The Vor Game: Mixes space opera with political drama

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The Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga) Paperback by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's Apprentice, Falling Free, The Borders of Infinity, Brothers in ArmsThe Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is Marion’s review of The Vor Game, Brothers in Arms, and Mirror Dance. Kat’s comments about The Vor Game are at the bottom.

Miles Vorkosigan is nearly a dwarf, with bones as brittle as fine porcelain, and he is a Vor, one of the elite, the son of the Imperial Regent. The Vor, and everyone on Barrayar for that matter, are terrified of mutation because of their history, and Miles looks like a mutation even though he isn’t one. During the middle books of this series, Miles finds a way to serve his planet while succeeding in space, where for the most part people judge achievement more than physical appearance.

Miles cannot escape his Barrayaran heritage, however. In The Vor Game, he must rescue his cousin and planetary emperor Gregor from a kidnap attempt. In Brothers in Arms, Miles travels to Earth and meets a long-lost relative who may be his most dangerous adversary. Mirror Dance finds Miles, for part of the book, back on Barrayar.

The Vor Game (1990) mixes space opera with political drama, and gives us a charming, dangerous character in Commander Calvino. Miles plays a double game in order to rescue Gregor, but is he tempted, just for a moment, to let the plan play out? Gregor, who is smooth, calm and deliberate — the complete opposite of Miles — is no pushover, as he reminds us:

… both of my parents died violently in political intrigues before I was six years old. A fact you might have researched. Did you think you were dealing with an amateur?

Until now Miles has had two identities, his “real” Barrayaran identity and the cover role of Admiral Naismith, mercenary commander, secretly in the employ of Barrayaran Intelligence. Brothers in Arms adds a new facet to the Vorkosigan character when Miles meets his clone.fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

Miles goes to London, on old Earth, a city that has built locks at the mouth of the Thames to keep the rising waters from flooding the city. While there, Miles has a strange hallucination in which he sees himself in a Vor military uniform. Shortly, he discovers that this was no hallucination. Someone got DNA from Miles when he was a baby and cloned him, setting in motion a long-range plan to assassinate Miles’s father and plant a mole in the heart of the Barrayaran government. Because a true clone of Miles’s DNA would not show the damage caused in utero by poison gas, the clone should be about six feet tall and robust, but he is not. He is the same height as Miles, with a disproportionately large head, and his bones show every break, check and flaw as Miles. This gives the reader some idea of the clone’s early days. He does not greet Miles with whoops of brotherly joy. Miles, though, does manage to win him over, which is good — since the clone, who names himself Mark, is also a highly-trained assassin.

The final scenes take place in the locks, an exciting hide-and-seek action sequence. At the end of the book, Mark reluctantly agrees to meet his DNA-host family on Barrayar.

One of the different things about these books is the mix of high tech with the rigid social society on Barrayar. Bujold offers a critique of the concept of the male-dominated, paramilitary society while simultaneously writing fine military sci-fi — the Vor are fine with energy weapons, but things like uterine replicators, which make pregnancy safer for the woman and the fetus, are viewed as newfangled and probably evil. Clones, however, are commonplace, most of them the product of a planet called Jackson’s Whole, which is the Rodeo Drive of cloning with a Costco at the end of the block.

In Mirror Dance, the story follows Mark as he pursues a black-market cloning operation. In Bujold’s universe, cloning is used for the purposes we would expect; genetic engineering to create super-soldiers, sex slaves, and the most logical purpose, spare parts. Mark’s early years and his identification as a clone have engendered in him a seething hatred for those he calls “clone consumers.” When he is not on Jackson’s Whole, Mark struggles to deal with his resentment of the Vorkosigans, and his desire for a family, for love. The mirror dance, which is danced at a formal ball Mark attends, is a fine metaphor for his struggles in the book.

