Aussies in Dozois’ Year’s Best SF

June 30th, 2011 at 12:13 pm (Books)

Congratulations to the many Aussie authors and publications scattered throughout the Honorable Mentions in the new Year’s Best Science Fiction (#28, edited by Gardner Dozois). Apologies if I missed anyone!

Peter M Ball

KJ Bishop

Jenny Blackford

Damien Broderick (also in the ToC!)

Isobelle Carmody

Elizabeth Carroll

Aidan Doyle

Sean McMullen

Garth Nix

Simon Petrie

Sean Williams

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The Magic of Miles: what it means to be Vor

June 18th, 2011 at 6:08 pm (Reviews)

Tehani and Alex forge on to the end of the second Vorkosigan omnibus, watching Miles grow up and cause havoc. Alex falls further in love with the universe and Tehani watches gleefully. Spoilers!

“The Mountains of Mourning” and The Vor Game

By Lois McMaster Bujold

TEHANI:

“The Mountains of Mourning” was an early foray into the Vorkosigan world for me. It was available for free from the Baen e-Library and I downloaded it, among a bunch of other stuff. It’s a novella, not a novel, and it is somewhat different to most of the other Miles books. It’s a rather introverted story, in which Miles is given an opportunity to consider the Vor aspect of himself and what it means, at the same time as confronting some ingrained social issues in his society that relate directly to him. “Mountains” gives us a rather more thoughtful Miles than we saw in The Warrior’s Apprentice, and fills out a bit more of his personality, and, again, grounds his honour more solidly. It’s a sad story, but one that ultimately fits in very well with the overall world-building.

ALEX:

I really enjoyed “Mountains,” and thought it worked nicely in the omnibus. It provides a clear bridge between Warrior’s and Vor Game, and allows some great insight into Barrayar home life. I was interested to see the degree to which Bujold makes the mutant-horror real in the life of the Barrayar hicks. I had neither expected that we would meet such back-country types (it’s certainly not typical in space opera), nor that the revulsion would be so real. I enjoyed the characterisation of Harra, the mother of a murdered ‘mutant’, and hadn’t actually expected the culprit to be her own mother; it was nice not to see the husband being responsible. And, of course, it grounds Miles more solidly, as you say Tehani.

TEHANI:

The Vor Game switches speeds again, and does it twice! This feels like two books squished together, because the first and second halves are quite different stories. In her afterword (in the omnibus edition Young Miles) Bujold says people often think that the second half of the book, the more military space opera bit, must have been tacked on to pad out the first half (which was published alone in Analog). It’s not so, she says, as the novel was always written as published. It’s a fair thought though – the initial story is of Miles, newly graduated from the Imperial Academy, given a backwater Barrayar-bound posting to prove that he can submit to authority rather than subvert it. If you really look at it, nothing much happens, plot-wise. Yes, Miles is almost killed (accidentally), he finds a body (accidentally) and he stops a mass torture scenario (on purpose), but all that is quite incidental. It is all designed to set up the second half of the book, which sees Miles return to space, legitimately, under the instruction of ImpSec, and take back his Dendarii mercenary fleet (not quite as legitimately). It’s full of the action and adventure that I associate with the Vorkosigan Saga, but which I’m realising, through this reread, is not always the biggest part of any of the books!

ALEX:

BAHAHAHA Miles kidnaps the Emperor!!

Ahem. That Gregor turned up in this story, having got himself captured by unwitting contractors, and then Miles turns up accidentally … yeah, that was hilarious.

Anyway, yes, there is certainly a change in speed in this book, and I can understand why it might feel like two stories. However, with the continuation of the Metzov character – which I honestly had not expected, and led to groan aloud in horror when he appeared as Cavilo’s right-hand man – it doesn’t feel like it’s unconnected. If anything, it probably reflects the reality of life for an ensign who gets sent willy-nilly on assignments!

Kyril Station is horrendous, and that whole section of the book was just one horror on another. I was initially disappointed by the reality of the drowned body, but I guess it was better than having genuine mystery chase Miles around – that might have strained credibility a little too far. It’s a nicely realised base in all, and with Miles parading around on drain duty Bujold gets to describe the realities of the place in more detail than she might otherwise. I do wonder whether this base will turn up again…

TEHANI:

One of the most appealing parts of The Vor Game is the unfolding aspects of Miles. He’s such a complex character that watching him evolve, grow and really let loose is a great delight. It’s easy to forget, having read all the books and become used to it, that his manic manipulating is something he almost fell into, rather than a strategic gift he always had. I also really enjoyed seeing the relationship between Miles and Gregor – the genuine friendship, tempered by remembrance of the past and concern for the future, is superbly written, and is a counterpoint to the relationships we see of the older men in the books, such as Aral and Illyan.

