Lois McMaster Bujold: Cryoburn

It’s been 8 years since Bujold last published a Miles Vorkosigan novel – long before I started this current journal (my reviews of the earlier books are still on my old site). Cryoburn returns to the adventures of her quirky hero, after an identical gap in his own life: Now 39, Miles is happily married with children, but we see little of that, because this adventure takes place on the world Kibou-daini, a Japanese-populated planet whose inhabitants are obsessed with staving off death, and where cryo-freezing of the sick of elderly – or just people afraid of becoming sick or elderly – is common, and a dominating chunk of the economy.

I felt the series was flagging before the hiatus (admittedly a big part of the reason is that I didn’t care for Miles’ wife, in much the same way I wasn’t fond of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and those last novels revolved around their courtship and wedding), but unfortunately Cryoburn is anything but a return to the series’ previous form.

The book opens with Miles wandering, drugged and thirsty, through the catacombs filled with cryogenic units. His bodyguard, Armsman Roic, and several other attendees of a cryogenic conference, have been captured by a radical group protesting the widespread use of cryogenics, but Miles had an adverse reaction to the drugs (as he often does) and is released into the catacombs. He manages to stumble to safety, where he’s rescued by an 11-year-old boy named Jin, who lives in a small commune taking care of a menagerie of animals on the roof of one of the building.

Roic and the other abductees, including cyrogenics expert and friend-of-Miles Dr. Raven Durona, escape from their captors, and Miles gets back in touch with the Barrayaran embassy. Then it turns out that Jin’s mother was the leader of a different protest group who disappeared 18 months earlier, under mysterious circumstances. Miles feels curious – and perhaps a bit obligated – to find out what happened to her, though this is a distraction his main mission of investigating one of the cryogenic companies and their interest in setting up a large facility on one of Barrayar’s subject planets, but it forms the core of the story.

Cryoburn mainly involves chunks of sleuthing (what happened to Jin’s mother and her group, who might be connected to their disappearance) mixed with chunks of cloak-and-dagger (stealing bodies from the catacombs, tailing persons of interest, snooping around buildings). The stakes are high for Barrayar’s subject world, but Miles really makes short work of that project, focusing most of his effort on Jin’s mother, whose story presents even greater implications for the future of Kibou-daini.

But on the whole the book is an unambitious story of running around, Miles showing off his stuff, and making his opponents look impotent by comparison, despite operating on a planet where he doesn’t have any actual authority. A friend of mine commented that one of the problems with the Miles books is that his Imperial Auditor’s position combined with his formidable intellect and large network of capable friends and allies means that few problems are large enough to really give him a challenge, and certainly Cryoburn doesn’t really give him one: There are a few speed bumps along the way, but I kept waiting for “the other shoe to drop”, where the people he’s after launch a significant counter-attack, but what eventually materializes is almost comically incompetent. Basically, the “bad guys” have barely any idea that Miles is even after them, so he’s able to poke into their affairs nearly unmolested, and certainly Roic and the embassy’s armsman are more than up to the task of dealing with the obstacles they do encounter. The outcome never really seems in doubt.

In short, Miles just seems too capable, too powerful, for anything less than planetary-level adversaries to give him much of a challenge. And that makes for dull plotting.

The long-running pattern of the Miles books is the adding of new characters, who have varying degrees of sympathy with Miles, and having him either win them over to his side, or make their lives better (often by playing inadvertent matchmaker), and there’s plenty of that here. Sometimes it gets a little tiresome and repetitive seeing these ordinary people dragged along in Miles’ overpowering wake (Roic is keenly aware that he’s a supporting character and bears the role stoically; Raven is immensely capable in his own ways, and mostly gets out of the way to let Miles do his thing), although it can still be entertaining: Seeing Miles evaluate and win over Consul Vorlynkin – a man who, after all, has been posted to a relative backwater and perhaps for good reason for all Miles knows at first – is rather clever. But still, the series seems to have sunk deeply into formula.

