The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

The Course Of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This is truly an undiscovered gem of a novel. Almost discreetly thrown out there, it will unfortunately be missed by many readers thinking it just one more of Baen’s (admittedly mostly excellent) military scifi offerings. It is much much more than that.

The story it draws closely on the history of the English occupation of India. The Jao conquered Earth twenty years ago in their struggle to hold ground against the powerful and enigmatic Ekhat. Since then, Earth has suffered under an abusive Jao viceroy. Humans still do not understand the Jao and their complex society. Most Jao see humans as lesser beings to be used up in the war against the Ekhat. But things change as a new Jao commander of ground forces arrives with fresh ideas. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are closing in and the mysterious Jao faction known as The Bond of Ebezon watches closely, ready to intervene.

The book is a page turner with plenty of action, but I did struggle with the alien Jao in the beginning. They are not written to be easily understandable. Flint and Wentworth have made them complex and truly alien without succumbing to the temptation of explaining their quirks and affectations in human terms. It’s a bit of a hump but well worth conquering. The Jao are fascinating creatures that misunderstand humans as much as humans misunderstand them. Not since Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye have I encountered aliens that are truly alien and not just humans looking different.

Flint & Wentworth masterfully take the reader from simple beginnings and purposeful confusion to understanding and enlightenment. This journey parallels that of the main protagonists, both Jao and human. Excellent!

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Joss Whedon et. al.

I came very late to Buffy. I watched the original movie, and thought it was vaguely fun but brainless, so that put me off. I now know that Joss Whedon hated what they had done with his script. After many positive comments on io9.com, I thought I would give the series a shot.

On the face of it, Buffy is a pretty silly show. A high school girl has a destiny. She is the latest in a long line of “Vampire Slayers” who keep the world safe from evil. Vampires and demons are real. All the classic tropes like wooden stakes, drinking blood, burning up in sunlight, crosses are also real. Very silly. But delving a bit deeper, one notices that Buffy isn’t just a copy of countless late night TV horror movies. It is an unexpectedly intelligent show with strong themes such as love lost, death, the danger of absolute power, hate and fear but despite all that is not afraid at poking fun at itself or the characters.

Buffy’s greatness comes from several factors. First is the subersion of classic tropes. In the typical horror movie scenario, the dumb but pretty blond is being chased by vampires, or demons, or zombies. She shrieks and dies a horrible death. In Buffy, the blond is pretty but certainly not dumb (granted, not very academically minded either). She turns around and kills the vampire. The series is full of this reversal of the accepted order of things, often done in a humorous ways. It thrives on our knowledge of pop culture, offering up recognition moments without just copying old ideas.

Second, The Slayer (capital T, capital S) starts out is a high school girl with a head full of boys, make-up and clothes shopping. She is not an aloof superhero, but an approachable teenager saddled with way more responsibility than she could ever want. Buffy is an action hero, but not like a man at all. She isn’t a strong woman who acts like a man. She is strong but still feminine. She is also strong because she must; becoming a hero very much against her will. She realizes that she must save the world regardless of the personal price to herself, since no one else can or will.

Third, it is an ensemble show with strong characters. The “Scoobies”, as Buffy’s friends call themselves, are not just sidekicks. They drive the show as much as she does. Buffy is protagonist but not lone gunman. In fact, the Scoobies often have more interesting character development than Buffy does. The interaction between the characters and the wonderfully witty dialogue makes scenes spring to life in an uncanny way.

Fourth, it is easy to identify with the characters and really feel for them. Empathy for the characters unfortunately seems to be an underrated quality in television. I tried to watch the pilot of Lost but after an hour I really thought everyone did deserve to die in the crash. On the other hand, shows like Friends, Firefly (Whedon again), Farscape, Babylon 5, Warehouse 13 and The West Wing get to me. The creators make me care about what happens to these people, despite the shows sometimes being weak in other areas.

Fifth is character development. Identification with the characters is not enough. There must be a real sense of character development. After watching all seven season of Buffy, I went back to episode one just for fun. I was shocked to see how the characters seemed so young and naive, so different from what they would become. It was like imagining I was a teenager again and looking forward to who I am now. Just like real people, Buffy and the Scoobies had changed, and their environment had changed around them. I had been dragged along in this process, watching the kids grow up and the adults watching them, frequently in despair.

