Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold

Written by Donna


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November 20, 2012

Disclaimer: the following review was written by an unabashed fan of Lois McMaster Bujold and Captain Ivan Vorpatril.

Warning: The following review is full of spoilers.

Two points I need to make up front:

1.  Ivan Vorpatril  is hands down my favorite secondary character in the Vorkosiverse.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

2.  That said, I was obviously beyond excited when I learned there was going to be an “Ivan” novel forthcoming, but my excitement was tempered by wondering, really, if Ivan was capable of carrying off his own narrative.  I mean, even Ivan knows he’s been Miles Vorkosigan’s donkey for years now…

I really should have had more faith in Bujold.  Of course Ivan is able to carry his own novel quite well, thank you, and Bujold wisely removes Miles to Sergyar except for a brief appearance, which prevents him from stealing Ivan’s thunder here.  Which is just as well, because the five or six pages he’s part of give you some idea of just how dominating a character he is.  He can’t help it.  But if you’re only going to read this book for Miles and Ekaterin, be warned now—they really do only make the briefest of appearances.  However, Miles is often referenced in one way or another, usually in the backstory.

Readers who have not read the entire series might miss some references to previous books and plotlines, although this shouldn’t really be detrimental to their enjoyment of this novel, which is capable of standing on its own.  But if you’ve read Memory and A Civil Campaign and even Cetaganda, your enjoyment will be magnified; since Bujold is very good indeed at sneaking in all the backstory you need to understand the plot and the worlds of Barrayar and Jackson’s Whole, however, you can start here if you wish and work your way backwards.  Then read them all forward again.  And again, and again…oh, sorry.

So Ivan.  The always charming Ivan, used mostly as comic fodder and as Miles’ foil in the earlier novels but given a bigger, better developed role in both Memory and A Civil Campaign, finally steps out on his own here with, if not the manic flare of his genius cousin, then at least with his own sense of style.  And as he wades through a phalanx of bounty hunters, Jacksonian plotters, and the machinations of the dissipated Byerly Vorrutyer, Ivan proves that it’s entirely possible he’s wasted in Ops.

When the novel opens, Ivan, as aide-de-camp to Admiral Desplaines, is temporarily stationed on Komarr and looking forward to exploring its domes in search of a little fun when By turns up on his doorstep, looking for help.  He’s up to his ears in an internal smuggling operation, and has learned that a certain young lady is being targeted for kidnapping, although he has no idea why or even who she really is.  He begs Ivan to take what little information he has and make her acquaintance with the idea of rescuing her—she’s really a side job here, and he just doesn’t have the time—plus, he can’t risk blowing his cover.  Since the young woman is stunningly attractive, and because Ivan is chivalrous to a fault, he unwillingly agrees to help By.

Because it’s Ivan, things don’t exactly work out the way he intends: he ends up being taken prisoner by Tej and her companion, Rish, then thwarting their would-be kidnappers (in a scene that makes it clear that Ivan was paying attention on all of those accidental adventures with Miles) and taking the women home with him until he can figure out how to safely get them off of Komarr.  When the tables are turned on them yet again, Ivan does what seems to be the only logical thing he can do at the time—he marries Tej even as Dome Security and Komarr Immigration officials are attempting to break down the door of his apartment, then hires Rish as a means of protecting them from deportation and himself from a charge of kidnapping.  He doesn’t consider that he barely knows his new wife.  Or at least, he doesn’t consider it for too long.  And he certainly has no intention of staying married anyway.

Tej, as it happens, is the youngest daughter of a Jackon’s Whole House Baron whose house was overthrown in a coup; most of her extended family, except for a brother currently working on Escobar, is assumed to have been killed in the takeover.  There’s a big price on her head as a result, and Ivan sees his marriage as a means to a little recreational sex and merely a temporary thing to keep Tej and Rish one step ahead of Jacksonian bounty hunters before eventually shipping them off to Escobar to meet up with her brother. Back on Barrayar, however, Ivan discovers that neither his family or ImpSec seem to be in any hurry to speed Tej on her way–and when the brother turns up on Barrayar with her presumed-dead family in tow, Ivan soon realizes that his formidable mother is the least of his family problems.