I have a couple of quibbles with the Vor books. One is the perfection of some of the characters. Gregor should win a gold medal for too-good-to-be-true, but Cordelia and Aral are bafflingly permissive as parents. Aral is a revolutionary, a patriot and a Vor through and through. In spite of his love for Cordelia and his love for Miles, is there never the teeniest bit of shame about his less than perfect son? He lets Miles, his fragile son and sole heir, gallivant around the universe with only the occasional manly sigh of concern when he finds out, after the fact, how bad things were. Cordelia, a Betan, is open-minded and accepting, having no trouble taking in her clone-son Mark, and in fact shares intimate information about his biological father’s sexual hardwiring. This behavior is either admirably egalitarian or downright creepy. I also roll my eyes at the anachronistic language. Commander Calvino growls that she will grind someone “into hamburger.” Hamburger, really? This is in marked contrast to the studied, mannered, carefully paced language the characters drop into when they are about to deliver a bon mot.

I did say they were quibbles, however. In the long run, the VORKOSIGAN books keep me up reading way too late at night, and that is the mark of good storytelling.

~Marion Deeds

Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's Apprentice, Falling Free, The Borders of Infinity, Brothers in ArmsWow. Miles Vorkosigan sure can get in a lot of trouble! The Vor Game won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. I listened to this series in audiobook format. Very entertaining!

~Kat Hooper

Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's Apprentice, Falling Free, The Borders of Infinity, Brothers in ArmsThis was another fast-paced, well-balanced, and very enjoyable adventure centering on Miles, his cousin Ivan, the Dendarii mercenaries, some very villainous villains (including a very clever and calculating femme fatale), and even young Emperor Gregor thrown into the mix. Once again Miles finds himself stumbling from one disastrous situation to another, always managing to squeak by on his wits alone, knowing how to manipulate and outsmart rather than overpower, and being incredibly lucky again and again.

The improbable coincidences pile up towards the end, stretching reader credibility, but in a sense that is part of the fun. We know how unlikely it would be in a “serious SF story” for these things to happen without the main characters getting blasted by a nerve disruptor, being spaced, or getting vaporized in a space battle, but the fact that Miles and Ivan can weasel their way through scrape after scrape is a bit like a really well-written TV comedy.

What elevates Bujold’s stories of Miles and his friends is that her characters are both three-dimensional and believable, even if their situations are not. There is always an emotional element to the story, including unrequited love and feelings of inferiority from our mad genius hero, and the frustrations of Emperor Gregor, who chafes at his stifling position. It all adds up to a cracking good yarn, and when you remember that it is part of a much larger VORKOSIGAN SAGA that works as a greater tapestry, it really is impressive what Lois McMaster Bujold has achieved, and her huge fan base attests to this. Narrator Grover Gardner is clearly enjoying the series just as much.

~Stuart Starosta

Published in 1990. Hugo Award-Winning Sequel to The Warrior’s Apprentice. New-minted ensign Miles Vorkosigan faces enormous challenges as he leads a mutiny against his military commander’s criminal orders, rejoins his Dendarii mercenaries, and attempts to rescue Emperor Gregor after Barrayar’s royal scion has run off straight into trouble. The Vor Game continues to attract new readers to this internationally acclaimed series that Publishers Weekly described as “among the most enjoyable and rewarding in contemporary SF.” 

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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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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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. The reading order for this series is confusing because the internal chronology is different from the publication order. Marion, do you suggest reading these books 3rd, 4th, and 5th?

  2. Kat, I suggest reading them according to internal chronology rather than publication order. You can find the list here: (that’s a link to my intro post for the group discussion about the whole series, a few years back). I’m usually a big fan of reading books in publication order, because after all that’s how people who followed the series from the very beginning got them, but in this case I think it makes more sense to go with the internal chronology.

  3. Oh, and – great write-up, Marion. I’m not sure I agree with your take on Aral, but the psychological complexity of some of these characters leaves a lot of room for interpretation so it’s not surprising that different people read things in completely different ways.

    I almost tossed Brothers in Arms when the entire clone storyline was revealed. I have a real distaste for doppelganger storylines, and I initially hated that Bujold took the series in that direction. Then, of course, she proved that a truly excellent writer can turn even a doppelganger story into something very special with Mirror Dance, which I still consider one of the best books in the series.

  4. Thanks, Stefan — super helpful!

  5. Kat–I read them in a Baen Omnibus edition and that was the order.

  6. Stefan–I was delighted with what she did with the doppelganger theme! It really was and is different. Mark is still a completely different character than Miles, and not an “evil twin.”

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