Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is the latest entry in the Vorkosigan Saga. Ignore the almost uninterrupted string of cheesy covers and space-opera descriptions. The saga is about the best science fiction I've ever read. It's got everything - great primary and secondary characters, great world building, great plot, great dialog, great prose, great everything. Bujold has no weaknesses; she is the perennially under-appreciated force in sci-fi despite multiple Hugos and Nebulas. Unfortunately, the latest couple of books in the series haven't been quite to the level of the best of the the saga, and this one in particular was getting mediocre reviews, so I started it with mixed feelings.
I liked it, although it's not my favorite of the Vorkosigan saga. Here are a couple random thoughts that CONTAIN SPOILERS:
Months ago, I read in an interview with her in which she said she believed the next logical point in his life to document was the death of the-Count-his-father, so that, by itself, wasn't a shock. I was anticipating it throughout the book in a perverse kind of way.
I think the writing was generally as good as you'd expect from her, but she made a couple important choices that made it less than it could be.
First, I was surprised at how many scenes starred Miles but weren't from his point of view. We were shown how he overwhelms the people around him a lot, which is funny, but not as funny hearing his inner commentary. My favorite pieces of her writing are when you're deep inside the point of view of the really smart and wise characters - Cordelia, Ekaterina, Mark, and especially Miles. I bet Gregor would be good now, too. Ivan has been suprisingly good, probably because he has hidden cleverness, and I wouldn't mind seeing a book that really centers around him if it's done well. Roic and Jem are good characters, but the ride just isn't as intense from them. Second, I was also surprised at which story she chose to tell. For most of the Miles books I can think of, the central story is about a crucial event in his life. You end up with both a story about an intellectual mystery that he solves and a story about Miles' inner growth during a pivotal period in his life. The best of her books are certainly like that. Cetaganda is a bit of an anomaly in that he doesn't really have much personal growth. I think the world-building is strong enough to make up for it though, and it is his first exposure to the Cetagandan Empire, so I can see how that would still be an important point in his life. Civil Campaign sort of wraps up some growth for both him and, even more so, for Mark, so it ends up being an important point, but it's still not the strongest of her books. Diplomatic Immunity even less so. It's an important point in that it seriously affects his health, but he's a character who's comfortable and handling stuff that's within his capabilities, so the drama and revelations just aren't there.
With Cryoburn, I don't get the impression that there's any growth going on. He's a fully-mature, contented, very experienced auditor/galactic agent and this case is just one in a long line of similar cases with villains that are not even close to being in his league. It's fun, but nothing special for him, and so nothing special for us. The only thing that will stick in his mind about this a year from now is that it was the case right before his father died. That ending was hauntingly written, I think. Maybe she chose to do it that way because she wants to make us feel that that's how death is. Everything is trucking along like normal, and then the unthinkable happens and the world ends. I don't know. She definitely was trying to explore themes of death and its place and consequences and stuff, but I don't read a book for the lessons in its underlying themes -- I read it for the stories about the characters. I think it could have been a stronger story about Miles if the death happened earlier in the book and we were along for the story of how he learns to live with the death of his father and how that changes him. I think it could have been another Memory that way, which is definitely one of her best books.
I guess it's not as weak as I had heard, but I definitely feel like she's past her peak in the Vorkosigan saga and won't be able to regain it without shifting to new characters that have more to learn.
Previous stories in the Vorkosigan Saga:
- Falling Free (set hundreds of years before, and not the best in the series, so not a must-read)
- Cordelia's Honor (combines Shard's of Honor and Barryar - awesome)
- Young Miles (combine Warrior's Apprentice, Mountains of Mourning and the Vor Game - super spectacularly great)
- Miles, Mystery & Mayhem (combines Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and Labyrinth - great, although Ethan of Athos is a little bit of weak entry for me)
- Miles Errant (combines Borders of Infinity, Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance - fantastic)
- Memory (untoppable)
- Miles in Love (combines Komarr and A Civil Campaign - the first is fantastic, the second merely very good)
- Diplomatic Immunity (here we've jumped the shark. Not bad, but not great)