I found myself opening A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold*, Book #12 of her Vorkosigan Saga*, for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s my second favorite book in the series (Barrayar* being the favorite) and I was also looking at it in terms of material for a class I’m developing.
For whatever reason I also honed in on the subtitle, A Comedy of Biology and Manners, and it struck me–Ha! A Regency in space! They do exist. Another reason I revisit certain books in this series is that Bujold is probably the only other space opera (not just sci-fi romance) writer who writes at close narrative distance. It’s why–for the longest time–Barrayar and Civil Campaign* were my comps for Ravages of Honor, with Barrayar* being the closer comp because of the action sequences.
The other reason I wanted to re-read it is because it’s the part in the series where the protagonist has progressed to the next stage of life. One of the things about series, particularly long-running series (Dresden*, Honor Harrington*, Anita Blake*) is that you can’t afford to progress the character for risk of killing your series. I needed to read something where the protagonist doesn’t just start down the same path again for yet another journey to slay the monster-of-the-week.
It’s notable that next to Babylon 5*, Vorkosigan Saga* is the only other series I can think of where the main character is progressed at something other than a glacial pace. And like B5, there are not just multiple protagonists (Sinclair and Sheridan) across the series and the deuteragonists (Ivanova, Delenn, Garabaldi, et al) have not just side stories but their own arcs and character progressions.
My reviews contain spoilers. Continue at your own risk.
A great beginning
A Civil Campaign* returns us to Barrayar with an older (mid-thirties) Miles Vorkosigan coming home as an Imperial Auditor. This is his terminal promotion. He no longer gets to galavant around the galaxy, and this is a good thing. It opens with Miles deciding that he is going to court Ekaterin in secret–not as in a secret from others; as in a secret from her. Hence the comedy of biology and manners.
In the background we have his cousin the emperor’s upcoming nuptials and Bujold expands on this theme of love and marriage by also introducing sub-plots about Mark’s –Miles’s clone brother’s–romantic endeavors. So we know right away that this will be about matchmaking and courting and not about spies and ships chasing each other and firing on each other and space-battle strategy, and how fast missiles will cross these huge distances (the answer to which is: not at movie-speeds, but at ponderously boring speeds which give the target plenty of time to change their course). In other words, it’s going to be about human drives, not hyperdrives.
Bujold also expands on the “galactic” politics of her world. It’s not really galactic so much as multi-solar-system; IOW, it’s like saying that the regional politics of Texas are global and ignoring what global means. And to be frank, this is one of the things I like about it. I don’t buy into the magic of even something like jump ships being adequate for true galactic anything. It’s why I shake my head at stories that just assume that yes, galactic–and even inter-galactic–travel is just a level up. In many ways this series has harder science than some space-battle/hyperdrive/space-marines type hard sci-fi.
The world-building is fantastic. It’s one of the things that really keep me in the books even when I’m annoyed with Miles–which I often am. I too have progressed in my own life from someone who can identify with Miles to someone who identifies with everyone who has to put up with Miles. And because there are so many viewpoint characters in this who do have to put up with Miles, it works.
As far as characterization goes, Miles was never a Gary-Stu, despite being the protagonist of a space opera. Bujold built him from the start as physically less capable and while I was very upset with this when I first picked up The Warrior’s Apprentice*, he did grow on me and now as a writer, I understand why she did it. I did keep hoping that with “galactic” medicine he would eventually get a new body, perhaps a clone-without-a-brain, a la Sixth Day*, but that didn’t happen.
The Lord Dono / Lady Donna storyline
I loved the Lady Donna / Lord Dono subplot from the start, not just because we saw it through Ivan’s eyes and he is such a shallow person but because of the “science” behind it. Turning (not transitioning) from a woman into a man is the kind of thing you can get done on Beta Colony, and Lady Donna did this in order to inherit the Countship from her brother. That means removing and discarding her lady parts as well as “cloning” the man parts, putting them on, and making changes at the cellular level so that her muscles and bones are that of a man. This particular sub-plot is a great blend of science fiction and social sci-fi.
Be warned that if you are looking for treatises and procedurals on the “science” of completely and irreversibly changing morphology from female to male, you will not find it here. Like me, Bujold is filing for copyrights, not patents and knows better than to bog down a great story with pseudo-sciencey info-dumps.