ALEX:

Manic manipulation is EXACTLY the right description. Mad Miles is about right too. It really, really is like watching someone who in reality is stumbling, but making it look like they’re running. From one obstacle to another … and ending up paid three times for his efforts. There was a bit less emphasis on his disability in this book, which was interesting, although there was one mention of his neck bones being coated in plastic which startled me! Miles’ reaction to Elena was more muted than I had half expected, and yes his relationship with Gregor is great. It also highlights the differences between Miles Vorkosigan and Miles Naismith, on which there is a fair amount of emphasis in this book. I can see this being a major source of difficulty, and skilful character building, in the later books – especially if the Dendarii do end up doing a lot of covert work for Barrayar, and Miles has to interact with ImpSec both as himself (Lieutenant) and as Admiral!

TEHANI:

The character of Cavilo is problematic. In some ways, she’s Miles’ own mirror – highly intelligent, cunning, strategically brilliant. She would have to be, to end up in the position she is in (again, somewhat of a mirror to Miles). But she lacks Miles’s sense of integrity, and of course this means she is also self-centred, deceitful and disloyal. I would have liked to see more of Elena, or something at all of Elli Quinn, in this book, to redeem the balance of this dishonorable female character, particularly as we don’t really have any insight into the reasons WHY Cavilo is like she is. At least in The Warrior’s Apprentice, we can’t hate the elder Elena for her murder of Bothari – we understand it, even if we know murder is wrong. Cavilo gives us no such reason not to despise her just for being a manipulative, self-centred bitch. I kind of would have liked one.

ALEX:

Oh yes. Very problematic. Actually, she wouldn’t have been so problematic if she hadn’t appeared to try and seduce Miles the first time she meets him. Then, it would have been less like Scheming Seducing Manipulative Woman, and more like Scheming Manipulative Mercenary. In other words, even more like Miles’ alter-ego. The thoughts she leaves Miles with – that he might end up like her – are intriguing, and haunting indeed. Like you, I was disappointed there wasn’t very much Elena here, although I did like the development of her personality – particularly the marked lack of deference towards Miles.

TEHANI:

Yeah *sigh*. I wonder if Bujold would have written Cavilo the same way if she wrote that story today?

ALEX:

Questions: WHO IS ELLI?? Did you just let slip something there, Tehani?? Also: will Kyril Base feature again? What on earth is Miles going to do with the Dendarii? Will Cavilo return? And will Miles make Simon Illyan go white-haired by the end of the series? (Let me guess, he dies in the next book…)

TEHANI:

No! Hmm, maybe? Elli is Elli Quinn (mostly referred to just as Quinn) who was the mercenary whose face was obliterated in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles took her to his Betan grandmother and paid for her facial reconstruction. Um, and yes, she only had a bit part really in that book, but has a much bigger role as the series goes on. So it really makes no sense that she’s not actually in this one. Has always bugged me. Sorry if I spoiled you for her! You’ll like her, I promise :)

ALEX:

Oh, THAT Elli. Yes ok, I remember now. I hadn’t expected her to play a role later so I forgot her name  :)

TEHANI:

As for the rest, you’ll just have to wait and see!

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The magic of Vorkosigan: The Warrior’s Apprentice

June 17th, 2011 at 9:45 am (Reviews)

Tehani and Alex continue their conversational review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s  Vorkosigan saga – Alex for the very first time. Spoilers ahead.

The Warrior’s Apprentice

By Lois McMaster Bujold

TEHANI:

The Warrior’s Apprentice was actually one of the last Vorkosigan books I read, despite it being the very first Miles book in the internal and publication date chronology. I probably couldn’t tell you which book I actually started with, but I know Young Miles (which contains this novel) was the last omnibus I worked through on my first time read. It was quite strange at the time, reading it with all the knowledge of what was to come but absolutely fascinating to see where the split personality that is Miles – Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and Miles – Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, really began. It absolutely encapsulates everything we come to know of this mad little man – the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants ingenuity, his hyperactive intelligence, his sarcastic dry wit, his absolute faith in the abilities of those around him to do everything he thinks they can and more. We as the reader can’t help but fall in love with him as he careens from crisis to crisis, almost falling flat on his face more times that we can count but with that incredible brain working ten steps ahead of anyone else.

