Review: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ll start with a caveat. Two caveats, actually. First: ignore this book’s awful cover. I promise this is not a novel about a sci-fi Playboy mansion.

Second caveat: if you’re not familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is probably not the place to start. Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is an all-time science fiction classic, smart military sci-fi set in peacetime. There are two main characters: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, heroine of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and her son Miles Vorkosigan, a physically disabled young man growing up in a militaristic culture that fears mutation. Most of the Vorkosigan books chronicle Miles’s adventures as he works to find a place in the universe for himself — and a place on his home planet of Barrayar, arguably a more challenging task.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the first book to feature Vorkosigan supporting player Ivan Vorpatril as its main character. Ivan got a minor turn as a point-of-view character in A Civil Campaign, but this is our first book with Ivan as the hero. He’s usually being dragged into Miles’s crazier schemes against his will and better judgment. Ivan’s loyalty and courage and cheerful desire to do as little as possible have made him a fan favorite with Vorkosigan readers, and I know I’m not the only Bujold fan who was delighted to see him get his own book.

As the book opens, Ivan is stationed on the planet Komarr, serving diligently but unambitiously as an assistant to an important military officer. His evening’s plans are interrupted when an old acquaintance — Imperial Security officer Byerly Vorrutyer — asks Ivan for a favor: use his well-known charm to pick up a woman Byerly thinks might be in danger. The woman, Tej, turns out to be in a lot more danger than Ivan realized.

Simply put, of all the books I’ve read this year, this is by far my favorite. I can’t think of any book that filled me with more joy and pleasure as I read it. Bujold’s humor, her deft touch with romance, her amazing sci-fi worldbuilding skills, and her ability to make her characters seem like real people with just a few paragraphs are all on display here. Take Tej, for example. She’s a newcomer to the Vorkosigan universe, but just halfway through the book she feels as well-rounded and complete as any of the Vorkosigan veterans. She’s smart and competent without being superhuman; she is also warm and caring and has a cheerful sense of humor. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that Ivan falls for her, and the reader can see why he does.

That said, I think a lot of my pleasure from the book stemmed from my love for the Vorkosigan books in general. Seeing Ivan fall for Tej felt like seeing my own favorite bachelor cousin finally find the right woman. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is strong enough to stand on its own as a sci-fi romance, I think, but it won’t have nearly as much emotional resonance for someone who hasn’t read the other Vorkosigan books.

If you’re a Vorkosigan novice and you need an entry point for the series, I recommend starting with the Young Miles omnibus. But if you’re already a Bujold fan and you haven’t read this yet, what are you waiting for?

Rating: Buy it


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