Sixth, the creators aren’t afraid to make awful things happen to the characters. The fact that they make us care for them makes it poignant, even heartbreaking at times. At the same time, the love between the main protagonists becomes all the more beautiful because of the adversity they must face.

Seventh are the all-important story arcs. Shows that press the reset button after each episode (e.g. The Mentalist) can be fine, but will never be great. The story arcs that flow through Buffy are nothing short of astounding, with foreshadowing of themes and events sometimes three of four seasons before they happen. Despite that, this isn’t a show that requires note-taking or obsessive attention. It does not make the mistake of being only about the arc, and most of the episodes are just fine as standalones.

The eighth and final element is the dialog. It is snappy, witty, intelligent, and frequently interspersed with unexpected and clever little jokes. There is rarely boring exposition. The words feel as if they mean something, and go deeper than just moving the scene along.

The first season has its fair share of corniness, but right from the start, the characters and their interactions feel “real”. The dialog is witty and incisive, very often crossing over into brilliant. Most importantly, I started caring for Buffy and her friends in the very first episode. The first season certainly has weaknesses, including a couple of pretty crappy episodes, but there is enough fun to keep things going, as well as a strong feeling that this is a diamond in the rough. By the middle of the second season the show has hit its stride, evolving from its initial “Monster of the Week” format towards ever greater awesomeness.

I recommend Buffy to anyone who loves television. Yes, the subject matter is silly, but this show is both fun and engaging. If you give Buffy a chance she will amaze you.

If you are really skeptical I recommend getting a taste with one of the best episodes of television of all time: Season 4 episode 10 – “Hush”. In this one, the town of Sunnydale (where Buffy is set) is invaded by strange evil men who take away everyone’s ability to speak. For about half the episode, there is no dialogue at all! Despite this, the acting is stellar and the story gripping. The fact that the characters cannot speak, but it is perfectly clear what they are trying to say. Most shows can’t accomplish such clarity even with dialogue.

Good-bye Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Spike, Faith, Anya, Angel, Joyce, Tara, Dawn, Riley, Kennedy, Andrew, Principal Wood and the rest. But not farewell. I’ll come back to visit soon.

Xenocide – Orson Scott Card

Technically this is the second sequel to Ender’s Game, but in actuality Ender’s Game is pretty much a singleton with a spin-off. Xenocide picks up directly where Speaker for the Dead left off. The Lusitania fleet is still bearing down on our heroes, and the question of how to ensure the survival of Pequeninos, Buggers and humans dominates the book. The secondary plot on the planet Path could have been skipped altogether from a story point of view, but psychology is never boring with Card, and so it’s good, if sometimes long-winded reading.

Xenocide is rather slow in the first two thirds, and it took me a long time to get through it. The last third speeds up as the story reaches it’s climax. For a while I though Card would lose it with his theory of the universe, but it all works out rather neatly in the end. Well, life is a mess for Ender, but that seems to be his lot in life.

The ending neatly sets the stage for the sequel Children of the Mind. Just like in Speaker for the Dead, a lot is left unresolved.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Speaker for the Dead. The story is just as good, if not better. However it is quite slow and long winded. Card himself has said this book is maybe his “deepest” work. That isn’t to say it isn’t a great book. It really is. Finally, don’t start with this one. Read the previous two first.

Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card

As in the prequel Ender’s Game, Card puts puts Ender center stage. Ender is now in his mid thirties, but three thousand years have passed (thanks to judicious speed of light travel on his part) and he finds a chance to redeem himself for what he (and the public) sees as the xenocide (murder of alien race) of the “buggers”. History, cruelly revisionist as it often is, has condemned him for saving the human race, and his very name is a curse. Using his real name, Andrew, he travels from world to world as a Speaker for the Dead, a person who speaks the truth about a person after death at their request.

