Komarr has two alternating points of view: Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan, on a mission to investigate an accident to the artificial sun of Barrayar’s conquered subject planet Komarr, and Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the wife of a minor administrator in Komarr’s terraforming project.
The plot of Komarr is one of the best and tightest in the series. Like Memory it’s a perfect mystery, with all the clues in plain sight for a re-read but cleverly misdirected. It also has plausible villains who think of themselves as heroes.
The strength of the book stands or falls on Ekaterin. If you like her, you’ll like the book, because it is largely a character study. What we have here is someone repressed to the point of inhibition, in an abusive relationship, and struggling to have any little piece of ground for herself. It’s very well done.
This is the first of the books where Miles is having an adventure as Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, where Naismith and the Dendarii are entirely behind him. It’s a mystery, and it’s a new direction for the series—the direction was indicated in Memory, but this is where it settles into it.
We don’t see any of the familiar recurring characters except Miles. I think this is the only book in the series with only one familiar character except Ethan of Athos. Lots of them are mentioned, but none of them appear.
I love the way we see Komarr here as a real place. I really like the way Komarr has developed throughout the series, from Aral’s bad reputation in Shards of Honor to a source of terrorist plots throughout, with the Galen/Galeni stuff and then Laisa. Here though we actually get down onto the planet and see some ordinary Komarrans. The plot to close the wormhole is very clever—and I like the way the physics all fits with everything we have had back to The Warrior’s Apprentice about how the wormholes and Necklin rods work—but what I really like is what a sensible idea it is, from a Komarran point of view, how a bloodless engineering coup fits with their culture, how they’re not raving loons like Ser Galen. It’s Dr. Riva who really makes it work for me, Dr. Riva who figures it out and doesn’t want to tell ImpSec because she is a Komarran and it’s such a beguiling idea. If your planet was conquered a generation ago and despite their paternal assimilationist policies you weren’t quite equal to the conquerors and weren’t quite trusted, well, doing something that would get rid of them forever would seem attractive. We get a lot of angles on Barrayar in this series, and this is one of the most interesting. The conquered Komarrans who don’t want to become Barrayaran get a voice, and it’s a reasonable one.
When Miles says to Ekaterin that he would like to be famous and have his father mentioned primarily as being his father, and she laughs, it’s worth noting that for us he has that. We as readers are much more interested in Miles than Aral.
The Betan/Barrayaran dynamic throughout the series is settled in Memory in favour of Barrayar, and the ways that’s a male/female dynamic (even when internal to Miles, and oh, consider Bel in that context!) means that in Komarr there has to be a new female angle. Ekaterin, as a female Vor Barrayaran, provides that. Ekaterin strikes me as just a little too obviously planted as a mate for Miles. She may well be what he needs, now that he has decided to be his Barrayaran self, she’s Vor, she’s not a silly girl but a grown up woman. Her decision to leave Tien just before he’s killed is necessary and effective but his death makes things very tidy and easy. I like Ekaterin as herself, I don’t like her when I see her as a prize for Miles. I’ve talked about how the universe, the text, is for or against Miles in different ways, and Ekaterin, Tien’s death, the whole thing, seems like a little too much of the text being on Miles’s side. In a conventional series he’d have married Elena, and he has spent a lot of time looking for a Countess Vorkosigan, but Ekaterin seems to come a little too patly to hand.
Komarr begins and ends with Ekaterin. She’s in a much better position at the end than she was at the beginning. The thing that works best for me about her is the Vorzohn’s Dystrophy. We’ve heard a lot about how Miles isn’t a mutant, and how mutants are treated on Barrayar, so seeing an actual mutation and the shame and panic it causes is clever. Any normal person would get it fixed, the way it affects Tien is uniquely Barrayaran and Vor. Ekaterin has been supporting him long after love has gone because she gave her word. It takes an awful lot to get her to break it. Her act of leaving him is far braver than her actual act of heroism and saving herself, her planet and everything when she destroys the device on the space station.
Bujold talked about SF as being “fantasy of political agency” in the way romance is “fantasy of perfect love” and mysteries are “fantasies of justice.” Thinking about this, the political agency plot of Komarr is just about perfect, but the personal and emotional plot isn’t quite in step with it, so the climax and resolution are a little out of balance. It’s great that Ekaterin saves herself and doesn’t wait to be rescued by Miles, and it’s even better that Miles (for whom rescuing people has been such a huge thing) is pleased about that, but the climactic moment of them sharing the same sense of sacrifice (“I’m Vor”) is undercut by his babbling about his romances and her declaration “Can I take a number.” This needs resolution, which it doesn’t get until the next volume. Komarr definitely does not contain a series ending. It has a whole (and very good) political plot but only half (or perhaps two thirds) an emotional plot. It’s a new departure for the series in that it isn’t entirely self-contained.