Saturday, 29 December 2012

Review: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this isn't a top-class LMB book, an average book for her is better than most people can write on their best day.

She sets herself some challenges upfront. Unlike most other books in the Vorkosigan series, this one isn't told from Miles' point of view, which instantly drops the frenetic, mad pace that only Miles can bring. He does get a brief cameo, and looms over the action in his absence. It's not the book with which to start reading the series, by the way, since it's full of unexplained references back to the events of the other books, some of which I missed myself because it has been a while since I read them all through.

It's told from Ivan's third-person limited POV (and that of a new character), and Ivan, while not actually an idiot, is dedicated to the principle that if you keep your head down and wait things out and insist that the mad events are not your fault, things will go much better. He's also resolutely unambitious, since he has a tenuous claim to be Emperor which he has never remotely wanted to assert. All this makes him an unpromising protagonist.

Because LMB is such a good (and well-practiced) writer, she manages to make him a protagonist anyway, by giving him something he cares enough about to fight for. He shows competence, courage and even, by Ivan standards, cunning. And, of course, in her trademark style, the author throws at the characters exactly what they least want to happen, which ramps up the stakes and the tension and drives them to show their essential qualities.

The other viewpoint character (the two switch more-or-less scene by scene) is a Jacksonian Baronette, the daughter of a House Major. She calls Ivan by his first and middle names, Ivan Xav, and I think this is mainly so that we can tell whose point of view we're following at the time. Their voices are not otherwise particularly distinct, so a device like that is needed. She's apparently led a very sheltered life, considering that her parents are basically a cross between gang kingpins, bandit chieftains and warlords; at one point she refers to one of her father's old mercenary mates, apparently unironically, as "a very bad man". She comes across as rather naive for a 25-year-old, in fact, and that didn't completely work for me. In fact, she has a weakness shared by many romance heroines (this isn't solely a romance, but there's a very strong romance plot): it's hard to see in her the positive qualities which are captivating the hero so much. I would have liked to see her with some skill or character strength that makes a clear difference to the resolution of the other parts of the plot, makes her stand out to Ivan from his other girlfriends, and clearly explains the different relationship that he develops with her.

My overall verdict: good, but not great.

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