Mankind has found a new alien race, the seemingly primitive “Piggies”. The colonists of the Piggie world Lusitania call them Pequeninos (little children) and this is a powerful hint for the reader. Ender falls into a maelstrom of human suffering spanning generations, while untenable Piggy-xenologer (scholar of aliens) interaction rules and their violation is putting the future of the Piggies and the colonists in doubt.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as Ender’s Game, and it delves much deeper into the human psyche, showing off Cards strength here. While Ender may sometimes be almost annoyingly wise and seemingly unerring, this does not detract from the story. The book focuses very much on human (and piggy) interaction and feelings, and at the end you wonder how a book can be so good with so little essentially happening. It deeply explores questions of humanity and existence, as well as morality and integrity, but without becoming preachy or boring. As with Ender’s Game, Card has yet again penned a masterpiece.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I had never read this classic for some odd reason. Card sets the boy Ender center stage from the very beginning. Most other characters are two dimensional parts of the surrounding for Ender to react to, with the exception of his siblings. The surroundings are equally vague, further enhancing the impression of Ender moving in a strange world. The novel focuses entirely on Ender’s personal development, and how the military is forced to mold him into a super soldier to end a mysterious alien threat. Society has become controlled and strict, with everything subjugated to the war effort, including trivial things like personal happiness.

Ender is a complex and deeply unhappy genius child. His plight is made all the more tragic by the fact that he is intensely aware of what is happening to him. He is becoming a great leader, but his empathy is suffering. He is being taught to manipulate others and mold them to his will, all the while realizing that he will be disliked, even hated, by those he controls. And what child doesn’t want to be liked rather than respected? for that matter, what adult?

The military establishment acts like those parents who want their child to “become something” without bothering to ask what the child wants. The excuse of the greater good of mankind could easily be substituted with “the good of the child”. Yet, while members of the military (appearing as voice-overs only) have doubts about what they are doing to Ender, the ends always overshadow the means.

In his introduction, Card mentions a letter from a guidance counselor who claimed that children simply don’t act or talk as the author describes them. But I agree with Card. Children can talk in an adult fashion, and their acts and motivations can be intensely Macchiavellian. However, they will censor themselves in front of adults, especially those who would frown upon their behavior. Children are seen in this novel as an underclass with no rights, which is used by society to further it’s means. Even though survival of the species is on the line, it still seems a very cruel thing to do. And this is an important theme in the novel. How far are we willing to go to ensure our survival? Is nothing sacred?

The central parts are somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment. The pages just fly by and I was unable to put it down. The last part of the book takes an unexpected turn, but it is here that we discover Ender’s true purpose. Without giving anything away, I will say that it is not quite what you expect.

After finishing the novel, I just sat in awe for several minutes. The depth of understanding that Card has over human psychology on both the individual, group and mass levels is astounding. The way he weaves it into a story is spectacular and keeps the reader guessing, turning the pages to see what new surprises are in store. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you haven’t already, run out and buy it now!

Debt of Honor and Executive Orders – Tom Clancy

An older Jack Ryan moves upwards in the chain of command. Debt of Honor is nowaday subtitled “The prelude to Executive Orders”. I think this does it a tremendous disservice. Although it does end in the middle of the story, it is a fully fleshed out novel in it’s own right, and raises some interesting questions about the future of the Pacific region.

Executive Orders is my favorite Clancy. Its amazing mix of high level politics, forced change at the highest levels of the US governemnt (wishful thinking by Clancy, but I do agree with his views on this one) and of course excellent military action make this a book to read over and over.

Clear and Present Danger – Tom Clancy

Jack Ryan moves to the top floor of the CIA, and has to deal with some thorny internal politics as well as the dangers of “the real world”. The small unit action descriptions and the helicopter stuff is amazing. Also very good are the internal tribulations of our hero, who finds that people can be quite ruthless when in power. In the end, however, his integrity is his strength. A great read.

Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy

Patriot Games was written second, but chronologically the events portrayed occur before The Hunt for Red October. These two novels kicked off a series that continues today, and remain among the best technothrillers ever written. The true passion that Clancy has for his subject matter shows through, and his strong personal belief in the values portrayed by Jack Ryan, widely considered to be his fictional alter ego, make these books among the best I have read,

These are also two of my favorite movies. The films follow the novels quite closely. Of course they abridge, but the essence of the stories is there.

A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin

A simply magnificent portrayal of the Apollo program. Easily accessible even for the non-engineering inclined. Chaikin interviewed a whole host of people from engineers to administrators and of course the astronauts, thus managing to produce what many feel is the definitive account of NASA’s Moon program. A fascinating insight into what actually happened on the American side of the Moon race. Despite its heft it does not feel like a heavy read. The only caveat is that you might have to read it twice since it is packed with information and a bit much to digest in one go.