While Cryoburn is entertainingly written, with a number of quotable lines, it unfortunately doesn’t feel like 8 years’ absence has recharged Bujold’s batteries from similarly-bland few novels prior to the interregnum.

My best guess is that Cryoburn the novel to refamiliarize readers with Miles after his long hiatus, before launching into a more substantial story. But man, this is a really weak way to lead into such an arc: a rather trivial story with a surprisingly weak by-the-numbers plot. I’d rather Bujold had just gone for the gusto and leaped into the next story with both feet from the outset. Because overall, this book is pretty forgettable.

Spoiler Warning! After the jump I discuss the end of the novel.

Continue reading “Lois McMaster Bujold: Cryoburn”

Lois McMaster Bujold: Paladin of Souls

Paladin of Souls is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, and also the winner of the 2004 Hugo Award for next novel.

The story opens about 3 years after the close of Chalion, and the protagonist is Ista, the mother of the present royina (queen), who lived for 20 years under a cloud of depression and despair due to the curse on the royal house. It’s taken her this long to struggle out from under that cloud, and with the death of her mother Ista is now casting about for some meaning to her life, even as she’s kept a prisoner through kindness of her family and friends at her mother’s castle. Desperate for a change, Ista organizes a pilgrimage for herself and a few helpers, including a pair of soldiers sent by her daughter, Ferda and Foix, and her new lady-in-waiting, Liss, whose main occupation is a horse courier.

On her pilgrimage, Ista learns that more and more demons seem to be loose in the world, a point driven home when one of her party is himself occupied by a demon. But the group soon has larger problems, when they are attacked by a raiding party from the neighboring – and unfriendly – nation of Jokona. After the group is scattered, Ista is eventually rescued by Lord Arhys and taken to his castle Porifors, where she also mets Arhys’ young wife Cattilara. Though charmed by their hospitality – and rather taken with Arhys – Ista soon realizes that there’s something not right in Porifors. In fact, a visit from a party from Jokona some months earlier had adversely affected Arhys and left his best friend, Illvin, close to death. Moreover, all that has transpired can be traced back to Jokona, and Ista finds herself unwillingly at the center of the happenings, and even more unwillingly charged by one of the gods – gods whom she believed abandoned her to her decades-long misery – to set things right.

Being set in the same world as Chalion, I found Paladin suffers many of the same problems, among them its stock and basically unimaginative backdrop. The most interesting aspect of the backdrop are the five gods – the Father, the Son, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bastard – who each hold sway over different aspects of the world, and with a structure that makes it more than a common polytheistic religion. But the structure doesn’t really play a major role in the story, it’s just a backdrop which shapes the character of the one god – the Bastard – who does play a significant role.

The big problem is that Paladin shares the biggest flaw of Chalion, which is that the story moves so s-l-o-w-l-y. It takes nearly a hundred pages for anything significant to happen, during which we’re mainly treated to the endless musings of Ista over her situation, until they encounter the Jokonan raiders. And then it’s over a hundred more pages before the revelation of what’s happening in Porifors, which is when the real story begins; everything before that it really just set-up, and it drags. A lot.

The balance of the story is generally stronger than Chalion, though: While Ista is not as engaging a main character as Cazaril was (Ista is another stock “strong woman in a society which marginalizes women” character), the challenge she faces is more interesting, and it has a much more dramatic and satisfying resolution. I also enjoyed the denouement of this book better than the first book, as it provides some nice insight into where the main characters will be going after the story ends.

But overall this is still a very flawed book. I’d sum it up with the old chestnut, “If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.” As for me, I think Bujold’s career has pretty much bottomed out with this pair of fantasy novels, and I certainly have no interest in reading any of her later fantasies. I’ll probably read further books in the Vorkosigan series (even though I’m not wild about the path that’s taken, either), but the action and adventure and humor that characterized her earlier novels has dwindled and finally vanished, and instead she’s writing dreary dramas with flat characters, and that’s just not worth my time to read.

