Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold
Synopsis from GoodReads:
In this novel Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda, the long-standing enemy of Barrayar, to represent their Barrayar at the funeral of the mother of the Cetagandan emperor. From the moment they arrive they are swept into a complex and little understood political game between elements of the Cetagandan ruling class.
Yet another short – and unhelpful – summary. At least this one is accurate. I’m not sure whether to blame the site or what sci-fi summaries often used to be.
Moving on from the lack of information in the summary. This return to Miles’s adventures after taking a break to read the second book about Cordelia – the novel I accidentally skipped – was… a bit painful, honestly. Cordelia’s novels – all two of them – remain my favorites of what I’ve read of the Vorkosigan Saga. Part of that is the huge difference in personalities, but I think part of it is also the difference in focus.
Cordelia’s two novels felt very humanistic, with a large degree of sympathy for other people coupled with her very clear intelligence. Miles’s novels, on the other hand, are a lot more space-opera-adventure, and the conclusions often seem to be more due to luck than due to Miles’s very clear intelligence. This isn’t to suggest that Miles isn’t intelligent – he’s very clever, good at piecing things together, and is often one of the cleverest people in the room. The problem is that, despite all of this, his successes come with a lot of luck. Luck that no one pieces things together about him, luck that no one challenges him or stands up to him, etc.
Cetaganda doesn’t deviate from that pattern, unfortunately. It does, however, give us quite a bit more information on the star-nation of Cetaganda, long-time enemies of Barrayar, the Vorkosigan’s home-world, and that alone would make it a worthwhile read for me. Where Barrayar is a backwater world, the Cetaganda Empire is comprised of eight core worlds plus assorted ‘protectorates’. They don’t reproduce, ah, biologically, the way Barrayarans do, they practice some serious genetic engineering, and their society is pretty decadent. But there are also some similarities to Barrayar, some of which have lampshades hung on them in the actual novel, which only serve to highlight some of the interesting aspects of Barrayar and Cetaganda’s traditional rivalry.
Bujold continues to impress me with her insight into not just how human cultures could evolve post-space travel but with how she builds both strengths and weaknesses into her futuristic cultures. Because we see through Miles’s eyes, we are, of course, led to view Cetaganda rather negatively. In fact, our modern sensibilities arguably only make that very thing easier. But we also saw Barrayaran society a bit negatively thanks to Cordelia’s viewpoint in earlier novels. While we still are shown a flawed society, thanks in large part to Miles’s issues with his home-world’s culture, I would argue that we see it more sympathetically than it was originally presented in Shards of Honor. While I doubt that will happen with Cetaganda, it is still worth noting that Bujold manages to not condemn the entire system, at least not as far as the people living in it are concerned. Miles, of course, is another matter.
And I cannot, unfortunately, review this book without dwelling on Miles. He remains an entertaining protagonist, but not one to whom I am particularly attached. I found Cordelia to be eminently more sympathetic and quite a bit more…to my taste, is probably the best way to put it. Part of that might be gender and part of it is definitely their varying personalities, but part of it might also be the age difference. Miles is 22 in this book. Cordelia was, IIRC, about 30 in the first novel about her, and a few years older than that in the second. So perhaps some of Cordelia’s more grounded responses are due to greater maturity/life experience.
Because I cannot connect to Miles and because too much of his story continues to feel helped along by luck, this novel is only getting a 3 star rating from me. However, Miles showed some promising growth and I look forward to seeing where his adventures take him next.