Diplomatic Immunity – Lois McMaster Bujold

This novel was chronologically the last one in the Vorkosiverse for several years until Cryoburn came out. Miles and Ekaterin are diverted from their honeymoon as Miles is ordered to Quaddiespace in order to sort out a diplomatic tangle involving an interned Komarran/Barrayaran trade fleet. Needless to say, complications abound as a Cetagandan plot involving haut unborn babies is uncovered.

Not knowing at the time about Cryoburn coming years later, it was quite bittersweet to read the last of the books. While Diplomatic Immunity is not the best of the Vorkosigan books, it certainly does not disappoint. As usual, the enormously talented McMaster Bujold demonstrates her prowess at seeing things from many points of view. Her descriptions of Quaddies, their actions and thought patters, are particularly impressive. A lot of thought was obviously given to how even basic mannerisms could be decidedly different for humans with four arms, no legs, and a life in zero gravity habitats. The interaction between a happily married Miles and Ekaterin is charming and alluring, leaving the reader hungering for many more books. Perhaps it is a good thing that the author quit when at the top of her game, but I couldn’t help feeling at the time that Miles, and now Ekaterin, still have many stories left to be told.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants and Microbes” omnibus.

The Return – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

After the fantastic Encounter with Tiber, I was hoping that Aldrin and Barnes would pull off another great epic story. In this respect, I was sadly disappointed. The Return is still a good SciFi yarn. It’s a near space, near future story which fictionalizes what I assume to be Aldrin’s hopes for humanity’s return to serious space travel. Worth picking up if you’re into this sort of thing, but nothing very special.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Until Adams’ untimely demise, this series kept expanding and expanding. I have read up to book four, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of The Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything and finally So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. While many SciFi fans see this as the be all and end all of satire, I seem to have missed most of their point. Granted, the series is  good, but not quite so ultimately engrossing that I feel the need to read it over and over again. To be quite honest, I find some of the parts quite sad, especially the repeated failures of Arthur Dent to find happiness. I think that this book reflects Britishness in a very unique way, mixing equal parts dry humor and melancholy. Having said all that, definitely read the first two parts. They ARE classics (and now I sound like an English teacher…) If nothing else, you’ll be able to keep up when other SciFi readers reference them.

Children of Apollo – Mark R. Whittington

In this alternate history novel, a CIA analyst figures out that by 1969, the space program is having a small but noticeable negative effect on he Soviet economy. Nixon, who never has to resign, decides to massively expand the space program. As the years pass, we follow spies, politicians and astronauts in the years following the first moon landing. While there certainly is a lot of wishful thinking in the plot, with Apollo missions continuing to 23, with private space stations and space shuttles in the seventies, it has a solid foundation. If NASA funding had remained at Apollo levels or increased, we might well have seen all those things.

This book, for me, represents the best and worst about self publishing. The best because sometimes good books simply are not picked up by publishing houses, and this one deserved to be published. The worst because a commercial publisher would have cleaned up the prose and made this book really shine.

The plot is really good. Well crafted. Exciting. Good pacing. But the text is rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I didn’t count them but I estimate more than one per page on average. Even a mediocre copy editor could have fixed 99% of the problems with the text. Now, if this book had been crappy in general, I wouldn’t have cared. But it is actually a great story. Thus, my frustration stems from the fact that a very good book is dragged down by easily fixable stuff, most of which a word processor would have picked up. That’s just plain sloppy.

Some examples of what I mean: Berkeley is incorrectly spelled “Berkly”. Camaro is spelled “Camero”. Taut is spelled “taunt”. Aide is spelled “Aid”. Applause is spelled “applauds”. Champagne is spelled “champaign”. Asti Spumante is spelled “Asti Spurmanti”. Las Cruces is spelled “Las Cruzus”. Alan Shepard (the astronaut) is spelled “Alan Shepherd”. To add insult to injury, the author does actually spell that name correctly once. Baikonour is spelled in three ways in the book, all incorrect. Grammar errors include phrases like “going to fight for if-no when-you send me to Congress.” Stylistically, there are gems like “They looked at each other in for a moment, sharing the awful truth they had just shared.”

