Brothers in Arms (Vorkosigan Saga) - Lois McMaster Bujold



Brothers in Arms

Lois McMaster Bujold


I feel like my recent reviews have tipped mainly into the negative, and I've been avoiding reposting them on BL as yet, so to convince myself that I'm not a misandristic, misanthropic malcontent who loves alliteration not wisely but too well, I've decided to introduce a little positivity by going back and reviewing some of my favourite books in the Vorkosigan Saga.  As this mission was not completed on GR, I'll mix reposts with new reviews.


My advice regarding the Vorkosigan Saga boils down to this: go read them. All of them. I suggest starting with The Warrior's Apprentice--and no, this isn't one of my usual careless suggestions to jump midway into a series; it's recommended by Bujold herself. And now, onwards to Brothers in Arms!

In Miles Vorkosigan's most recent mission as his alter-ego Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, he was sent undercover to rescue one important man from a Cetagandan POW camp. As is typical of Miles' missions, things didn't go as planned, and the 1 prisoner rescue was somehow multiplied into 10,000. Now, with the fleet badly in need of repairs, Miles has stopped at Old Earth to prize payment from the reluctant pockets of the Barrayaran Embassy in London. And, of course, that's when things on Earth start getting, as Miles would say, a little out of hand. While Miles is trying to escort high-faluting London socialites as part of his Barrayaran identity, he is forced to make a daring--and unfortunately visible--rescue as Admiral Naismith. With both of his identities seen on Earth, how long can it be before people connect the glaring fluorescent dots? As Miles points out, "How many four-foot-nine-inch black-haired grey-eyed hunchbacks can there be on this damn planet? D’you think you trip over twitchy dwarfs on every street corner?" Not only is his cover identity at risk, but, with the Cetagandans simultaneously meeting socially with with Lt. Vorkosigan of the Barrayaran Embassy and actively out for the blood of the all-too-similar Admiral Naismith, Miles is doubly in danger. Clearly, Miles decides, the obvious solution is to tell everyone that he has a clone, created in secret as part of a plot against Barrayar. It isn't long before Miles is heading straight into his own unique version of an identity crisis. And since this is Miles Vorkosigan, that's when things start getting complicated.

Brothers in Arms is a genuinely enjoyable and fantastically outrageous farce. I can't discuss much without spoilers, but it suffices to say that it reminds me strongly of the best of P.G. Wodehouse, with everyone bumbling around in an old-fashioned comedy of mistaken identities, impressively convoluted concatenations of circumstance, and thoroughly muddled and bewildering chases. This book contains some absolutely hilarious moments, from Miles Vorkosigan on Fast Penta (holy hyperactive mutants, Batman!), to the continuing litigious nature of Londoners, to a chase scene in the bowels of London with three groups all after one another, to Miles' tumultuous and constantly hilarious flow of inner thoughts. Take, for example, his musings on an ornamental goldfish pond:

Perhaps the stubborn one was a fiendish Cetagandan construct, whose cold scales glittered like gold because they were. He might pluck it out with a feline pounce, stamping it underfoot with a mechanical crunch and electric sizzle, then hold it up with a triumphal cry—'Ah! Through my quick wits and reflexes, I have discovered the spy among you!' But if his guess were wrong, ah. The squish! under his boot, the dowager’s recoil, and the Barrayaran prime minister’s son would have acquired an instant reputation as a young man with serious emotional difficulties... 'Ah ha!' he pictured himself cackling to the horrified woman as the fish guts slithered underfoot, 'You should see what I do to kittens!' The big goldfish rose lazily at last, and took a crumb with a splash that marred Miles’s polished boots. Thank you, fish, Miles thought to it. You have just saved me from considerable social embarrassment.

Bujold still manages to inject a few moments of pathos; Brothers in Arms, is, as one might expect, a story about families; of the ways that fathers shape their sons and siblings hold sway over siblings.

I thought Miles' portrayal of his father was interesting, especially since it is the polar opposite of the strict, distant, demanding (if loving) man we see glimpses of in The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game, the man who tells his son who suffers physically pain he cannot imagine to suck it up because he is Vor:


"I always knew," said Miles softly—the clone leaned closer—"why my parents never had another child...the reason was me. These deformities...My parents, on the other hand, were so kind, and careful—their absolute lack of suggestion spoke louder than shouting. Overprotected me even as they let me risk my bones in every sport, in the military career—because they let me stifle my siblings before they could even be born. Lest I think, for one moment, that I wasn’t good enough to please them."


(show spoiler)

One of the themes of the novel is the contrasting motivations of person and principle. I found it especially interesting in the context of Barrayar; personally, I see Barrayar as the greatest of empty principles, a heartless, grasping, barren homeland that swallows its sons. Because of this, I very much enjoyed the rather frank discussion between Quinn and Miles on the subject of Miles' duty to his homeland. Personally, I'm with Quinn: I just don't get it. Are we, as readers, supposed to understand this stupid nationalism to a "backward dirtball," as Quinn would say? Even so, I think this book shines brightest as a farce. Most of the best moments can't be mentioned without spoilers, but it can be noted that Evil Twin Alternate Universe Facial Hair gets involved.

[Did you notice that Miles, not Mark, sports the Evil Twin Beard in this one? Overall, I just loved the moments of farce, neatly summed up here:
"Miles sealed his boots and paused seriously. 'I’m not sure. But I may yet see a chance to save . . . something, from this mess.'
Elli, listening intently, remarked, 'I thought we had saved something. We uncovered a traitor, plugged a security leak, foiled a kidnapping, and broke up a major plot against the Barrayaran Imperium. And we got paid. What more do you want for one week?'
'Well, it would have been nice if any of that had been on purpose, instead of by accident,' Miles mused."


(show spoiler)

One last thing: the Vorkosigan Saga has joined a select set of series that I believe are genuinely better on audio. As I originally encountered most of these books in print form, I can attest that Grover Gardner truly brings an extra dimension to the stories. Gardiner is an amazing narrator; his light tenor and slightly peculiar intonation create a perfect fit for Miles Vorkosigan, yet his wide range and enthusiasm allow him to dip into the a host of different characters, moods, and personalities. Like all the best readers, Gardner seems to genuinely enjoy the story, and he reads the humorous chunks with such glee that his narration imparts an additional flair. The delight he takes in saying "squiiissh" during the goldfish scene quoted above is a gem all on its own. Take my word for it--the Vorkosigan Saga is well worth revisiting on audio.

Although Brothers in Arms doesn't carry the emotional or philosophical weight of Mirror Dance or Memory, it's none the worse for being a thoroughly enjoyable, lighthearted romp. I'm saving up my five star ratings for the next two books in the series, but consider this a very high-4 (for the High Vor?)-star read--call it a 4.3.
What's up next? Well, according to Miles,

"'A purely military operation. No relatives, no politics, no high finance. Straight up good guys and bad guys.'
'Great,' said Quinn. 'Which are we?'"