I was afraid I wasn’t going to like A Civil Campaign as well as the previous VORKOSIGAN novels because, according to the description, the plot takes place all on the planet Barrayar and it deals mostly with relationship issues for several of the characters. Most of the various editions of the book sport covers with couples dancing or getting married. So, yeah, I thought it was a romance novel.
Well, A Civil Campaign is a romance novel, but because it involves the romances of Miles Vorkosigan, his clone brother Mark, and his tomcatting cousin Ivan Vorpatril, it is, thankfully, a lot more than that. Along with the romance, Bujold weaves in a few funny subplots that both entertain and advance the plot of the VORKOSIGAN series on the non-romantic fronts, too.
Miles’ goal in this book is to convince the widow Ekaterin Vorsoisson to marry him. (We met her in Komarr.) Ekaterin’s first marriage was painful and she is not inclined to repeat the experience. That’s just one problem. The other is that Ekaterin is beautiful and a Vor. Since beautiful single Vor women are rare on patriarchal Barrayar (the previous generation genetically selected for boys), they are in high demand. Miles has to court Ekaterin without scaring her away while he attempts to fend off all other suitors and while he tries to maintain his dignity as an Imperial Auditor. Other romances are going on, too. Gregor’s wedding is being planned by Ivan’s mother. Mark is courting one of the Koudelka girls (her father is not pleased!) and Ivan has suddenly realized that while he has been happily carousing for years, all the best girls were getting snatched up.
Meanwhile, since Aral Vorkosigan is off planet, Miles is left with his father’s political duties and the counsel has to deal with a couple of inheritance disputes. One of them involves the problem of patriarchy and the other involves racism. Lois McMaster Bujold has a way of commenting on these issues using humor instead of a hammer — it’s both effective and entertaining.
Along with the all the romance and politics, Bujold serves up a hilarious storyline in which Mark, who now considers himself an entrepreneur, teams up with a brilliant but socially inept scientist to genetically engineer insects that vomit up a cheap and nutritious creamy substance that they hope to market to the universe. They set up a lab in Vorkosigan house and get the lovely Koudelka girls to be their lab assistants. This slapstick storyline is a little over the top, but I thought it worked well as a contrast to the politics and romance. Bujold weaves all of these plots together for a synergistic effect that’s quite pleasing.
There are some niggling little problems with A Civil Campaign, at least for me. One was that I couldn’t muster up the attraction for Ekaterin that Miles seems to feel. I am not sure why he loves her — she’s kind of dull. Also, her reaction to the discovery that Miles was trying to sneakily court her was unreasonable, and his reaction to her reaction was even more unreasonable. This has to do with my second complaint which is that Miles and Mark are both in their thirties but act like they’re eighteen. Miles is an Imperial Auditor, in fact — a very distinguished position in the empire. I forgave their immaturity in previous novels because it seemed like the messes they got themselves into weren’t really their faults. In this novel, though, they don’t have such a good excuse… On the other hand, this juvenile behavior, which culminates in this case in a disastrous dinner party, is exactly what makes the plot so entertaining, isn’t it?
I’m listening to Grover Gardner narrate the audio version of the VORKOSIGAN saga. He’s awesome.