“The Unexpected Cannot Guarantee Success, But It Guarantees the Best Chance of Success” – A Review of The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

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I love a good rogue – or I love reading about them, rather. I may have mentioned elsewhere that, prior to five or six years ago, I liked my protagonists to be heroic in the more traditional sense of the word: followers of order and justice, keepers of the peace – Lawful Good, to use the parlance of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games. However, recently I’ve developed a marked preference for rogues: clever, street-smart, and whose loyalties and actions are defined not by the law or society or any kind of hierarchy, but their own selves and what they believe is right. I have grown very appreciative of characters who are capable of getting themselves out of any situation by talking themselves out of said situation, as well as the way they can treat the law and society in a very subjective manner while still having a personal code of honor.

There are quite a few rogues in literature, of course, and they seem to be quite frequent in genre fiction, especially. Fantasy is, naturally, populated by quite a few of them, but sci-fi has its own fair share of rogues, too. One of my personal favorites has to be Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Vorkosigan Saga, a series of military space opera that began with the novel Shards of Honor, and continued with the novels Barrayar and The Warrior’s Apprentice. I’d read Shards of Honor and Barrayar long before I’d gotten the idea of starting a book-review site, but I already had the site in place when I picked up The Warrior’s Apprentice and have a review for that book. This is fortunate, because the novel The Vor Game picks up where The Warrior’s Apprentice left off.

The events of The Vor Game happen some time (a couple of years) after the end of The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles has graduated from officer school, and has been given the rank of ensign and an assignment to the remote, frozen outpost of Kyril Island – what is probably the most terrible assignment that could be given to anyone. However, Miles, being Miles, accepts it with minimal complaint – but Miles, being Miles, also gets himself entangled in a series of events that take him far from Kyril Island and Barrayar: events that lead him to a conspiracy that threatens his family, Barrayaran society, one of his closest friends, and which could potentially lead to a deadly, destructive war.

It must be said now that I have very strong feelings about this series, and about the characters in them. There is always a certain amount of investment involved when one reads a book, but the degree of investment can vary from absolutely none at all to extreme levels of investment. The latter is how I feel about Miles, and about the handful of supporting characters that surround him. Much of this devotion comes from the fact that Miles is precisely the kind of rogue I enjoy reading about, but severely hobbled by his own insecurities – insecurities he has had to deal with from birth, but which, paradoxically, have given him his roguish traits in the first place. This combination of wicked cleverness and vulnerability is a particularly enjoyable combination for me, which means Miles is right up my alley.

The Vor Game is, therefore, a great mountain of fuel for that particular fire, because it throws Miles several curve balls that challenge him both mentally and emotionally. These curve balls include the Dendarii Mercenaries, whom Miles brought together in The Warrior’s Apprentice, and then abandoned to continue studying to be a Barrayaran military officer. Amongst the Dendarii Mercenaries is his old friend (and love) Elena, who married and fell in love with another one of the Dendarii Mercenaries at the end of the previous novel. Miles’ reaction to her is interesting, both because he is still in love with her, and because Elena herself has changed from the way she was in The Warrior’s Apprentice. In Miles’ absence she has become (or perhaps has had to become) a strong, capable, and perhaps somewhat ruthless leader.

Miles, in his poor, broken heart, is uncertain as to how he should deal with this – or for that matter, how he should deal with being the leader of the Dendarii Mercenaries again, assuming his former identity of Miles Naismith. He brings it off with aplomb, of course, but it’s interesting to see how he finds being in that particular identity’s skin a bit uncomfortable because it doesn’t square with how he thinks a Vor, especially one in the military, should act.

This novel also introduces Miles childhood friend and Emperor of Barrayar, Gregor Vorbarra, as an active supporting character. Mentioned frequently enough in the last books, this is the first time we see Gregor take an active part in anything to do with Miles – except it’s quite obvious Miles would have preferred that Gregor stayed in the safety of Barrayar. But Gregor’s very much tired of living in a gilded cage – tired enough that he’s obviously depressive, and suicidal to boot. I find this portrayal of him to be interesting, and very much in keeping with the way he was raised, so I look forward to finding out what happens to him further down the line.

As for the antagonists, those are quite interesting too. There’s General Metzov, whom Miles meets while at Kyril Island, and is a perfect case what happens when people let days of glories past get to their heads. But Metzov isn’t the most interesting villain; that honor goes to a woman named Cavilo, who believes that there is no such thing as choosing between victory and defeat; instead, one must make choices so that, whatever the outcome, one always wins. Possessed of “a face like an angel, [and a] mind like a rabid mongoose”, it’s incredibly fascinating reading how Miles matches wits with her, and wins – but just barely. If I like my protagonists to be fantastically clever, I certainly like it when my antagonists are too, and Cavilo is one of the wiliest I’ve read about yet. I certainly hope she makes a further appearance down the line in the series, because it’d be incredibly fun to see how Miles deals with her.

Given these characters in play, plus events from previous novels, I think it’s safe to say that the plot is an enormous amount of fun. There’s an almost breathless quality to it, with very little time for Miles to think, and when he does it’s usually filled with him simultaneously plotting his next move and doubting himself. And of course, given how clever the antagonist is in this one, there are quite a few twists and turns, some of which I didn’t see coming – and I really like it when I can’t see the plot twists coming.

Overall, The Vor Game is another great example of why Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has the readership it does: great characters, thrilling plot, and the promise for even more further down the line. Given the events that have happened in this novel, I’m looking forward to finding out just what happens to Miles, his friends, and even his enemies in the succeeding novels, though whatever might happen to them, I’m sure it’s going to be another excellent adventure.

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