Sunday, April 10, 2011

A very long post about Lois McMaster Bujold

The short version: go read her books.

I spent a week skiing at Sun Peaks for Spring Break: a lot of enforced down-time, and I didn't bring enough books to read. (Oh, horror!) So I ended up rereading a lot of what was on my iPod. That includes the majority of the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I have to say, I love this woman! And I really love her character, Miles Vorkosigan. So, even though it's not YA*, I'm going to devote a post to convincing you to try some Bujold.

First off, you have to know the range of offerings in the Bujold canon. You could start with her most recent fantasy, a 4-book series set in an alternate world that feels American-frontier-ish: The Sharing Knife. It has unique bad guys, (malices that suck the life force from everything around them and gain power and intelligence depending on what life happens to be nearby), fascinating magic (malices can only be destroyed with knives made from the bones of Patrollers who willingly donate them), and a love story (a really good, realistic one).

Or, try her earlier fantasy--three independent books set in a land inspired by Spain in the 15th C. The Curse of Chalion is an amazing book; just reading the plot summary won't tell you nearly enough about it. The character of Cazaril is one of the most complex and most noble fictional people I've ever met. Then Paladin of Souls gives us another character who also seems nothing at first and then rises to unimaginable heights of love and self-sacrifice to save her world. (I think I'll reread those two next.)

The rest of her books are science fiction, perhaps best described as space opera. Character is where Bujold shines, and with Miles Vorkosigan, she has created a brilliantly unique character she can spin endless tales about, along with a wonderful universe in which he can get himself into all kinds of trouble. (The Bujold canon link lists all the Vorkosigan books in helpful chronological order.)

The first books in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar (sometimes published together as Cordelia's Honor), tell the story of Miles' parents--they meet as enemies in the middle of an interplanetary war. (I recommended the books to my father and he emailed me back later: "You never told me it was a love story!")(I don't think he read far enough to get to the scene with the head in a shopping bag--I think that might have redeemed it for him.)

Miles Vorkosigan suffers from the results of the civil war that is the plot of Barrayar: *** very minor spoiler to Barrayar in yellow here***Crippled because his mother was exposed to a toxin during pregnancy, ***okay you're safe now*** he has physical and psychological burdens that would crush anyone else. But Miles is a genius, and he's manic, and he is bound and determined to prove that he is more capable than anyone else (and to live up to his father's towering reputation). So he gets himself into ridiculous situations that only genius and manic determination can get him out of, and in the process he saves the planet, or the wormhole nexus, or the emperor, or his father's honour, or all of the above. He drags/manipulates/coerces/
shanghai's a whole cast of characters--each with their own motivations and burdens--along on his schemes, and one and all they are transformed by the Miles effect into better, greater versions of themselves.
Miles: I may be completely off-base and panicking prematurely.
Ivan: I don't think so. I think you're panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I've been panicking for days. 
Miles is staunchly loyal but has a problem with insubordination; overweeningly self-confident but convinced he will never live up to his grandfather's expectations; tactically ruthless but always painfully aware of the cost of his victories. Bujold apparently patterned the Vorkosigan series after C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series (is that why she gave him such a ridiculous last name?), and Miles "Admiral Naismith" Lord Vorkosigan is a worthy successor to Hornblower. (I highly recommend the Hornblower books, by the way.)(And the movies: Ioan Gruffudd being noble. Yum.)

Some of the Vorkosigan books are written as straight-up comedy (In A Civil Campaign, Regency romance meets the Three Stooges, with butter bugs); others are considerably more serious (Memory brought me to tears), but they all have moments of both great humour and dramatic depth. Bujold doesn't do throwaway characters or plot for the sake of plot, nor are her settings ever stock sci-fi backgrounds: her stories are always the intersections of well-rounded people with well-developed societies/circumstances.  Her universe is huge and varied, with all kinds of intriguing societal variations. I would not call her work hard-core sci-fi, because technology is not the main character, (her science may not be rigorous, but it is plausible: no faster-than-light travel or transporters); but she definitely explores the effects of technology on societies and individuals, and, in the best sci-fi tradition, her future empires are extrapolated commentary on our current world.

Okay, now I sound like I'm writing a thesis on Bujold. Just ignore my babblings and go see what your library has. You could start the Vorkosigan series at a few different places, depending on how important it is for you to read things in the order they happened. Each book has a self-contained plot, and she's very good at giving you whatever info you need to understand the current book. Starting with Shards of Honour gives you everything in order; starting with Warrior's Apprentice introduces you to Miles. Komarr is another place to jump into things, particularly if you like romance; it's told from a new character's point of view, so it works as an intro to Miles.** Note that her plots are all like a roller coaster ride: she starts slow, as she introduces the characters and situation, and then when everything gets set in motion you just have to hang on for the ride!

*As far as appropriateness for a YA audience goes, I don't have a problem recommending most of her books. There is a fair bit of violence and some sex, none of it graphic, though some of the sexual options she mentions might be a tad eye-opening for a younger audience (there are genetically engineered hermaphrodites in her future, for example). The books I would hesitate before recommending are Shards of Honour and Mirror Dance: both have disturbing scenes of sexual torture--again, not graphic, but just the idea of it is disturbing.

**Just to confuse you further, all the Miles books are also available in various novel collections (all with "Miles" in the title). If your library doesn't seem to have the book you're looking for, make sure to check these. When in doubt, refer to the Bujold canon link.

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