Irresistible Forces edited by Catherine Asaro

Read: 19 November, 2018

Like many others, I got this because I needed “Winterfair Gifts” – to come so far with Miles and then miss his wedding?? Of the other authors, only Catherine Asaro is on my radar (I’ve had her Skolian Empire books recommended to me, though I haven’t read them yet), so I was walking into this rather blind.

As I would have predicted, “Winterfair Gifts” was fabulous. It was absolutely everything I didn’t know I wanted. The rest, however, really weren’t up to that same quality. That’s not really fair, as I came into “Winterfair Gifts” with so much backstory that Bujold had the luxury of economy. All the other authors, however, had to build their worlds for me from scratch.

None of the stories were bad, by any means, but they also weren’t amazing. For the most part, I just didn’t find them particularly memorable. There were some good ideas, some bits I enjoyed, but I haven’t been moved to seek out any of the authors.

The book is worth getting just to have “Winterfair Gifts” on my shelf, and I am glad that I got to read some stories that aren’t in my usual wheelhouse. But if you buy this book, it’ll almost certainly be for Bujold’s story.

“Winterfair Gifts” by Lois McMaster Bujold

I knew coming in that this was going to be the story of Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding, but that’s it. I was prepared to revel some more in their relationship, with maybe a bit of plot on the side, but this delivered so much more.

I didn’t expect the POV shift. The protagonist of this story isn’t Miles, but rather his armsman, Roic (of bug butter fame). Having gotten to know Aral in Cordelia’s books, I enjoyed shifting to Miles’s perspective and getting to see how Aral appears from the outside. Now, we get to see Miles through Roic’s eyes.

The main highlight of the story, for me, was getting to spend more time with Taura. In particular, getting to see her in a social environment. I also loved the glimpse we get of Ekaterin, and how strong she is, as well as how perfect she is for Miles. She’s reminding me a lot of Cordelia, while also being her own separate self.

“The Alchemical Marriage” by Mary Jo Putney

Coming right after “Winterfair Gifts”, this story really didn’t have a chance. For one thing, it has to make me care about the lovers and their relationship in just a handful of pages, whereas I was already cheering in Taura’s corner before I ever started “Winterfair Gifts.” It almost seems cruel to put Bujold’s story first in this collection!

Trying to look at “The Alchemical Marriage” in isolation, it’s fine. It’s not my genre, so I’m less practiced at overlooking the genre’s conventions. Besides that, Macrae’s growly wildness struck me as a silly affectation (particularly since I don’t have much patience for that brand of masculinity).

I wasn’t particularly sold on the relationship, either. The lovers seem to have an attraction to each other, but it’s not really explored. We’re told that they are plumbing each other’s depths and vulnerabilities so that they can exchange magic more completely, but I didn’t get a sense of what that would mean to the characters. Isabel seems to struggle with sharing some parts of herself, but we are never told what those parts are and, in the end, she gives them up rather easily.

When the lovers do finally bone, it’s a matter of convenience – they have to bone to save England, you see! But then, suddenly, Macrae shows up at Isabel’s house all a-bluster, assaulting her servants and threatening her parents, because now they obviously have to get married. Isabel seems to think that Macrae’s approach is a performance to compensate for his own vulnerabilities, but is it? Really?

While perhaps more predictable, I would have liked more about the sharing of vulnerabilities. It’s mentioned how lonely Isabel was, as the only real magic user in her family. That should have been more central, I think. As it was, I got the feeling that the author was going for an exploration of the male/female dichotomy, but defined those terms too casually (like having Macrae be gruff), and then failed to make a compelling case for why these two essentialities should go well together.

I did like the insertion of magic into a historical event, though. That was fun.

“Stained Glass Heart” by Catherine Asaro

I found this one quite good. It was a little heavy-handed, but I did like the gender switching on the political marriage to a much older person plot, and I found that I quite liked the two main characters.

There was too much going on for a short piece, though. For example, having the main character’s whole family be empaths, including both of his parents. Having them be empaths at all was unnecessary to the story, and then it raises so many questions – such as why they are all empaths and why no one else is, even though his mother and father are from entirely different planets. The role of dance was a bit hamfisted as well. I liked that the main character had something “different” about him, and that he had a real dream that he had to give up if he wanted to stay with the girl he loved, but it was introduced a little late in the story. Also, given how many times the reader is told that “men don’t dance”, I feel like it should have been a more important part of the story before it becomes a plot issue.

