Cetaganda: A murder mystery in space

Science fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil CampaignCetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsCetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cetaganda is the ninth novel that Lois McMaster Bujold published in her popular VORKOSIGAN SAGA but, chronologically, the story takes place earlier in the sequence, between The Vor Game and Ethan of Athos. If you’re new to this series, I (and the author) recommend reading these novels in order of internal chronology which is how we have them listed here at Fantasy Literature. I read some of them out of order because of how they were presented in the Baen Omnibus editions and I regret that. The story flows much better if you read them chronologically. (Still, though, any order is better than not reading them at all — this is a great series!)

In Cetaganda Miles Vorkosigan, the “mutant,” and his tall handsome cousin Ivan are off on a diplomatic mission for their home planet Barrayar. They are attending the funeral of the dowager empress of Cetaganda, a planet where everything is genetically engineered to please the senses of the upper class. Cetagandas, like most of the universe, don’t like Barrayar and, like most of the universe, they especially don’t like the Vorkosigan family because of Miles’s father, the military genius who is unfairly known as “The Butcher of Komarr.” And then there’s the problem that Miles, who was crippled and stunted before birth by a teratogen, doesn’t fit in with the snobbish Cetagandan society because of the way he looks. As usual, he will have to rely on his wits so that the Cetagandans won’t have to metaphorically look down on him, too.

Miles and Ivan have been instructed to keep a low profile and to not do anything that might incite the Cetegandans. Unfortunately, as the Barrayaran government should have known, this is an impossible request. Ivan is unable to keep his hands off of pretty girls (and in Ceteganda, all the girls are pretty) and Miles is a magnet for trouble. Sure enough, the mayhem starts as soon as they arrive on the planet. There’s a conspiracy afoot in the Cetagandan upper class and someone is trying to frame Barrayar for their dirty deeds. Miles has to figure out what’s going on before the relationship really goes sour. But even if he does manage to solve the case, we readers know that, as usual, he’s going to leave a lot of angry people in his wake.

In Ceteganda, Lois McMaster Bujold continues to do what she does so well. This is more of a murder mystery than space opera, but as with all the VORKOSIGAN books, Ceteganda has wonderful characters (we really get to know Ivan Vorpatril in this installment), crazy adventures, fascinating societies, ethical quandaries (mostly having to do with genetic engineering), witty dialogue, and clever plotting with several hilarious scenes. It’s not quite as entertaining as Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (which are my favorites so far), but it’s still an excellent novel.

I’m listening to Grover Gardner narrate the Blackstone Audio versions of the VORKOSIGAN SAGA. He’s got the perfect ear for Bujold’s brilliant sense of comedic timing. I highly recommend this series on audio!

~Kat Hooper

Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsCetaganda, one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s early VORKOSIGAN SAGA books, was originally published in 1996. It features Miles Vorkosigan when he is in his early twenties. I had never read this early entry in the series, and while I have liked all of McMaster’s books about Miles and his family, I don’t think this one aged particularly well. Still, most of it is fun, and Miles is always a fascinating character to watch.

Miles is the only child of the second-most powerful man on Barrayar. His mother is formidable in her own right. He is an aristocrat and a genius with a knack for out-of-the-box thinking. He is a natural leader, commanding personal loyalty nearly effortlessly.

“He’s a Marty Stu!” you cry. Well, there a few other things to know about Miles. On a world that idolizes tall, muscular men and feats of physical strength, he is four-foot-nine. His mother was poisoned while pregnant with him, leaving him with seriously brittle bones. On Barrayar, where any possible genetic flaw is viewed with horror, Miles appears to be a clown at best; at worst, he is a monster to his own people. He is also manic; and routinely makes an ass of himself with women. These weaknesses, and Bujold’s wry narrative voice, carry the day in Cetaganda, even when I was shaking my head at the backstory and the plot.

Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril have been sent to the bellicose system of Cetaganda as diplomats, attending the state funeral of the Celestial Lady, the dowager empress. Before they even dock at Cetaganda, they are attacked by an odd-looking man. The attacker escapes, leaving behind a strange object. At a lying-in-state viewing of the Empress, Miles is accosted by one of Cetaganda’s “haut-ladies,” women of the highest caste of the society. A haut-lady does not allow anyone of the lower classes to see her, so they often travel in floating chairs that are shrouded in one-way opaque force fields. Thus, Miles has no idea what the woman who has met with him looks like, but he knows she wants the artifact. The viewing is cut short after a servant of the Empress is found dead, throat cut, in the viewing rotunda. Miles recognizes the servant as their attacker.

Miles engineers another meeting with the haut-lady. At that meeting, Rian, the handmaiden of the Dowager Empress, lowers her shields (so to speak). Miles is instantly smitten by her incomparable beauty, and her obvious distress, because the object he has is of crucial importance to the Cetagandan Empire.

The plot of Cetaganda includes an elaborate genetic system, a political conspiracy, and the fact, long known to mystery writers, that if you want to murder somebody and get away with it, there is nothing more convenient than a style of clothing that is worn by dozens or scores of people; monks’ robes, costumes, clothes designed for patriarchal societies to cover up women… or float chairs with opaque force fields. You need to understand the caste system of Cetaganda and the role of the ghem-lords and ladies — basically, the middle class — for the story to work completely. The book contains social commentary about many of those things, including a try at a “reversal” of a patriarchal society. I don’t think this quite worked, although I appreciate the attempt.

I also thought the explanation of the actions of the servant who was murdered was muddy. I never understood the motivations there, even though it gets talked about twice.

Miles swoons over the Handmaiden of the Celestial Lady, Rian, but my favorite of the haut-ladies he meets is Pel, who is practical, brave and has a lovely spark of mischievous adventurousness. There is also a fun sex-themed B-story line. Throughout the book, Miles and Ivan are the butts of Cetagandan practical jokes. The escalation of these tricks is serious and leads to an actual attempt on their lives. Before that happens, though, ladies’ man Ivan is slipped an “anti-aphrodiasic” in a cocktail. Clearly, Ivan will disappoint the two ghem-ladies with whom he has an assignation. Unable to meet the male standards of “performance,” Ivan is forced to rely on other means to satisfy the two women, and the result makes him very, very popular with the ghem-ladies. Good, only slightly naughty fun!

The fate of Rian is obvious from the third time we meet her, although Miles can’t seem to see it. This book also underscores, unintentionally, the risks inherent in the “There’s only one and we didn’t make a copy!” plot. Please, people, back up your work. It’s just common sense.

For all of that, I enjoyed reading Cetaganda. I think I would have enjoyed it more in 1996. Still, I always enjoy spending a few quality hours with Miles and Ivan. 

~Marion Deeds

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. This is one of the two I haven’t read. I’ll have to, now!

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