The ghemlord bastard storyline
We also deal with the politics of lineage via the Vorbretten storyline. What happens when you find out that your grandmother was having sex with a ghemlord (one of the Cetagandan invaders who waged war on Barrayar)? Whether she did it to survive, to ensure her family’s survival, or because she liked him, doesn’t matter. It was war. But it does come to bite you in the ass when you bring “galactic” technology into the picture. How does it change the person in question? None at all, as it turns out, except in the minds of some of his peers. Are we who we are or are we who our progenitors were? Well, it turns out that the sins of the father are still very much a thing to punish people for. Social sci-fi anyone? It’s why I love it.
The love interest
One of the things I really appreciated in this are the things that made Miles attractive to Ekaterin. Unlike a lot of sci-fi romances (which this is not strictly speaking in terms of what that sub-genre has become; think of the “men who’ve lost their shirts” book covers who instead of kilts have blue/green/purple skin/scales/horns instead; also consider that a similar cover, one of a headless woman that emphasized only her physique would be verbotten) we have a physically damaged man whose personality must be the thing that makes him attractive.
Rarely do we see a romance between a widow and a cripple and that is what this is. (Bujold must not have gotten the memo about writing to market and I’m so glad she didn’t). While I have had to read something in what is not known as the non-typically-abled sub-genre, the characters were nowhere near as relatable and the story nowhere near as good. In fact, it was instantly forgettable, despite being a leader in that sub-genre, and that is a good thing.
Ekaterin is a mature woman (despite being young) who is not looking for some young or even middle-aged stud. Male beauty is a strange and many-splendored thing that allows for real men to be attractive to women for different, and sometimes, very practical and realistic reasons like stability, personality, and emotional compatability. One can certainly see why a young widow who was emotionally and psychologically abused by her husband would have absolutely no interest in repeating the experience and would find trust an attractive quality. Which is exactly why Bujold pivots the story by having Miles abuse that trust, lose it, and then have to win it back. This is also why Miles’s life has to stabilize and he has to get that final character growth spurt that will terminally progress him as well.
The turning point (the middle) of the story happens when Ekaterin discovers how and why Miles has been manipulating her and results in that all-important loss of trust that he now must get back. We are half-way through and have not had a single moment of Hulk!Smash! but all the action in the story has been there to up the stakes and move the characters forward, so be warned, if you are expecting a bunch of “action” as in gunfights of space battles or anything like that, this is probably not the story for you.
The butter bug storyline
Like the ghemlord bastard story line and the Lady Donna storyline, the butter bug storyline adds an element of science fiction, a humorous one, kicking this story out of the pure Romance genre and into a romantic space opera. The addition of the sub-plots gives this story too much plot for what one might call a Romance. So, if you are looking for a pure Romance, or even a sci-fi Romance where the future technology is merely window dressing, you will be disappointed. The multiple viewpoints also kick this story out of the Romance definition.
There is no on-screen sex in this story. It is very much G-rated.
Definitely slow burn.
I was going to say that this has the “beauty and the beast” trope, but it really doesn’t. Nor does it have enemies-to-lovers or second-chance. Since Miles and Ekaterin were not in love before, it can’t be a second-chance romance. And since Miles doesn’t change from beast to hero, I can’t really apply beauty and the beast either. It skirts these tropes, but doesn’t embrace them. It’s not a fish-out-of-water either (for the Lady Donna storyline) because she is not a stranger to the Vor culture, having been born in it, even though for her, experiencing it as Lord Dono does have a bit of that feel to it.
I highly recommend A Civil Campaign*, either as a standalone or as part of this series. There is enough background information to allow you to read it as a standalone. In fact, a series reader, especially one who reads this back-to-back may be justified in complaining that there is too much recap. To them, I must note, that not everyone got to read them back-to-back. Some of us had to wait for years for the books. So judging it for not being written as if the series was complete and unlikely to be picked up mid-stream, is wrong.
For those of you wanting the space opera, the rest of the series is more focused on Miles’s adventures than on anything that would be classified as “Romance.” So while there is an underlying romantic pursuit on Miles’s part of several women throughout the series, the other books focus on political intrigue, mystery-solving, adventure, and so forth. At no time is this a Weberesque space battle type of space opera. If you’re looking for that or space marines, look elsewhere.
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