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion

After the main character of her Miles Vorkosigan series got married, the series kind of stalled out and Lois McMaster Bujold turned to writing fantasy novels, of which this was the first. She’d previously written an uninspiring fantasy named The Spirit Ring, and since in general I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy I dithered for a long time before reading The Curse of Chalion, but since my book discussion group is reading its sequel Paladin of Souls this month, I finally sat down and tackled it.

Chalion is a nation in a generic European medieval fantasy setting, set between two other nations with whom it fights wars from time to time. Our hero, Cazaril, is a former soldier and a broken man; he’d once captained the defense of a castle until their negotiated surrender, and then he was left off the list of names ransomed back to Chalion and sold off as a galley-slave. Eventually freed, he returns to Chalion at the age of 35 – but in a body that feels far older – seeking some small employment with a noble family he’d served years before.

Cazaril gets a lot more than he bargained for, as the provencara of the castle is grandmother to the heir to the throne of Chalion, Teidez, and his sister Iselle. After just long enough to get his bearings, the provencara hires him as Iselle’s tutor (in an exchange which is probably the high point of the novel). This would be difficult enough except that not long after Teidez and Iselle are summoned to the throne of the kingdom. The king, Orico, is old and ill and is largely controlled by his chancellor, Martou dy Jironal, and his younger brother Dondo. The dy Jironals want to get their claws into Teidez and Iselle so they can control the next generation of the throne, and while Iselle is smart enough (with advice from Cazaril) to recognize that she’s being played, Teidez is easily seduced by the riches and flattery the brothers heap on him. Worse, for Cazaril, is that the brothers are responsible for his being sold off years ago, and he’s certain that they plan to get rid of him to cover one of the few tracks they’ve left. When the brothers try to force an alliance by marriage, several desperate souls are moved to stop them, including through the use of death magic – in which one sacrifices oneself to kill another – but things go strangely awry, to the confusion of everyone.

On top of this, it turns out that the royal family of Chalion has been cursed for several generations, that this is what’s holding down Orico, and that Teidez and Iselle will surely inherit the curse when they inherit the kingdom. So Cazaril and Iselle are put in the position of trying to end the curse – through means they can barely imagine – while trying to foil dy Jironal’s ongoing machinations. Along the way they meet some interesting allies while trying to avoid their myriad enemies.

While Bujold still meets the requirements of telling a story that goes somewhere, and flashes some of her skills with dialogue and humor at times, but overall I found this to be a bland book. The setting is relentlessly generic, with nothing to set it apart from any number of other heroic fantasy settings. The characters are also pretty generic, with a standard assortment of “strong women trying to rise above their medieval stereotypes”, “misguided young men”, “corrupt schemers trying to eliminate their rivals”, and so forth. The novel is essentially plot-driven, with character developments that seem de rigueuer given the story developments.

Unfortunately, one of the worst problems a plot-driven novel can have is to be slow, and The Curse of Chalion is oh-so-very slow. It starts with one of the least informative opening paragraphs I can recall in a novel, telling us essentially nothing about the setting, character, or scenario. From there the story drags on for over 50 pages before anything interesting happens, and then bogs down again for more than another 50 pages before the characters finally head off to the royal court. And though Bujold doesn’t generally write action stories, the dialogue here isn’t much to write home about, so the text doesn’t even keep things moving along through lively exchanges between the characters. It just drags.

The novel’s saving grace is Cazaril, the one character who has any, well, character, as a former soldier whose spirit has been broken and has to put himself back together again for the good of the kingdom and of Iselle. His position as the wise advisor to Iselle and some of the dumber supporting characters is a pretty stock position, and his rewards for deeds well done at the end are likewise routine, but his internal struggles to overcome his burdens make for the book’s most interesting moments, especially when he’s revealing his past to another character, or being amazed at the unique position in which he’s been placed.

But overall The Curse of Chalion is merely light entertainment, and it could easily have had 200 or so pages edited out of it. I was a big fan of Bujold’s earlier novels, but I think she peaked with Mirror Dance and her writing has been in decline ever since. This one’s one of her weakest, and it doesn’t give me optimism towards Paladin of Souls.