Alex and I continue our review series of the Miles Vorkosigan saga with the novel Cetaganda. We have discussed Cordelia’s Honor (Shards of Honor and Barrayar) and the Young Miles omnibus (The Warrior’s Apprentice and “The Mountains of Mourning” and The Vor Game) previously.
By Lois McMaster Bujold
I really enjoyed this story! Miles – and Ivan – are sent on what ought to be a relatively boring diplomatic mission to bear witness to the Cetagandan Empress’ funeral, and of course things go haywire from the first moment. Mischief certainly seems to dog Miles’ footsteps. There’s an attempt to frame him as part of a conspiracy against Cetaganda (Barrayar’s longstanding rival) and several attempts to wound and/or assassinate him – as a result of which Miles ends up investigating a potentially enormous Cetagandan conspiracy, involving the genetic inheritance of that race. Miles falls in love (well, in lust), goes to parties, gets hurt, and meets the Emperor … pretty much a standard fortnight, as far as I can tell, for him. There were a goodly number of twists and mysteries and surprises to keep me guessing and intrigued – it was much more a detective story than a space opera. It just happens to be set on an alien planet with a whole lot of genetic engineering going on (those kitteh plants are just weird). I allowed myself to be carried away by the story and didn’t spend too much time trying to outthink Miles (or Bujold), so the ultimate revelation – that it was a haut woman married to a ghem man, conspiring with a planetary governor – was a surprise, albeit one that made perfect sense.
I was certain I remembered this as one of my least favourite Miles books, but on rereading, I found it really enjoyable. I think I know the source of my mistaken assumption though – it is very much, as you say, a detective story, with barely any space opera-ish events! Nothing wrong with that, but when read in the wrong order (ie: after a bunch of action-packed Miles adventures), it was a little tamer by comparison…
I can understand that coming at it from a more adventurous story would be weird. For me, it worked – The Vor Game isn’t exactly packed with space battles.
On the gender politics: I though the revelation and discussion of the intricate power balances within Cetagandan society were really interesting from a gender point of view. Miles’ surprise at the power that the haut women had, and the way in which it manifested, was perfectly appropriate: he wasn’t surprised they had it, but the way they had it, I think. The very idea that they have power over the development of the ghem and haut genetic development is a neat twist on the idea of maternal responsibility for children, I think. I’m not sure what to make of the ending, in light of this – the Emperor ‘marrying’ the Handmaiden, attempting to gain control over it? Will Rian give up control, or is the power structure too embedded?
That’s a good point and I hadn’t really picked it up! I think that Miles, for all that he has grown up in a male dominated society, is pretty damn accepting of women in powerful roles (mainly thanks to his mother, no doubt). So you’re right, that was expressed well here, and it was mostly Miles trying to adjust his own notions of what an imperial society looks like, and who has the power.
To me, it seemed that Rian cemented her power base by “marrying” the Emperor, and I really couldn’t see how it would benefit him more than her. However, it was a smart move by the Emperor, at the same time!
Hmm, perhaps you are right about Rian. Perhaps it’s both being pragmatic about how best to deal with a dangerous situation, and do what is best for the haut, which seems to be the overriding concern for both anyway.
On Cetagandan society: there have been references to the ghem and haut in other novels, if briefly, so it was good to get some greater understanding about what the heck is going on in this society. I still can’t say that I entirely understand it! It’s a fascinating way of thinking about genetic engineering as a way for society to express itself, and as a way of bettering itself too. Miles has some interesting insights into their collective attitude towards expansion which I still need to think about; there’s certainly an assumption – on Miles’ part as well as the Cetagandans – that expansion must happen, but quite why this is so imperative is opaque to me. One of the unfortunate things about the name choices is Bujold’s habit of saying “the haut Rian,” because I couldn’t help but read that as “the hawwwt Rian”…
It is a really interesting way to consider genetic engineering. Expansion I think is a theme right from the beginning of the saga though – after all, Cetaganda invaded Barrayar when it was rediscovered; Cordelia and Aral met on opposites sides of a planetary claiming of Sergyar. It’s almost like the Wild West – who can claim the most planets, even when (like Komarr and the Betan colony), they are barely livable! But expansion is the reason Earth went a-colonising in the first place I guess, and despite all other advancements, humans are STILL overpopulating their habitats!
We need to talk more about the portrayal of the Cetagandan society when we look at Ethan of Athos – this book was written nine years AFTER Ethan, even though it precedes it in the internal chronology, and I think it’s one of the few places where Bujold mucks up her consistency with all the popping around. I like what she does with Cetaganda here better, for the record.
Ethan of Athos, up next!
On the characters: I so knew Maz was going to end up with the ambassador. Saw it a mile off. I enjoyed Lord Yenaro immensely – the idea of scent-work being a worthy art to pursue is delightful. Rian was … I was going to say impenetrable, but that gives all sorts of nasty implications. She was appropriately hard to fathom, I guess. I liked that she was mysterious and that it made sense for her character. Having Miles fall in love/lust with her makes sense, because of her great beauty and her untouchability. Miles continues to develop here, although it was hard to remember how young he was supposed to be – so much has happened to him! And Ivan isn’t nearly so annoying as he threatened to be in earlier books.
I loved Maz! And I loved that the Ambassador loved Maz. I think it’s a very clever thing Bujold does with her minor characters – it’s very subtle and I wonder if you’ll notice it. Frequently there’s some little side story or a throwaway characterisation that shows about how some Barrayaran person or other has taken a step outside the old-fashioned, quite restrictive societal norms of the planet. Look out for these! They are showing the progression and modernisation of the planet from a sideways view!
I also loved Ivan in this. You need to watch Ivan closely too, as the series progresses. I want to talk more about him, but I won’t, til you’ve read some more books 🙂
Ooooh you are giving me such teasers! I did wonder whether she was going to keep Ivan in a cute-Obelisk kinda role, or whether he would develop greater diplomatic insights as time went on. On Maz etc, it’s so nice to see secondary characters actually having a life outside of their interactions with the principal cast.
Questions: will Miles indeed have more to do with the Emperor Giaja? Will Miles ever be allowed to leave the planet again? What are Elena Bothari and the Dendarii Mercs up to??
You know, I can’t remember if Miles runs across the Emperor (or Rian) again! Could they really STOP Miles from going space-side? 🙂 As for the Dendarii, just wait… 🙂
ARGH. Mooooore Miles to come!