All that aside, I liked the two main characters, and I liked that I could actually see why they liked each other. Giving Vyrl a shameful passion and having Lily happily accept it as part of who he is was a nice touch.

“Skin Deep” by Deb Stover

This one does pretty well with an absurd concept: A deceased husband is brought back to earth in a new body so that he can help his widow bone the man who had been his rival for her affections when they were first courting. Oh, also? There are male strippers, drug traffickers, and some sort of mob organisation complete with cops on the take. And all of that is crammed into a short story.

The story does well not to take itself too seriously, but it just doesn’t have much for substance. It’s competently written, but I’m sure I’ll forget all about it in a day or two. Except, maybe, for its cheesy early 90s set up.

“The Trouble with Heroes” by Jo Beverley

Not a bad story, but I felt that it was an awkward combination of too heavy handed while not having thought through what it was trying to say. There’s something there about soldiers being changed by war and coming back to a population that honours their heroism while also being afraid of what they’ve become. That’s all well and good, but then there’s the stuff about magic and controlling people’s minds, and it lost me.

It’s well written, and there are bits of the worldbuilding that have potential, but the story just didn’t work for me as a whole.

“Shadows in the Wood” by Jennifer Roberson

Nothing to write home about, but I did actually enjoy this one. I grew up on stories like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and seeing them combined was just good fun. I also liked the bits about old magic and the importance of blood and sacrifice, as well as giving the story to Marian.

Vorkosigan Saga #19: Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 11 November, 2018

Over the course of the Vorkosigan series, there have been quite a number of details (people, places, ethnic groups..) that have popped up and then disappeared as attention moved elsewhere. The Nexus is big, and Miles always has to keep moving. I could read a whole series devoted entirely to Cetaganda, for example, but I also want Miles to explore Jackson Whole. Invariably, each individual story gives the reader only as much of the characters and setting as is necessary for that particular story, and then we – and Miles – move on.

But, sometimes, we get to another encounter, a little follow up. Diplomatic Immunity has that in heaps.

For one thing, I loved the Quaddies in Falling Free, when they were just a little group of hopefuls heading out into the cold universe to try to make a little home for themselves. We did get to see one Quaddie, Nicol, briefly in “Labyrinth”, but she was out of her element and under stress and, anyway, we didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her. Now, however, we get a whole story set in Quaddie-space!

It was fantastic to see how the ideals of the original community translated into an organic culture with history behind it. It was also lovely to see the Quaddies with more agency and power (as they were treated in a very child-like way by the downsider characters in Falling Free), while still retaining that essential communal nature that had made them so unique.

I was also so happy to see Bel Thorne again. I’m so glad that it landed on its feet (so to speak) after everything that went down, and I’m really happy that it was able to find Nicol again.

I did notice some growth in how Bel’s gender is treated. For one thing, Miles seems to have retconned some mutuality into their sexual chemistry, and seems to regret that they hadn’t had a relationship when it was possible. Perhaps that’s just a sign of Miles’s own growth and maturity. I noticed, also, the term “herm” being used quite a bit, which I think is new? I don’t recall it leaping out at me previously, though of course Bel wasn’t the focal point of a story until now.

I would have happily read a book about Guppy’s life, and his time with Gras-Grace and the others. I wish we’d had a little more closure with regards to his fate, because he deserved so much more than what happened to him in this story.

Lastly, babies! Twins! Oh my goodness, I’m so excited!

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Vorkosigan Saga #17: A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 17 October, 2018

Would it really shock anyone if I said that I loved this?

Wit, political intrigue, plots, subterfuge, and romance. And just because that wasn’t quite enough, Bujold throws in a trans man, and handles him reasonably well.

I liked Ekaterin right off the bat. She isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, mostly because Quinn was such an immediate force of nature. But, I find, Ekaterin is, too. She’s just been stifled for too long that she doesn’t know her own power. Right from Komarr, however, it was clear that that power was there, hiding somewhere just beneath the surface. A Civil Campaign has her go through the process of finding it, and I suspect that she will get to properly own it in a coming book.

The marriage proposal itself was perfect. It was absolutely everything this series demanded from it. It was so dramatic and funny and wonderful, and I absolutely loved it.