This is all a great deal of fun, and best of all, it gives Bujold an opportunity to flesh out the more domestic side of some of her secondary characters, including Lady Alys (I want her apartment!), Simon Illyan (who has some great scenes), and Count Falco Vorpatril (whose appearance is brief, but memorable), while delving into a little ancient Barrayarian history vis a vis the Cetegandan Occupation.  Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a hybrid of a novel–part interplanetary political thriller and part domestic farce, with a little romance thrown in; it is also easily Bujold’s most readable, most enjoyable outing since A Civil Campaign—it’s funny as hell in spots, with just enough plot twists to keep things lively.  She makes the unusual mash-up work.

For me, what was most interesting was where the author took Ivan in his development.  Ivan is 35 in this book (which is, incidentally, set before Cryoburn), and has, in his previous outings, been cast as a happy-go-lucky womanizer whose mother despairs of ever seeing him safely married, but we learn more about Ivan’s relationship with Lady Alys here, and also about his place in her life, which is much more precarious now that Simon is installed as her domestic partner.  I realized long ago that Ivan was not the family idiot he’s made out to be, but now that he’s front and center here, it’s driven home pretty quickly that the Ivan we’ve grown to know and love was always filtered through Miles’ take on him.  So it was personally gratifying for me to see my own analysis of Ivan bearing fruit here.  In particular, there is a scene early on where Alys and Ivan, accompanied by Simon and Tej, go to burn their annual death offering for Alys’ now very late husband, Padma (who was killed by rebel forces just hours before Ivan’s birth) that provides enormous insight into why Alys is so formidable, and equal insight into why Ivan has been content all these years to stay within her orbit, quietly underachieving.  It’s a moving scene in many ways, and it speaks volumes about not only each character’s personality, but their often fraught relationship.  Likewise, we get to see a side of Simon that would have been almost unthinkable in the earlier novels—as a man who is emotionally vulnerable and trying hard to figure out not only what his role is in the Alys-Ivan relationship, but what his role as retired Chief of ImpSec is.

Ivan has always cultivated an air of intellectual laziness in the past, preferring to let Miles do the heavy lifting there while he plays a more ornamental role.  But it is a mistake to think that Ivan is stupid or lazy—he is, in fact, neither and never has been.  Here, he does some weasel work worthy of ImpSec and, furthermore, shows that he’s just as adaptable and quick-thinking as his cousin.  When dealing with Byerly Vorrutyer, who plays games within games as one of ImpSec’s deep cover moles, Ivan shows that he not only has By’s number, but that he’s just as good at playing his cards close to his chest as the wiggly By.  Always a character who reacted to situations instead of acting first, Ivan is forced in this instance to prove he is capable of both action and considered reaction—a major development for his character.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in his dealings with his newly-minted, if temporary, in-laws.  Bujold is obviously having a grand time with Tej’s family—they are truly awful people, as befits a Jacksonian House Baron and his family.  Jackson’s Whole, for those not familiar with all of the Vorkosigan novels, is Bujold’s picture of laissez-faire capitalism taken to the nth degree, where The Deal is Sacred and Power is King.  No good Jacksonian gives anything without receiving something in trade, and watching first Tej and then her parents try to work their Deals on Barrayar is both amusing and eye-opening.  Watching Ivan adjust to it is downright entertaining.  Similarly, it becomes clear that Tej is really quite as torn about her family as Ivan is about his: she finds them exasperating and impossible, but they are her family.

Which brings us, in the end, to Ivan and Tej’s marriage of convenience.  While both of them insist that their hasty wedding was nothing more than a means to an end, they discover that divorce Barrayaran-style isn’t as simple as they think. The reader, if not the characters, quickly tumbles to the fact that these two were made for each other.  They see in their partners all the qualities that their respective families have always refused to see.  To Tej, Ivan is brave, quick-witted, and thoughtful and not the amiable idiot.  To Ivan, Tej is not just the wayward youngest child with no purpose except as a bargaining chip in her parents’ political games, but a bright young woman, loyal to those she loves, who is capable of anything if someone would just give her a chance.

You’ll have to read the book, though, to find out if they can make this work.  I’m not going to tell you.  But I will tell you this: I loved nearly every word of this, and as soon as my husband finishes with it, I’ll probably read it again.


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