Friday, October 29, 2010

"Cryoburn" by Lois McMaster Bujold

(cover image from

I suggested, in my last book review, that a series nearly always declines, as the author continues to write new books without having anything new to say. But in her Vorkosigan series of space opera, Lois McMaster Bujold has shown us just the reverse.

True, her first books, Shards of Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice (both published in 1986) were great fun, with very appealing characters. But Bujold just got better and better, eventually writing such superb works as Mirror Dance (1994), Memory (1996), and A Civil Campaign (1998).

The last book in the series, Diplomatic Immunity (2002) was not up to that extraordinarily high standard, which was disappointing, but not surprising. It was still good, just not great. She really didn't seem to have anything new to say, so I wondered if this author - my favorite - was actually mortal after all.

Now she's written Cryoburn (2010), the next book in the series, set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles Vorkosigan and his bodyguard, Armsman Roic, are on the planet Kibou-Daini, attending a conference on cryonics - freezing people for later revival. Miles is on assignment as Imperial Auditor, and if you're familiar with this series, you'll know that he has first-hand experience with the process.

On the surface, the novel is an entertaining adventure. It starts out great, with Roic a prisoner of kidnappers who attacked the conference and Miles hallucinating, wandering lost in the pitch black corridors of a vast cryofacility. A lesser author would require a lengthy flashback to explain the situation to her readers, but not Bujold. She really does a great job with this, letting us know what's going on without interrupting the story.

Miles soon encounters a helpful youngster with problems of his own, and the story takes off. However, I must say that the last half of the book is less successful than the first. For one thing, the situation, while important - and even a bit dangerous for some of the characters - isn't the empire-shaking kind of thing we've seen Miles tackle before.

In fact, Miles concludes his assignment relatively early in the book, and just sticks around to help some newfound friends. For Miles, the adventure seems rather low-key, or even... ordinary. Second, I missed a lot of familiar characters from previous books. For the most part, it's just Miles and Roic, and we don't learn anything new about either of them. Lord Mark and Kareen Koudelka show up unexpectedly late in the book, but seen mostly through the eyes of a child, they appear rather distant and reserved.

As an adventure, the story isn't bad, but it really doesn't fulfill its very promising start. I'd say it's as good as the previous novel, but not at all up to Bujold's highest standards. However, that's just what's happening on the surface. There's a deeper meaning that pervades the book and gives it considerable significance. It's here where Bujold really does have something new to say.

The underlying meaning, IMHO, seems to be that time marches on. It's been seven years since Diplomatic Immunity, and Miles and Ekaterin now have four children. Rather than reveling in his adventures here, as his younger self might, Miles is anxious to get back home to his family. We learn that Gregor and Laisa also have children, and that Taura, whom we first met so memorably in "Labyrinth," has already died of old age.

The entire planet of Kibou-Daini is filled with people who aren't exactly alive, but aren't dead, either. They remain frozen, expecting to be revived when old age can be cured, and meanwhile, corporations hold their votes. The power this gives those corporations is immense - and it's certainly relevant to today's political environment - but there's also the question of what this does to their heirs.

On this planet, the dead don't shuffle off, leaving the world to the young. Indeed, they almost-literally try to freeze time. And that situation is not just an excuse for the adventure here. It's part and parcel of the meaning that underlies this whole book. Time marches on. We may regret that, but it happens. It might even be a good thing, though it can be very hard on us personally. At any rate, it's just the way things are.

I'm not sure how Lord Mark and Kareen Koudelka fit into that theme, though I suspect they do. Seen mostly through the eyes of a child, they appear to be rather forbidding adults. (Perhaps that's the whole point.) So many years after we last saw them, they're still together - described as "partners," not husband and wife - but we don't get to see what they think or how they feel, or even what kind of arrangement they've made of their lives. That was quite disappointing, I must say. After all, I've come to care about all of these characters.

But in general, the underlying theme of this novel raises it above the previous book in the series. It's rather bittersweet. Everything ends. We all die. Just as we have a beginning, we also have an end. That's life. Time can't be stopped, can't even be slowed. Clearly, Miles is not the same character he was in previous books. He's grown up. Well, so have we readers, no doubt. It's been 24 years since the first books in this series were published, and none of us will be getting those years back again.

Cryoburn isn't one of the best books in the Vorkosigan saga, but it's still entertaining. And it's certainly thought-provoking. For that alone, it's worth a read. Does it imply anything about the future of the series? I don't know, but that's certainly possible. And I'm not even sure what I think about it. Of course, nothing lasts forever...

Note that Cryoburn is a standalone novel that could be read without knowing anything else of the series. But I don't recommend it. It's not a good place to start, and you'd miss the most powerful parts of the story. The Vorkosigan series is character-based fiction, and you really need to know the characters to get the most out of it. I highly recommend reading this series in order of publication, starting with Shards of Honor and then The Warrior's Apprentice.

Alternatively, you could sample the series in Bujold's Borders of Infinity (1989), which contains three superb Miles Vorkosigan novellas: "The Mountains of Mourning," which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella, the aforementioned "Labyrinth," and the title story, "The Borders of Infinity." If you like those stories, you'll like the series. If you don't like them,... well, I guess there's no hope for you. :)


Ann James said...

I just skimmed your article; I didn't want to spoil anything. Thanks for the heads up.

Kathy Martin said...

Very nice review of Cryoburn! I enjoyed the book very much because I had been missing the Vorkosiverse. Re-reading is just not the same as having new encounters with favorite characters. I thought it was interesting to get a look at Miles through Jin's eyes. He doesn't have any of the baggage that long time readers have. I hear the next book is about Ivan. I can hardly wait to see what Lois has in store for him.

WCG said...

Ann, let me know what you think when you finish reading the book.

Kathy, thanks. I would love to see a book about Ivan. In A Civil Campaign, Ivan really seemed to be growing up. I'd like to see more of that. And I'd like to see his eventual mate, too.

Ivan always brings a lot of humor to a book, and I certainly enjoy that, but I'd like to see him get out of Miles' shadow for once.