Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest book in a brilliant science fiction series that usually centers on Ivan Vorpatril’s more famous cousin Miles Vorkosigan. The Vorkosigan Saga has been going strong for over 25 years and about 15 novels. While Ivan’s played a big role in several of the stories so far, this is the first time we get to see the world from his point of view. And because he’s sort of a lovable goof, often positioned as comic relief for his brilliant cousin Miles despite being deceptively intelligent and resourceful himself, this is a book many fans of the series have been clamoring for for years.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance came out over a year ago. Since I usually have a stack of books sitting here that need to be reviewed by yesterday and Baen stopped sending me review copies several years ago, I more or less forgot about the novel until I ran into a copy at the library. Now, a year after its release, there already are plenty of great reviews, so I’m going to go a different route today and just offer some thoughts about a pivotal scene in the book and its place in the broader series.
All this to say that the following will contain spoilers for the series and for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance itself. If you haven’t read the books yet, you may want to stop reading here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: spoilers ahoy.
Despite being usually referred to as the Vorkosigan Saga, I believe that, by now, it would make more sense to call this series the Barrayar Saga. The series includes several books with other protagonists than Miles, including two that mainly focus on his parents Aral and Cordelia, one about Commander Elli Quinn, one in which Miles’ clone brother Mark takes center stage, and now of course Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.
Miles is an incredibly powerful and intriguing character with one of the most fascinating story arcs in all of science fiction, so it’s natural to identify the series with his name. However, that very story arc is an illustration of what I consider the main theme of the series: the evolution of Barrayar’s social and political norms, both internally and compared to the other societies in the Wormhole Nexus.
Miles is physically weak because of the poison gas used in an attempt to assassinate his father Aral. On a planet that’s suffered human mutation caused by the radiation resulting from past nuclear attacks, Miles is often mistaken for a “mutie.” In a society that prizes physical ability, he is stigmatized because of his disability. This stigma is a large part of the drive that causes him to become such an exceptional person.
Ivan is in some ways the polar opposite to Miles. Physically gifted, tall and healthy, some of the benefits Miles had to fight for—most notably, his military career—more or less fell into Ivan’s lap. He’s shown as more or less drifting through life, enjoying the nightlife of the Barrayaran capital, having fun and womanizing, not trying too hard so he doesn’t end up with more responsibility—all this while Miles is fighting tooth and claw to earn respect.
What’s interesting about Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is that it shows Ivan starting from a weakened position and then almost naturally using one of the tactics Miles used in previous books.
Specifically, the incident that launches the entire plot of the novel: while on Komarr, Ivan is asked to help out a young woman. In the process (to sum up a long, hilarious scene) he ends up having to improvise: he marries Tej to keep her out of the hands of the local authorities and takes on her friend Rish as a maidservant for the same purpose.
My first, almost instinctual reaction to this scene was annoyance bordering on outrage: here comes Ivan, knight in shining armor, to save the two damsels in distress: “Here, ladies, you seem to be in a spot of trouble. Let’s see… I’ll marry you, and you can be my maidservant.”
Of course, that would be an incredibly flawed reading of a scene that, it almost seems, Lois McMaster Bujold has been building towards since the very beginning of the series. Rewind to an earlier moment in the series, at the start of the process that will turn Miles Vorkosigan into Admiral Naismith in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Remember how Miles swears Jesek to his service as liegeman to get him out of trouble? And later, in (I think – correct me if I’m wrong) Mirror Dance, when Cordelia gets Elena to swear to service as a liegewoman to Mark for the same reason?
The scene in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is practically a mirror image (no pun intended) of those two earlier scenes. All three scenes show people taking advantage of the outdated Barrayaran imperial power structure, its customs and laws, to save and ultimately empower others. They are dizzying reversals of power: the person who is in charge (but not really) places the weaker and/or endangered person (but not really) in a subjugated position (but not really) to save them.
This series of scenes is just one great example of Bujold using her characters to illustrate the changing social norms of the Barrayaran Imperium since the Time of Isolation. The Wormhole Nexus has moved on, while Barrayar still sticks to the Vor power structure and all that entails. Or does it?
(Note: it really becomes clear that Tej and Rish knew very well what they were getting into when they discuss whether Tej should consider actually sleeping with her “pro forma” husband: they idly decide that “there’s no harm in setting up a basic biological reward-loop as a minor safety net.”)
A central thread throughout these books has been turning weakness into a hidden strength, going back all the way to Koudelka’s swordstick in Shards of Honor: a walking stick, symbol of his disability in a society where physical ability is key to advancement, but hiding a sword which plays a crucial role throughout the book. Remember: that swordstick was used to kill the pretender Vordarian and, to bring the point all the way around, to cut Ivan’s umbilical cord.
A later scene in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance portrays Ivan’s mother, Lady Alys, during her annual remembrance of her husband, who was killed right before Ivan’s birth. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the series so far: Lady Alys remembering her husband Padma leaving her side when she was about to give birth—ostensibly to find help, running out into a street full of armed men, but really too afraid to stay and deliver the baby. Maybe the opposite of those previous scenes: using strength to hide his weakness?
Reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, it’s sometimes hard not to feel as if the novel is meant as some sort of closure for all those ongoing threads. Bujold has almost every major living character from the series show up at some point and at least mentions the dead ones in passing. Similarly, the novel contains almost the entire history of Barrayar, from early colonization right up to the present, in the form of some infodump-y explanations by Ivan to his new wife. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance feels like a summation of all that came before.
If the novel has one weakness, it’s that the storyline that takes place in the present doesn’t feel nearly as strong as all those remembrances and ongoing themes and looks at the past. I’ve felt that the series has been losing some steam with Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn, and I don’t think Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is a much stronger novel than those two, as entertaining as it was to read a story from Ivan’s perspective.
There’s a lot more going on in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance than I’ve mentioned here: there’s a hilarious heist, and a complex plot that ties back to both Cetaganda and Jackson’s Whole, and as usual lots of Bujold’s wonderful dialogue and wit. There are, as mentioned, a ton of references to previous books and characters, so many that it occasionally feels a bit like “playing to the fans”— but being a fan, it’s undeniably a fun experience. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is not the best book in the series by far, but compared to Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn, it has one big advantage: it’s more reminiscent of some of the brilliant early novels—for many reasons.