Then we have the technical errors. I will grant that the author is not an aerospace expert but since the book is about the space program one would think he could get the basics right. Finding a pilot to answer a few questions would have greatly improved the test flight passages. Certainly no pilot would ever “jerk the joystick”. There’s no jerking involved. In fact no pilot would EVER call it a “joystick”. It’s just a stick. ARGH!

Finally, we have the politics. Whittington makes Democrats/liberals out to be misguided and short sighted while Republicans lead America to a brighter future. Even though I might not completely agree, I have no problem with the sentiment being expressed. However, it is all so heavy-handed that it weighs down the plot.

In conclusion. I would say that Mr. Whittington has some real talent. What he needs is a real editor to review the text before publication. Without the errors and with a few style adjustments, this one could have scored four or more Rosbochs.

Red Moon – David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton

The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.

I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.

And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.

Voyage – Stephen Baxter

Definitely my favorite Baxter. Unlike most Baxter fare, there is no “big thinking”, no Xeelee, no looming destruction of the universe. It is, quite simply, a novel of what might have been (and very nearly was) if NASA had been allowed to continue in the footsteps of Apollo all the way to Mars. It is written in parallel perspectives, looking at the mission itself as it runs its course, and at the preparations, political wangling and engineering that precede it. The heroine, Natalie York, is followed closely as Baxter explores her long personal journey in parallel with the preparations, as it becomes clear to the reader (and to herself) just how much one has to sacrifice to become an astronaut. The quiet geologist becomes an astronaut and an unwilling hero as she reaches for the ultimate prize of both her professions. Despite being fiction, it is in my opinion one of the best portrayals of the culture and politics of NASA during the Apollo and post-Apollo era.

Baxter did in fact apply to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was required to speak a foreign language and thus failed to get in. In Voyage, his love of astronautics and space exploration clearly shows. If you liked the movie Apollo 13, you will enjoy this book.

Encounter with Tiber – Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

With a name like Buzz Aldrin on the cover I figured I needed to at least give it a shot. The story follows the first human mission to another star, and in flashbacks a human mission to the Moon that found alien artifacts, as well as two alien missions to Earth in prehistoric times.

Unexpectedly, this novel completely blew me away. The story is developed from two angles, human and alien. Interestingly enough, the two sides never meet as such, but impact on each other’s existence in various ways. While the aliens aren’t the most original, the alien characterisation is complex and well written, It is nice to read about well fleshed out characters who have deep, complex personalities on the “other” side. The tech is of course top notch (Buzz Aldrin!), but the real kicker here is the sheer epic scale of the story. After I finished it, I sat staring into empty space for a long time, my mind filled with wonder.

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn is chronologically placed about six years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles is sent by Emperor Gregor to investigate a corporation on the planet of Kibou-Daini, where millions of people are cryogenically frozen, hoping to be revived when they can be cured or rejuvenated. As inevitably seems to happen, large corporations (in this case specialized in cryopreservation) have accumulated more power than any nation should feel entirely comfortable with. Miles, as is his wont, stumbles on a whole big conspiracy and, as usual, can’t restrain himself from stretching his official job description of investigator to the very limit. Well, way beyond the limit for that matter.

McMaster Bujold had Vorkosigan fans wait seven long years for a new adventure with Miles. Luckily for me, I only started reading the books in 2008, but the wait for this next installment still felt far too long. Stepping back into the Vorkosiverse and being a fly on the wall while Miles plows through his adventures like a “hyperactive lunatic”, as Dr. Raven Durona so aptly describes it in the book, is a sheer visceral pleasure. Ms. McMaster Bujold has most definitely not lost her touch, mixing humor, an interesting and thought-provoking plot and emotional impact in perfect measure. Her skill at encapsulating emotions within a clever and witty little sentence is peerless. While it felt somewhat sad that only Miles and Armsman Roic were actually on this jaunt, (SPOILER: Mark and Kareen join up at the end) the colorful supporting cast loomed over them in spirit, with many references scattered about like easter eggs for the serious fan.

As usual with her novels, Bujold wrote this one to fit both into the wider series and a standalone, and it works perfectly well as the latter. With Miles flying solo again, it felt like a throwback (perhaps even an homage) to the pre-Memory books, before Miles became got his “adult” job of Imperial Auditor. McMaster Bujold even hints at this in the epilogue, when Ivan wonders what “the old Miles would have said”.