Ivan is acting more the Bertie Wooster than ever, and his scenes were an absolute joy, as well.

I’m still a bit ambivalent on Mark, and I find his emotional dependency on Kareen rather frightening. I don’t want her to end up subsuming her own life to manage his. That said, at least Mark is working on it, which is more than most men in his position tend to do. And as for Kareen herself, she is certainly learning how to identify her own wants/needs and to speak out for them.

We’re eleven books and a novella into the series and, somehow, the characters – even Miles himself – still manage to show so much growth. I was blown away at the very end when Miles is every bit the imposing count that his father is, and I realised that this is who he is now. I can remember skin-of-his-teeth Miles from Warrior’s Apprentice, and his growth into this self-possessed master of his own domain has been so gradual that I’ve hardly noticed it, but it’s been natural. Having him find a widow who is in also in her 30s and who has a son who will be a teenager in not too long seems perfectly fitting.

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Vorkosigan Saga #16: Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 11 September, 2018

In Mirror Dance, we got to know Mark. It was the first time since Cordelia’s books that we spent a good deal of time in another character’s head. And it made sense that we’d be given Mark – so similar to Miles, and yet so notably different.

In Komarr, the narrative is again shared, this time by Ekatrin. This is her book, giving her time to come into herself as she is freed from an unhappy marriage. There’s also a political mystery in there somewhere for Miles the Imperial Auditor to solve, but that almost feels like an afterthought.

I love Ekatrin. Right from her first moment on her balcony, tending to her ugly little plants, bristling at her husband’s presence. She’s the historical woman – smart, strong, and competent, but kept uneducated and off-balance. I love that Miles saw right through her conditioning to her potential, and I loved that she didn’t just run to him as a rescuer. He may have seen her potential, but her character arc happens when she sees her own potential, and it’s not hearing it from Miles that makes her do so.

I enjoyed meeting Ekatrin, and I look forward to seeing how her relationship with Miles develops. Mostly, though, I look forward to seeing how she develops.

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Vorkosigan Saga #15: Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 28 August, 2018

I was trying to explain to someone about this book I was reading. Nothing’s happening, the main character is just kinda wandering around in a depression funk. He goes on a little vacation to the country, too. No, it isn’t boring at all, actually. It’s wonderful!

Sometimes, you just gotta read it for yourself.

The plot proper (anything that could be mentioned in a blurb) doesn’t actually start until at least halfway in. Before that, Miles is still dealing with the aftershocks of his temporary death in Mirror Dance – both physical and psychological. But this is Bujold, master of character, and it is riveting stuff.

Once the plot itself got underway, I barely had time to come up for air. I was nearly late for work this morning because I had to sit in the car out in the parking lot just so I could finish “just this chapter, I swear!”

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one. Miles’s life is in for a heck of a change, and I am so excited to see where this leads!

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Vorkosigan Saga #14: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 9 May, 2018

This is the first time since Barrayar that we’ve had a book that focuses on the Vorkosigans but not on Miles. We met Miles’s clone/brother in Brothers in Arms, but there wasn’t much to him – he’d been conditioned and trained to imitate Miles, and had never been given much space or encouragement to develop a self of his own. At the time, it was so significant just for Miles to give him a name.

So it was really quite a joy to see the birth of Mark as a real, distinct person. Bujold has done a fantastic job of showing that split between the two of them, while also showing us the aspects of them that remain very similar.

I normally find the series to be very comedic – largely driven by Miles’s deadpan commentaries. But without Miles, much of that comedy was missing as well. Combined with a rather uncomfortably long torture sequence, this was the hardest book to read in the series. Still enjoyable, but boy did it ever get dark.

One of the recurring details in the book is Mark’s weight. His metabolism is much slower than Miles’s, plus he has an eating disorder. I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, I really didn’t appreciate all the characters staring at Mark’s body in disgust, nor all the times characters talk about their concern for their health (presented matter-of-factly, as though it were a scientific truth that fat=ill-health, absent other factors). Enough of that, thanks.

On the other hand, Mark’s weight is an important means for him to forge his own identity, and I did like that, in the end, he chose to remain fat and seems quite happy with his body.

I just wish that there had been some character other than Mark himself who could recognise that fat isn’t disgusting or necessarily unhealthy. And I wish that the focus of people’s shock was more on the speed of his weight gain or the difference between his body and Miles’s, rather than disgust at his corpulence.

