacks: excellent characterisation. Her stories are character-driven above all, which contrasts the plot-driven SF we are used to. It's all about character development, and everything else is secondary (but it still is done well enough imo).

About the saga: everyone should always start with warrior's apprentice. If you feel curious after, then do the cordelia's honor and barrayar and all that, but they're not necessary.
 

psikeyhackr

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I agree with Springs in that Bujold isn't going for hard SF. She does well what most SF lacks: excellent characterisation. Her stories are character-driven above all, which contrasts the plot-driven SF we are used to. It's all about character development, and everything else is secondary (but it still is done well enough imo).
Falling Free was the hardest story she has done. But her books have a scientific attitude that a lot of so called SF lacks. In Barrayar there is the first conversation between Cordelia and Vaagan. The entire wormhole business in Komarr. The "terrorists" want to believe the physics works a certain way because that would serve their ends. The "fantasy" physics of Bujold's universe determines what really happens and a physicist in the universe must figure it out. In Captain Vorpatril Alliance, a less than fully tested technology misbehaves in the field with hilarious results. One scientifically trained Jacksonian objects and the scientifically trained Cetagandan says "It is being tested now."

Bujold's "science" can be central to the story but most readers and reviewers do not seem to care and it gets glossed over. But the "science" doesn't sell the books. There is virtually none in Mountains of Mourning but it is a great story that just happens to be on a colonized alien planet.

psik
 

Anthony G Williams

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It's been more than two years since I read any of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories, but I was in the mood for some good-humoured and reliably entertaining SF so picked up Miles Errant, an anthology containing three linked stories describing her physically unimpressive hero's further adventures. These are The Borders of Infinity (a novella of 66 pages), Brothers in Arms (242 pages) and Mirror Dance (400 pages). The author clearly does not feel any need to be constrained to any particular page count.

In The Borders of Infinity Miles is transported to a Cetagandan world in which some ten thousand prisoners of war are held within a dome-shaped force field half a kilometre in diameter. The desert landscape within contains nothing except a number of lavatory-cum-water supply facilities; there are no buildings because the weather is controlled, with an even temperature and no rainfall. The force field is only breached to allow daily food bars and newcomers in – and bodies out. There are no guards since no-one can escape and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves.

Miles is of course there for a specific purpose but the reader does not learn what that is until close to the end. Meanwhile, he commences his usual psychological manipulations to arrange matters inside the camp to his liking.

Brothers in Arms sees Miles in his role of Admiral Naismith, leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, stopping off in orbit around Earth to get his ships and crews repaired after a running fight with the Cetagandans who are furious at his activities on their prison world. Here he has to juggle his identities carefully between those of Naismith and Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan of the Barrayar armed forces, since it is imperative that no more than a small handful of people should know that these two are one and the same. Further complications ensue due to the activities of some Komarr rebels who have never reconciled themselves to the Barrayaran conquest of their world, and call Miles' father the Butcher of Komarr.

Miles has to rely heavily on his friends in the Dendarii fleet plus his amiable but slow cousin Ivan Vorpatril to extricate him from increasing complications – especially an unexpected relative.

Mirror Dance continues the story two years later, but takes it into a new direction. While the plot is mostly set on the grim world of Jackson's Whole we first met in Labyrinth, Miles only has a supporting role, the main focus being on his clone brother, Mark. In this sometimes horrific story, we see the forces and events which shape Mark into a very different personality from his brother – but an equally intriguing one. The depth of characterisation is impressive and takes Bujold's writing up onto a new level. I must catch up with the rest of the series to see if this standard is maintained – and I hope that there is more about Mark to come.

(An extract from my SFF blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy)
 
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