Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance: a review.

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.

Throne of the Crescent Moon: a review.

For the first review in my series of reviews of Hugo nominees, I’m reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. It’s a good starting point for a few reasons. This is Ahmed’s first novel, so I’m approaching his work totally fresh, which seems good for the beginning of a blog. Also, it was the first file in the Hugo voters’ packet, and I believe in starting at the beginning, so here I go. If you haven’t read it, no fear: the review is spoiler-free.

Some basic information: Throne of the Crescent Moon is the first in a series called The Crescent Moon Kingdoms. It tells the story of Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last remaining member of the once-great order of ghul hunters, and his attempts to fight off an undead threat greater than any he has ever seen before. The narration switches off between Adoulla’s point of view and those of the other four major characters: his assistant, the dervish Raseed; Zamia, a young Badawi tribeswoman; and Litaz and Dawoud, wife and husband, old friends of Adoulla’s. This story focuses primarily on Adoulla’s character arc, but it’s also very much an ensemble cast, probably with an eye to focusing on different characters in upcoming sequels. As you may already have guessed, the setting is clearly inspired by the medieval Muslim world, and that’s probably this novel’s most notable feature.

I really like the idea of a fantasy based on a civilization that doesn’t normally get drawn on for fiction very much. Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in the medieval Muslim world in much the same way that lots of sword-and-sorcery novels are set in medieval Europe. Everything has a different name, and plenty of aspects of the setting aren’t simply drawn from history, but you can definitely trace a lot of the locations and cultural ideas to real-life precedents. For example, the Badawi, nomads who live in the desert near the city where the story is set, seem likely to have been inspired by Bedouin tribes. This is, in my opinion, exactly the kind of thing speculative fiction needs to be doing. It’s a pretty big world out there, full of a lot of really fascinating history and culture, and a lot of fiction is just reusing the same Western European stuff over and over again. Writing about Muslim culture, in particular, is a great way to find inspiration that everyone else isn’t using, and has the potential to do vital work in dismantling the Islamophobia that unfortunately persists in American discourse. Every character in Throne of the Crescent Moon is a member of the same faith, one which is never described as “Islam” but clearly draws heavily on it, and the book does a pretty great job of not just showing how that faith pervades the characters’ lives, but also how it means different things to each of them.

Despite the freshness of its setting, however, Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn’t reach impressive heights of originality in plot or characterization. The fundamental plot conflict is extremely simple and familiar: there are some scary undead monsters, called “ghuls”, threatening people in the city of Dhamsawaat, and a ragtag team of unlikely heroes gets together in order to fight this menace. The bad guys are really really bad – their magic involves horrible murder and torture! (Not a spoiler, as the book opens with a scene of some nasty dudes torturing someone and doing magic.) Each character has a clearly outlined personal conflict to struggle with, some of which are incredibly uninspiring. Raseed’s, for example, is “should I let my emotions come before my devotion to duty?” Well, yes. You should, at least once in a while. We have all read that plot a thousand times, and also, every other character tells you to go for it.

Admittedly, other characters’ internal lives are a little more interesting, and there are also moral questions that aren’t that simple. But even when there are open moral questions, the book telegraphs them extremely clearly, usually by having one viewpoint character point out one side and another viewpoint character point out the other. In fact, there’s quite a bit of telling, rather than showing. For example, on page 230: “Adoulla frowned, sensing the subtle edge beneath the alkhemist’s words. ‘Please, my dear, none of your snobbish scorn for the whoremistress, eh?’” In that fairly typical example of this novel’s prose, I count three different ways the readers are told essentially the same thing.

I don’t want to give you the impression there’s nothing to admire about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I did find myself excited to read it and learn about the events of the plot, even though I sometimes found that plot predictable. And even though I think much more could have been done in the way of using the unusual setting to provide plots and characters unlike those we’re familiar with, the setting itself is beautifully drawn. I got a powerful sense of Dhamsawaat as a living city, and not a city just like every other fantasy city I’ve ever visited. Its almost unbelievably crowded streets and its wildly different neighborhoods nestled cheek-by-jowl gave me the sense of exploring a place I’d never been before, a place I would definitely be interested in visiting again. I’d like to see characters and plots in that city that could only have taken place there, not in any fantasy novel where a group of friends takes down an evil threat.