I don’t think I’d want to spend a whole series with Mark, but I’m glad that I got to spend more time with him. And I loved the way his budding self-hood was handled. He has the typical Vorkosigan Extreme Excellence, but I really liked that it’s a very different kind of excellence from Miles.

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Vorkosigan Saga #12: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I was very clever and read the “Borders of Infinity” novella before coming back to this book. While the book Borders of Infinity comes next in the chronological order, the novella (which can be found in the book) comes just before Brothers in Arms. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to read them in that order, much of Brothers in Arms is dealing with the aftermath of the story in “Borders of Infinity”, so I do think it’s best to read them in order. What I did was read all the novellas in Borders of Infinity, then come back and read Brothers in Arms, then read the framing device in Borders of Infinity.

It’s probably no surprise that I really loved this one. So far, the Vorkosigan has been a whole lot more hit than miss. I love the dissection of identity and personhood, and I love the exploration of how wartime actions and choices can keep coming back to haunt whole lineages.

We haven’t heard much about Earth so far in the series, so it was interesting to see how Bujold sees the future right here at home.

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Vorkosigan Saga #7: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 21 December, 2017

Miles is at it again!

Freshly graduated from the academy, Miles’s first posting is in an isolated polar base where they send people they’d rather just forget about

This book reminded me somewhat of Shards of Honor, at least in its structure. Both books can be divided neatly into two – each portion having its own separate plot, its own resolutions, its own setting. But, at the same time, the events of the first come back to become integral to the events of the second. So in both books, we get two distinct novellas that complement each other. In this case, we get Miles at the polar base, and then Miles in space and far, far away from home.

Warrior’s Apprentice came with something of a wakeup call. It’s all fun and games as Miles gallivants around the universe having adventures, until responsibility starts hitting him in waves – first the danger to himself, then the danger to his friends and crew, and then the danger to the entire political system of Barrayar.

In The Vor Game, we get a somewhat wiser, more jaded Miles. He’s not much older, but he has a better understanding of his responsibilities, and of how badly his actions can harm others. Even better, we get to watch, from his perspective, as the Emperor Gregor goes through the same lesson.

It’s this negotiation of danger (especially as the spheres of danger come into conflict with each other) that makes this book so interesting.

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Vorkosigan Saga #5: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 20 October, 2017

I’ve seen Miles before (not counting his time as a fetus and small child in Barrayar) in “The Mountains of Mourning”. As a short story set in a very fleshed-out universe, “Mountains” didn’t give me too much to go on about Miles, except for his odd relationship to his people – as a mutant, as a half-foreigner, as a lord…

Apprentice didn’t give me too much more to go on in understanding his relationships with his family members (Aral gets about as much page time here as he did in “Mountains”), but I did get to see a lot more of Miles himself. Much of the book is spent off-world, which was an interesting contrast to “Mountains” as it gave me a glimpse into how Miles is Barrayaran, as opposed to how he is not.

A big focus of the story is on his relationship with Bothari. In fact, Bothari’s been fairly central to all three of the books I’ve read so far, with Escobar as the linchpin to many of the central events in all three. Miles’s relationship with Bothari is, of course, very different from Aral’s or Cordelia’s, and that added an interesting dynamic.

Mostly, though, this book is funny. Bujold is great at this deadpan absurdism – in this case as Miles accidentally builds an army. Throughout the first 2/3rds of the book, Miles just goes from situation to situation, snowballing his successes well beyond what he’s able to handle. It’s like the Chosen One trope, but self-aware.

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Vorkosigan Saga #4: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 12 October, 2017

Shards of Honour gave us the Cordelia and Aral’s ‘meet cute’, and now Barrayar gives us Miles’s origin story. But, of course, there’s so much more.

I loved this book. Cordelia and Aral mesh together so much better than they did in Shards, even though they spend so little time together. I loved Cordelia’s commitment to her son, in a society where he is seen as disposable at best. I loved the description of childbirth, which is hands down the most relatable labour scene I’ve ever read (and that includes descriptions in childbirthing non-fiction books). And I loved the ending, which resonated with Shards in an almost comical way.

The only weakness that I could see was Droushnakovi and Koudelka’s relationship – and then not for any literary reason. I just found Koudelka, who started off sympathetic, to be utterly aggravating.

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