ALEX:

Well, that answers my question about the significance of the mercenaries! I figured they would continue to crop up; it seemed like too much perfect setting-up to simply have them only play a bit part in the continuing saga. Your assessment of Miles is spot on, and I think his faith in others is one of the more interesting aspects of his capabilities as a leader. It’s a much more realistic view, for a start. I guess you could argue that it allows Miles to get away with stuff that he really shouldn’t, and perhaps he could be seen as grasping too high/too fast; but really the ability to inspire others, and knowing when and how to use others (in good ways) is key to any leader actually succeeding. I was amazed by the careening – it was like watching someone who is just on the brink of falling flat on their face but instead manages to turn into semi-competent running. Also, the speed with which he went from washed-out wannabe officer to recruiting his first fellow-washouts was hilarious. Watching the development of the Dendarii force was mesmerising … like watching an avalanche and not knowing whether this is a good thing or a bad. It’s so unlikely, and yet … it works.

TEHANI:

In this book, we get our first glimpses of the darkness that dogs Miles, a counterpoint to his hyperactivity and seemingly endless hubris. Always the outsider on Barrayar, set apart by his physical deformities as well as his intelligence and questioning mind, Miles suffers greatly when facing rejection or personal failure. This ties into both his sense of honour, instilled by his family and his social environment, and his own desire to prove himself. In Warrior’s Apprentice, he faces down defeat and finally feels like he’s made something of himself. But of course, what he’s made is completely made up! It’s a fascinating premise, and the action and characterisation, of even the most minor characters, is what makes it work.

ALEX:

Honour is clearly going to play a seriously large part in the whole series – the Cordelia books set that up, of course. I was amazed by the fact that he failed his physical, and deliberately within those first few pages! Not exactly an auspicious start for a hero. And the continuing darkness that, indeed, dogs him, is fascinating. It too lends Miles a sense of reality; he’s closer to three-dimensional because of it. I’m going to be really interested to see what Bujold does with that. I can see ways that it could be done badly – wallowing, or using it as a mark of a hero, getting repetitive or eventually letting it slip away without explanation … I hope none of those come about!

I’m assuming at this point that one of the reasons for Miles’ despondency in later books is the loss of the lovely Elena. Their relationship was a really fascinating one. I had assumed from early on that Elena and Miles would end up growing up together, and was curious to see where that went. I was saddened that it didn’t out with her! I really liked the honesty of Elena’s reaction to Miles’ declaration of love, though – that she would be swamped by him, which is I’m sure a fair assessment. To see her develop as a character, and to see Miles encourage her in that even as it means she’s growing away from him, was a really nice touch of character development. It must be said that Elena’s wedding to someone else was not the moment at which I had tears in my eyes, though. No, that was reserved for Bothari’s funeral. It was heartbreaking! And I was surprised that she got rid of him so early in the series, but I guess it would have been awkward for a cadet in the Imperial Forces to have a bodyguard all the time. Connected with Bothari is the other rather raw moment of emotional honesty: when Miles stupidly tries to bring Bothari together with the original Elena. Her hatred and revulsion of Bothari are so appropriate, and it was nice not to have an author thinking that should be smoothed over for … I don’t know what reasons can be used there, but I know it’s been done.

TEHANI:

Oh, Bothari! I always forget that he dies here because Bujold lets him live large in Miles’ life in future books, simply by way of the enormous presence the Sergeant had in his early life. It was a spectacular way to demonstrate that no-one is safe in Bujold’s books, no matter how much of a staple they might appear, and also a very apt way to resolve (sort of) Elena’s mystery. To be fair, it also ties into helping Elena say no to Miles’s mad proposal – knowing the truth about her origins could have only strengthened her knowledge that realistically, a marriage to Miles would in no way be condoned on Barrayar. And Elena too was brought up with the same strict sense of honour that surrounded Miles, so it was something she could no way get around. Poor Miles – with the mother he has, only a certain type of girl is ever going to appeal to him, but finding the one who can cope with him, and his background, is never going to be easy!

ALEX:

I was impressed by Bujold’s treatment of Miles’ disability in this book. I had wondered whether it would simply pop up when it was narratively convenient, but the reader is hardly ever allowed to forget it – like Miles – not because it’s being forced down your throat but because she keeps reminding you that his legs drag, or limp, or that he’s slow and wears braces, and so on. It’s genuinely a part of the story, and that’s really really nice.

Also, one of the nice things I picked up – eventually! – is the fact that the pilot is Mayhew: presumably the same Mayhew who has a cameo as the pilot gulled into helping Cordelia escape Beta Colony. Nice tie in!

TEHANI:

Ooh, I never figured that out! I’m a terrible reader – I am hopeless at noticing cameo characters!

