Ethan of Athos: Amusing side story

Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor 2. Barrayar 3. The Warrior's Apprentice 4. Ethan of AthosEthan of Athos by Lois McMaster BujoldEthan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

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.

Publisher: Our hero is a quiet, upstanding citizen of Athos, an obstetrician in a world in which reproduction is carried out entirely via uterine replicator, without the aid of living women. Problem: the 200-year-old cultures are not providing eggs the way they used to, and attempts to order replacements by mail have failed catastrophically. But when Ethan is sent to find out what happened and acquire more eggs, he finds himself in a morass of Cetagandan covert ops and Jackson Whole politics — and the only person who’s around to rescue him is the inimitable — and, disturbingly, female — Elli Quinn, Dendarii rent-a-spy.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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4 comments

  1. This is second one I haven’t read, and now that I know what it’s about I’ll have to get it. Thanks for the review, Kat!

  2. Monika /

    The concept is not silly if it’s a play on mount athos. Mount athos is home to several very influencial orthodox monasteries and to this day female prilgrims are not allowed to enter.

    • But this is a whole planet…
      I think it’s silly, but it’s meant to be silly and it’s part of Bujold’s humor. I like her sense of humor — it’s one of the defining features of the Vorkosigan books.

  3. I think she does the planet-wide thing well; look at Barrayar, look at the planet Miles’s mother is from, which is the egalitarian but annoyingly bureaucratic planet (Beta?) It’s one of her best tricks.

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