Athos is a planet of men. No women are allowed — they are evil and they ruin good men. Since there isn’t a lot of immigration to Athos (their advertising campaigns just don’t seem to be very effective), they need to create baby boys to keep the population from dying out. Dr Ethan Urquhart is one of the men who’s responsible for using stock ovarian cultures to create and incubate male babies in uterine replicators. When the ovarian cultures begin to give out, Ethan orders new stock, but when it arrives it is full of the wrong kind of material. Something has gone wrong. Now Ethan must be sent off-planet to find new ovaries. Ethan is pretty nervous about his quest — he knows that there are women out there and that they are all out to capture and degrade men. He plans to stay well away from them, get his job done, and return to the safety of Athos as fast as he can.
But Ethan gets tangled up in interplanetary politics — someone has some dastardly plans for Athos and it has something to do with the wrong ovarian cultures Ethan received. Now he’s in mortal danger. Fortunately, he’s not alone because the beautiful mercenary Elli Quinn, who we know (and love) from most of the other VORKOSIGAN books, has been investigating this plot from the other end. If Ethan wants to stay alive, he must work with Elli (a woman!) to solve the mystery.
If you can get past the silly premise (an all-male planet) which, of course, is meant to be silly, you’ll find that Lois McMaster Bujold has not only provided us with a fun story (how can this not be fun?) with all the usual Bujold elements (genetic engineering plots, shooting, hiding, torture, escapes, rescues, etc.) but has also provided us with a little more substance than this type of unisex planet story has received by pulp writers in the past. Bujold lets us see an all-male culture at work.
Unlike the better VORKOSIGAN books, Ethan of Athos is somewhat predictable and has a naively incompetent protagonist, but it’s still a worthy read. Here we get to know Elli Quinn better and we learn how she feels about Miles Vorkosigan (the main protagonist of the series) and why she admires him so much. Miles never actually appears in Ethan of Athos, though Elli talks about him a lot.
Ethan of Athos is the third book that Lois McMaster Bujold published, but the events related in this story occur much later in the VORKOSIGAN SAGA, between Cetaganda and The Borders of Infinity. It doesn’t really matter when you read Ethan of Athos, though, because it’s more of a side story. New readers could even start here, if they like, or it could be skipped all together. It’s not important to the rest of the series, but it gives us more insight into Bujold’s world and allows us to get to know Elli Quinn better. Plus, it’s amusing. I read Blackstone Audio’s version narrated by the excellent Grover Gardner.