ALEX:

I continue to be hooked. Questions raised: where will the Dendarii fleet end up next? What assignment will Miles end up with at the end of his training? Will Elena feature in the later books?

TEHANI:

Again, I only answer one questions – YES, we will have more Elena! :)

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The magic of Bujold – rereading and a journey of discovery

June 13th, 2011 at 8:45 am (Reviews)

Alex has never read anything by Bujold. Tehani is a long-time fan. Welcome to a conversation of discovery and re-reading that will undoubtedly include a lot of squeeing, spoilers, and misdirected guesses from Alex. Also a fair bit of meta-commentary, since we can’t help ourselves.

Cordelia’s Honor (sic) omnibus: Shards of Honor and Barrayar.

By Lois McMaster Bujold

ALEX:

I can’t believe Bujold has never had an Australian print run; are we really that small a market that someone with so many Hugo nominations hasn’t been formally brought to our attention? I only heard about the series from Tehani and Tansy, who raved about it. I am actually quite happy, and lucky, to be able to read these in books in internal chronological order (barring any prequels she may see fit to write!), although a little sad that I don’t get the joy of reading this omnibus as a prequel, since I’m sure most long-time devotees of Miles were immensely excited to read his parents’ story. I’m also immensely pleased that I have so many more books to read, already published, and am not in the position of my friends who pounced on Cryoburn like so many starving wolves. I hadn’t realised just how hooked I was, by the way, until I finished Shards of Honour in two days and just kept ploughing right on into Barrayar almost without realising…

TEHANI:
It’s quite amazing really that this is the first Vorkosigan book (Falling Free, set some centuries prior to the Vorkosigan period, is set in the same universe, but isn’t a Vorkosigan book, so I don’t count it) in both internal and external chronology. Such a huge amount of world- and character-building happens in even the first few chapters, without ever being info-dumpish – it’s an astonishing feat for an author, and just one of the things I adore about Bujold!

ALEX:

I absolutely agree. The universe Bujold has created puts me slightly in mind of the Hainish universe of le Guin – people have been (re)discovered and brought (back) into a galactic-wide society. There is a mention of the Time of Isolation, from which it’s obvious that there’s been some galactic community in the past from which some planets, at least, have been sundered for some period of time. In Barrayar we discover that that planet has only been brought back into communion 80 years ago, which seems a remarkably short period of time for that planet and society to acclimatise to galactic standards and norms – which some individuals actually haven’t managed.

The characters:
Meeting Aral and Cordelia like this, for readers of the Miles-proper books, was surely a fascinating experience. It makes me wonder whether they are known as the Butcher of Komarr and the Killer of Vorrutyer to Miles’ acquaintances, in the later books?

I like Cordelia. I was surprised by how quickly Bujold had Cordelia and Aral fall in love, but I guess it was a case of extreme circumstance.

TEHANI:
It seems the romance between Cordelia and Aral does happen very suddenly, but I think it works, in this instance. Aral’s stumbling proposal is very sweet in his hesitancy, and Cordelia’s reaction to it is wonderful in the way it defies the normal expectations of romance tropes. The relationship development could be viewed to support the idea (posited in the movie Speed!) that pressure forces ties to form more quickly and of stranger bedfellows than the normal course of daily life allows. But the characterisation shown for Cordelia and Aral really allows the reader to see the inherent connection between them.

Aral may have other motives (conscious or unconscious, it’s difficult to judge here – I’d be interested to hear what you say on this, without the benefit of having read the later books!), but his genuine admiration for Cordelia’s strength, wit and intelligence is obvious. In turn, Cordelia is drawn to Aral despite her clear distaste for the society he comes from. This mutual connection is not for the usual romance reasons: there is not an instant physical response – neither are described as classical beauties! – nor is there immediate, unwarranted, trust. Instead, in just a few chapters, trust is earned, insights into each other unfold, and although it takes place in a short span of time, the relationship seems real. It’s a very skilled piece of writing that delicately subverts the romance tropes to become a believable developing relationship.

ALEX:

I can’t so far tell that there might be other motives on Aral’s part to falling for, or choosing, Cordelia. The sap in me hopes that I never get dissuaded of that romanticism!

I really liked that Cordelia is old! – well, by romance standards anyway; 33! Practically haggard! And surely beyond romantic entanglements… I particularly enjoyed the sense of duty and responsibility and common sense that attended this positively elderly romance – connected with the quiet desperation in their eyes. But back to Cordelia – she’s strong, and smart; a little bit broken by the past but resilient; a good leader, and someone I could definitely enjoy knowing. I admire her resourcefulness and was appropriately shocked by her ruthlessness on a few occasions.

