I’ve been a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I first encountered The Warrior’s Apprentice in my mom’s friend’s house, about five years ago. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Bujold’s latest book, is a delightful science fiction romance, the latest in her thirty-year-career-spanning Vorkosigan Saga. Science fiction and romance can easily be a bad combination – either genre can end up feeling like an afterthought – but Bujold is a master of that mixture. Human relationships and emotions are frequently a focus of her work, and though I think only three Vorkosigan books count as romance novels per se, far more of them could easily be called romantic novels.*
In many ways, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance resembles the earlier A Civil Campaign (which may be all the recommendation Vorkosigan fans need). Its central plot is the developing relationship between Captain Ivan Vorpatril and Tej Arqua, the circumstances of which are sometimes dramatic and sometimes comic, but always light. The Vorkosigan Saga in general tends to unfold at an intense pace, with the turns of the plot sometimes making one dizzy, but where this style makes some of the novels military thrillers and some of them harrowing explorations of character, in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance the impression is one of farce. The secondary plot, which involves intergalactic intrigue and various clever/harebrained schemes, is exciting and funny and interesting, but never eclipses Ivan and Tej; the really important thing about all that machination is how it gets in the way of the couple.
What distinguishes this novel most clearly from Bujold’s other work is its focus on characters who have so far been secondary players in others’ lives, not heroes. Ivan is the cousin of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of the books in the series that bears his name. In his first appearances, Ivan seemed friendly but very shallow, mainly interested in avoiding trouble and having a good time. By Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, however, he’s almost twice as old as he was in The Warrior’s Apprentice (and Bujold has been writing him for thirty years), and he’s become more complex with time. Bujold takes this opportunity to show us that competence does not only come in the explosive, impressive form Miles usually displays; after lots of Vorkosigan books about incredible badasses whose failures are as heroic as their successes, it’s an interesting experience to read about the dedicatedly average person who’s been living with those kinds of people his entire life. There’s a really lovely moment in which Ivan thinks to himself that he “like[s] flowcharts—nice and clear and you could always tell just where you were and what you should do next, everything laid out neatly. … Why couldn’t life be more like flowcharts?” Few protagonists would ask themselves that question. And this wish for a simple life isn’t just an enlightening way of thinking about Ivan; one of the most compelling aspects of the developing romance is the pair’s mutual realization that with each other, they can just be ordinary people, rather than being expected to excel and conquer the world.
I don’t really want to go into too much detail about Tej, because the reader begins the book completely in the dark about her, and many of the book’s plot reveals consist of the discovery of secrets about her and her history and family. Her position in her family has been much like Ivan’s, as mentioned above; while her relatives are clearly the heroes of their own important dramas, she’s mostly thought of herself as their assistant. Bujold loves to show us a female character coming into her own and learning to respect herself over the course of a romance, and Tej is a worthy addition to this theme. (Note I say “over the course of”, not “through”: she doesn’t come to appreciate herself simply because Ivan does.)
The couple’s interactions are just frankly adorable. I’m personally especially charmed by the way they talk about sex – though they’re both reasonable adults about it, Ivan can’t hide the fact that he’s from conservative Barrayar, and galactic-born Tej shocks him more than a few times. (It is probably going to become increasingly evident, readers, that I love it when books are interesting and intelligent on the subject of sex. Bujold is especially excellent at this – not only do her characters have different, and yet equally reasonable, ways of approaching sexuality, their thoughts about it genuinely reflect the cultures they come from, which is no mean feat.) The very beginning of their acquaintance is, as is correct for a romantic farce, really unpromising; Ivan tries to pick Tej up at her workplace, and later ends up knocked unconscious for his pains. So of course their bliss by the end is correspondingly wonderful.
The only real caveat I have to my recommendation of this novel is the obvious fact that it’s the latest in a series that is now over fifteen books long and counting. There is some exposition (fairly neatly structured) toward the beginning, so the plot doesn’t depend on anything that isn’t mentioned in the book itself. But there are still two major problems with reading Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance alone. First of all, for me, a lot of the pleasure of this book was in seeing how Ivan had grown and changed since I first met him. If you’ve never read a book with Ivan Vorpatril in it before, you won’t get that, and I think the book will still be fun but less so. There’s also the fact that this book can’t help but spoil some of the previous ones. Lots of characters from other novels appear, of course, and so you learn what their general life situations are, meaning that you learn about events of previous books. As a lover of the Vorkosigan Saga, I think people shouldn’t do things that will spoil them on any Vorkosigan books, but I recognize that not everyone who reads Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is planning on reading all the rest of the books in its series, and also not everyone minds spoilers in general. So consider yourselves warned, and choose wisely!
* Some of you may be asking yourselves what the difference is. Romance fans generally consider a book a romance novel only if romance is the focus of the plot and the leads end up in a happy relationship. So, for example, a novel with a significant romantic subplot that is nevertheless obviously a subplot probably isn’t a romance novel.