(cover image from Amazon.com)
I've been hooked on Lois McMaster Bujold's space opera for years. As I noted in my review of the last book in her Vorkosigan series, she started out good and just got better and better (which is not typical in series fiction).
Cetaganda was a middle-to-late volume (first published in 1996), though it's set relatively early in Miles Vorkosigan's career. Like the rest of the series, I've read it many times. However, I re-read it this month because it was June's modern science fiction pick in our Classic Science Fiction reading group at Yahoo.
Much as I love Lois McMaster Bujold, it wasn't easy picking a standalone read from her series fiction. With most authors, it wouldn't be so tough, because the first book in a series is almost always the best. Here, though, the series builds on itself. This is character-based fiction, and the characters evolve. We learn more about them - they learn more about themselves - all the time.
I highly recommend that you read this series in order of initial publication, I really do. The later books will mean much more if you understand the background. However, if you want to sample the series first, I'd say that Cetaganda works great as a standalone volume.
That's because it's set on a different planet than most in the series, and there are only two recurring characters, Miles and his cousin, Ivan. Both are young lieutenants - and lords - sent to represent their planet at an important state funeral on Cetaganda.
Cetaganda, note, is an aggressive civilization which had invaded Barrayar, their home planet, some decades earlier. It remains a serious danger to its neighbors, and Miles is eager to use this opportunity to gather intelligence. Ivan just wants to get laid.
You know, I tend to pay more attention when I'm reading a book for our science fiction group (and, quite honestly, when I'm planning to write a review, too). And in this case, I was particularly impressed at how quickly and how effectively Bujold shows us the essentials of her two heroes.
Miles is brilliant, though hyper, but he's four-foot-nine, hunchbacked and brittle-boned - not exactly recruiting-poster material on his military-mad planet. Ivan, on the other hand, is a perfect physical specimen, the ideal of what a naval lieutenant should be. And his attitude about wine, women, and song probably fits Barrayar's space navy pretty well, too.
Both characters, though, are appealing. Miles would be obnoxious without his physical problems. With them, he's sympathetic and downright heroic. But there's more to Ivan than you might think, too. At the very least, he's absolutely dependable. (Bujold's next book will be "Ivan's book," apparently. I can't wait!)
Right off the bat, strange things happen in Cetagada. Miles is eager to investigate, and peculiarities soon become deadly dangerous. But there's humor here, too. It's really great fun.
But don't expect great SF ideas. This is character-based space opera. It's a great example of that kind of fiction, but it's fun, rather than mind-blowing. Where Bujold is deep - and she is deep, on occasion - it's in understanding her characters. In this series, she keeps finding new things to tell us about her characters and about their situation.
She also shows us different and unusual cultures. Usually, her books are about Barrayar, at least in part. But in this case, she shows us Cetaganda, which is conducting a long-term genetics experiment, while also controlling an aggressive military.
These books are very much to my taste - and I loved Cetaganda - but they probably won't appeal to everyone. Well, what does? If you want entertaining space opera with great characters, you definitely need to give this series a try.
And note that Bujold has made the entire series available for free online. (If you want a shorter work than Cetaganda to sample, I'd recommend one of her novellas, either Labyrinth or The Mountains of Mourning.)