Saturday 20 February 2016

Miles Errant, by Lois McMaster Bujold

It's been more than two years since I read any of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories, but I was in the mood for some good-humoured and reliably entertaining SF so picked up Miles Errant, an anthology containing three linked stories describing her physically unimpressive hero's further adventures. These are The Borders of Infinity (a novella of 66 pages), Brothers in Arms (242 pages) and Mirror Dance (400 pages). The author clearly does not feel any need to be constrained to any particular page count.

In The Borders of Infinity Miles is transported to a Cetagandan world in which some ten thousand prisoners of war are held within a dome-shaped force field half a kilometre in diameter. The desert landscape within contains nothing except a number of lavatory-cum-water supply facilities; there are no buildings because the weather is controlled, with an even temperature and no rainfall. The force field is only breached to allow daily food bars and newcomers in – and bodies out. There are no guards since no-one can escape and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves.

Miles is of course there for a specific purpose but the reader does not learn what that is until close to the end. Meanwhile, he commences his usual psychological manipulations to arrange matters inside the camp to his liking.

Brothers in Arms sees Miles in his role of Admiral Naismith, leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, stopping off in orbit around Earth to get his ships and crews repaired after a running fight with the Cetagandans who are furious at his activities on their prison world. Here he has to juggle his identities carefully between those of Naismith and Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan of the Barrayar armed forces, since it is imperative that no more than a small handful of people should know that these two are one and the same. Further complications ensue due to the activities of some Komarr rebels who have never reconciled themselves to the Barrayaran conquest of their world, and call Miles' father the Butcher of Komarr.

Miles has to rely heavily on his friends in the Dendarii fleet plus his amiable but slow cousin  Ivan Vorpatril to extricate him from increasing complications – especially an unexpected relative.

Mirror Dance continues the story two years later, but takes it into a new direction. While the plot is mostly set on the grim world of Jackson's Whole we first met in Labyrinth, Miles only has a supporting role, the main focus being on his clone brother, Mark. In this sometimes horrific story, we see the forces and events which shape Mark into a very different personality from his brother – but an equally intriguing one. The depth of characterisation is impressive and takes Bujold's writing up onto a new level. I must catch up with the rest of the series to see if this standard is maintained – and I hope that there is more about Mark to come.

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