All the books are good, and while this one is not quite as superb as, say, Memory, it still easily proves why McMaster Bujold is one of my very favorite authors.

Labyrinth – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story is set in the Jackson’s Whole system, a place where capitalism has run completely wild and unchecked. Miles’ mission is to pick up a scientist wishing to defect from one of the large syndicates that run Jackson’s Whole. But of course, things are never that easy and simple when Miles is involved.

This piece was a lot of fun, with McMaster Bujold showcasing how she understands what makes characters tick and how they react to one another. Quite enjoyable.

This short story is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Ethan of Athos – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat unexpectedly, this story doesn’t feature Miles at all. One of the main characters is Elli Quinn, introduced back in “The Warrior’s Apprentice”. She is now a Commander in the Dendarii Free Mercenaries and is hunting down a mysterious character named Terrence Cee. The titular protagonist, Ethan of the planet Athos, comes from an isolated society made up exclusively of males. He is a reproductive specialist who is sent on a mission to find ovarian cultures in order to enrich Athos’ failing gene pool. On arrival to his first waystation, he finds himself embroiled in the struggle surround Terrence Cee and his valuable genetic heritage.

Ethan’s initial contact with galactic society is very entertaining. He has never met a woman, and really has understanding whatsoever of that sex. Luckily, McMaster Bujold doesn’t make the entire novel an essay on this point. The action, almost exclusively confined to one massive space station, is entertaining and leavened with the author’s almost trademark sharp wit. The evolution of Ethan’s character from hopeless naif through angry victim to assertive decision maker makes this a bildungsroman of sorts, and a good one.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mysery & Mayhem” omnibus.

Cetaganda – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles, now a Lieutenant working for Imperial Security, is sent off to a Cetagandan state funeral along with his less than brilliant but dashingly handsome cousin Ivan Vorpatril. While there, they are embroiled in a complex plot to stir the waters of Cetagandan nobility genetic engineering.

The plot is in fact very complex, and while showcasing Miles’ intelligence, it goes perhaps a bit too far. The Cetagandan empire is a remarkable edifice constructed by McMaster Bujold. The highest caste controls the evolution of their own and the soldier caste through rigidly held gene banks and elaborately calculated pairings. It is almost worth reading the book for the descriptions of ceremonies, locations and people. Unfortunately, the plot is not as strong as one would want, and quickly bogs down in far too many twists and turns. I’m all for a nice mystery but there is very little actual action to propel the mystery along. I caught myself no longer caring very much what actually happened, as long as I could read about Miles and his ever entertaining adventures.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mystery & Mayhem” omnibus.

The Vor Game – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ first assigment after graduation from the Barrayar Service Academy seems like a complete dead end. Weather officer at a remote arctic training station. He is replacing an officer who has spent fifteen years at the base, and uses his nose to compile the forecast. Miles has been more or less promised a very attractive ship assignment if he can prove that he can follow orders and keep out of trouble for six months. For even after graduation there are many who believe Miles is too weak and short to be a real officer, and too arrogant to follow orders. Of course, Miles doesn’t manage to stay out of trouble, and ends up leading a mutiny against the deranged commander of the base. A just mutiny, perhaps, but this wasn’t what they meant when they told him to stay out of trouble. In the end, his father the prime minister and the head of Imperial Security decide that it would be safest to make him part of Imperial Security itself. To that end, he is sent as a subordinate on a fact finding mission about an impending crisis at an critical frontier wormhole hub. Yet again, Miles cannot stay out of trouble. He is forced to rejoin the Dendarii Mercenaries (from The Warrior’s Apprentice) and finds himself attempting to rescue the young Barrayaran emperor while trying to prevent an invasion.

The entire first part of the novel at the arctic base felt like an (admittedly entertaining) throwaway for quite a while. I was worried that this would make the novel disjointed, but one of the main characters from that section did crop up in a key role later. So no worries there. McMaster Bujold certainly knows how to throw together a complex plot. Luckily for the reader, she also knows how to sort it all out. The Vor Game is entertaining, engaging, exciting, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

This novel is collected in the “Young Miles” omnibus.