Like most Lois McMaster Bujold fans, I've been waiting for years for a new Miles Vorkosigan book. While her Chalion books are sublime and the Sharing Knife series is interesting, let's be honest: Miles is who got most of us hooked on her, and it's Miles we want to see more of.
First a caveat: I don't want to ruin the reading experience for anyone who hasn't gotten the book yet, so let me be clear: there are mild spoilers ahead. If you don't want to know anything about the book, stop right now and move on to the bold text that says 'pick back up here'.
As most readers of the Vorkosigan universe might have expected, the major themes of the book are the relationship between parent and child and how children deal with the death of a parent. And in typical Bujold fashion we look at the issues from all sides, even those we might not have anticipated.
The plot centers around an Auditorial investigation on Kibou, where the sick, the old and the dying are cryogenically frozen instead of buried. The catch is, since they're not really dead, they still have a vote in the planetary democracy, which they sign over to the cryogenics corporation as a proxy representative in the interim. As there are 1.5-2 million frozen "dead" on Kibou, the result is a large amount of voting power concentrated in relatively few hands. As you would expect, Miles runs afoul of these powers in the most dramatic of ways, and it takes him a couple hundred pages to resolve matters to his satisfaction.
However, that's just the plot. Like Diplomatic Immunity, which this book closely resembles, the plot is really only a secondary device for Bujold to explore her themes of choice. In this instance, the duality of the child becoming a parent while at the same time dealing with the passing of their own parents. For Bujold, the treatment of these themes is almost heavy-handed. There is a young boy, Jin, who serves as a proxy for Miles' own 4 children (who remain off-screen for all but one brief scene). There are numerous instances where the Miles/Jin relationship shows us Miles' own growing familiarity and comfort with parenthood as well as the subsequent maturing effects of said familiarity on Miles himself. He is calmer. He's more patient. He thinks twice about some risks. In short, he is living for someone other than himself, and it shows.
Unfortunately, this entirely logical and necessary character development is also the book's downfall. We don't want a sane, rational patient Miles. We get lots of sane, rational and patient in our own lives. We want to live vicariously through the little git, dammit! But of course, he can't be that way anymore. He has a wife, and kids and responsibilities. Miles isn't running fly-by-night mercenary operations anymore, he's heading subcommittees on reproductive law. Which is nice for him, but makes for a less dynamic book for us.
MAJOR SPOILERS! STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT THE ENDING GIVEN AWAY!
And then, predictably, comes the death of Miles' father. It is foreshadowed throughout the book (and, in a nice touch, the series), but it is still shocking and saddening for all of that. In the last 500 words of the book, Bujold gives us a raw, real look into the utter destruction of Miles' childhood that is poignant, honest and clearly infused with lingering emotions from the passing of her own father some years ago.
What's most devastating about Aral's passing, however, isn't the death of a beloved father-figure. Rather, it's the simultaneous passing of Miles' freedom of movement, action and thought. He's not Lord Vorkosigan anymore, he's Count Vorkosigan, which means he has to spend most of his time on Barrayar being a Count, a father and a husband. Maybe Bujold will treat us to a reprise of A Civil Campaign's Barrayar-centric politics, social mores and intrigues, but I doubt it. Unless she summons up the energy to plunge Barrayar and Miles into a major war or catastrophe, this will almost certainly be the last Vorkosigan book, and we can see that. And it hurts.
PICK BACK UP HERE
All in all, the book is a pleasant read. It's not the best of the series, but it's not the worst either. We don't see much of many beloved characters including Ivan, Cordelia, Gregor, or Ekaterine, but we do learn a bit about most of them through various passing remarks. If, as I suspect, this will be the last book in the series (at least chronologically), it is a suitable farewell if not an entirely satisfactory one.