Aral is awesome. Again, older; and it may be somewhat heretical to make this comparison, but I can’t help seeing the similarities between him and Eddings’ Sparhawk. World weary, largely unflappable, no beauty, violent when necessary, intensely loyal and honorable. I like the humanity that Bujold shows in his sensitivity to Cordelia, and towards his men too. He and Cordelia complement each other nicely, I feel. Having Aral be bisexual was an immensely interesting choice, too – up to that point I’d had no idea that this would be anything but a universe where heterosexuality was the only acceptable mode (maybe the Miles books are full of non-hetero sexuality and this is something Bujold fans expect; again, I look forward to finding out).

TEHANI:
Sparhawk, yes!! I agree, some readers might find that heretical, and the books the two appear in could not BE more different, but there are definite similarities in their characterisations!

ALEX:

It’s so wrong, isn’t it?

Bothari is … complicated.

And Miles? Well, I really hadn’t expected that he would be – what’s the right word? – malformed? Not completely physically perfect, anyway. I think I had assumed I was getting myself into a series where the hero was a fairly typical hero, to be honest. Although I was shocked by the attack on Cordelia and Aral, and the fact that theantidote had such an impact on the fetus Miles, I admit that I expected that the doctor’s work would come out perfectly and the Count would have to eat his words. To have him born with bones so fragile that one breaks in the first 30 seconds, and the Count then renouncing familial ties (although that’s somewhat resolved in the epilogue)… I realised at that point that this was not going to be the sort of series I was expecting.

TEHANI:
I think Miles’s imperfections are part of the reason we adore this world so much. That he has so much to overcome from the very beginning makes him far more fascinating than if he’d been handed looks, ability and brains on a platter! You’ve moved on into Barrayar here, which while second in internal chronology, was actually the seventh book published, and it’s really interesting that Bujold went back to fill out the circumstances surrounding Miles’ birth. These two books work really well as a duology, which is brilliant given they weren’t written or published in order!

ALEX:

I really am amazed that they were written so far apart. They flow so seamlessly together! It really would have driven me wild to read them out of order. Also- yes, I can imagine that Miles’ imperfections are very attractive, in a hero.

The worlds:
Barrayar and Beta Colony are (literally) worlds apart, and I’m now wild to find out where Miles spends most of his time – at one quarter through Barrayar I guessed Beta Colony, because there’s so much more on Barrayar that it seems like it might be filling in gaps for readers. Barrayar is a fairly recognisable military-dominated world – recognisable from other SF/fantasy that is – with attendant philosophies and values. It’s Beta Colony that fascinates me, though, because it is a more classically science fictional world: uterine replicators, hermaphrodites, parental licenses, a liberal view on sexuality … yet all of this takes place of a planet that’s happy to use drugs on someone to get information, is unwilling to believe their officer’s testimony, and has a President that apparently no one voted for. Deliciously complicated. I can’t wait to find out more.

TEHANI:
Oh, so MUCH more to come for you! :)

ALEX:

The narrative itself:
I really enjoy being thrown straight into the action when it’s done well – which is something I can’t define – and Shards of Honour definitely manages that. Traitors, unlikely alliances, honour … so much goes on in what is a relatively short book. I was horrified by the actions of Vorrutyer, of course, and Bothari doesn’t really make those circumstances any better … but Aral bursting in on the scene is marvellous, and would surely play well on screen! The reception of Cordelia at home, and then her efforts to get away without betraying herself or Vorkosigan, are nail-biting indeed. I jumped straight into Barrayar after Shards, so I admit they muddle together in my head – but I love the vision of Cordelia turning up unannounced as Aral starts on a binge, and that their relationship just goes on from there. Civil war is always an interesting narrative mode for setting up alliances and world politics, and for outlining personalities too. I enjoyed the action bits of Cordelia and Drou etc running off to rescue the replicator with Miles in it, although it did feel just a little out of place – direct violence and action had been removed from the story for what felt like a long time. It was nice to have the conclusion with the Vorkosigan family making some attempts at reconciliation with each other, and I’ve no doubt this sets things up for the rest of the series.

Questions I’m left with:

Will Bothari and Elena feature in the Miles books? What about Kou and Drou (gotta say, that’s a bit tacky), Piotr, Gregor and Ivan? Will bone density continue to be an issue? Do we visit more than just Barrayar and Beta Colony? Will I continue to be hooked??

TEHANI:
I can only answer one of those questions without venturing into spoiler territory so I’m just going to go with the easy one – YES, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE HOOKED! :)

ALEX:

Awesome :D

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