Sun
Apr 19 2009 3:48pm
Every day is a gift: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Winterfair Gifts

All right, I can take a hint. I could have ignored the number of people here asking me if I was going to write about “Winterfair Gifts” but when the author herself sends me a copy! Thanks again, Lois!

“Winterfair Gifts” comes chronologically between A Civil Campaign and Diplomatic Immunity, but it was published last, and thus despite myself I stick to my goal of reading in publication order. It’s a novella, not a whole book, and I think it’s weaker for not having the strengthening themes and context that being part of a novel would have given it—Bujold is generally best with room to stretch herself. (If there are authors, Ted Chiang, John Varley, Robert Reed, whose most natural length is the short form, and others whose most natural length is a novel, are there others whose most natural length is a fourteen book series?) It’s from the point of view of Miles’s armsman Roic, who first appeared in A Civil Campaign and who is a major character, though not a point of view character, in Diplomatic Immunity.

I wouldn’t recommend starting with it. But I can’t see that it would do any harm either.

This story is set around Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding. It’s another romance, and it was written specifically to be published in a genre romance anthology. It’s a romance between Roic and Taura, around the wedding, and around a plot to hurt Miles by killing Ekaterin on her wedding day by giving her poisoned pearls, and trying to frame Quinn.

This story got snarled for me by my going to a reading at Minicon at which Lois read the first half. I then had to wait months and months for the second half, during which time I deduced the shape of what had to happen in it, and figured out that Quinn hadn’t done it. I’m pretty good at doing that if you give me half a story, which is why it’s a terrible idea to give me half a story. Give me a whole story and I’ll swallow it whole. I no longer go to readings at cons for this very reason. Re-reading it now, I notice it doesn’t actually have pacing problems, they were an illusion caused by this. It’s well paced, like all Bujold except the very end of Diplomatic Immunity.

The romance is sweet and nicely done. Taura and Roic are convincing, Taura’s philosophy is just what one would expect, and the obstacles of Roic’s prejudices against mutants and female soldiers go down very nicely. It’s also a nice touch that she’s as much taller than him as normal women are to Miles. (Normal tall women. I’d only be a couple of centimetres taller. But Miles likes tall women.) I’m not sure how readers of genre romance would see it, as it isn’t a “here is the destined One Person” romance but a “gather ye rosebuds” one, and much the better for that in my opinion. I hope they liked it, as I hear there are a lot of them and they buy a lot of books.

Roic’s POV is great. I like his hesitancy about having been a (heroic) policeman instead of a military man, like the others armsmen. I like the way this plays into Diplomatic Immunity, where Miles finally assures him he’s glad that Roic is the one he brought. And it’s an interesting point of view, too, proletarian Barrayaran, Vorkosigan district, entirely impressed with Miles but more so with Aral, easily embarrassed, quite different from anyone else we’ve seen.

The wedding. Well. On the sandwich level, I was just as delighted as Nikki was to see Arde Mayhew, and I was upset that Mark and Kareen didn’t get home. I liked Quinn sending the cat blanket. I liked Elena calling her daughter Cordelia. I liked the ice garden. I love Lady Alys using Roic as a reaction test to how Taura looks, and also that she looks great. I didn’t like Ekaterin being so nervous or Miles thinking she wanted to back out. I like Ekaterin saying of the poisoned pearls: “I’d have worn them as a courtesy to your friend, I’ll wear them now as a defiance to our enemies.” That’s the spirit. Maybe she can keep up with him. I do hope so.

The plot seems a little rushed. But that’s not much of a problem.

All in all it’s a charming little story with a lot of nice shout outs to fans that shouldn’t spoil the flow for new readers. It’s minor in the context of the series, but it is an interesting perspective and very nice to see Miles and Ekaterin settled. As an end for the series—nope. It’s too slight to bear the weight of that. But it’s a lot of fun to read.

22 comments
Soon Lee
1. SoonLee
I bought "Irresistible Forces" solely for this & it's a good fit for the genre/romance theme of the anthology. The rest of the stories in the collection were enjoyable despite me not being a huge fan of romance and not being familiar with most of the other settings. I wouldn't recommend "Winterfair Gifts" to new readers; too much has gone on before. They wouldn't get all the little shout-outs, which for me, was part of the charm.

In my mind, ACC was a fitting end to the series with "Winterfair Gifts" as a coda. DI is something else again, I'm not sure what.
ajdecon
2. ajdecon
Another favorite Ekaterin quote from this (from memory, might be a little off):

A friend, commenting on the now un-poisoned necklace: "Did your husband get it for you?"

"No, one of his... business associates."

"Expensive!"

"Yes, I expect it to cost him everything he has."
ajdecon
3. Marianne McA
I liked the fact that Ekaterin was so nervous. In general, heroes in romance are allowed to be chary of getting remarried after their Evil First Wife has ruined their faith in womenkind - heroines, not so much.

And - while I can think of exceptions - it's often a psuedo conflict: the hero/ine is completely against marriage at the start of the book, but as soon as they meet their partner, those reservations about the institution disappear.

I liked that Ekaterin could love Miles, but still, on some level, not want to be married again. You can't imagine the Ekaterin of Komarr being blithely happy about remarrying - and it's that consistency of characterisation that makes the series so worthwhile.
ajdecon
4. cbyler
I didn’t like Ekaterin being so nervous or Miles thinking she wanted to back out.

Considering her previous marriage, I wasn't surprised. As Miles put it in ACC, she feels about marriage the way he feels about needle-grenade launchers.

Yes, rationally, it depends a lot on who you're marrying and Miles is very different from Tien, and Ekaterin knows that too. But emotions do some strange things that don't respond to reasoned arguments like that.

Anyway, after the first part, it's half nerves and half poisoning symptoms being mistaken for nerves.

I did find it a little implausible that ImpSec's scanners didn't include all the functions of the, er, mark two eyeball, but I guess nobody's perfect.
- -
5. heresiarch
The thing that stuck me about Winterfair Gifts was how defensive it was about Ekaterin being right for Miles. You hardly go eight or ten pages before another character is giving their grudging approval. Roic's is the one that stands out to me (it comes right after the moment quoted in @2):

"Taura nailed it. She'll do for m'lord, all right. And God help
their enemies.'

It comes towards the end, in the wake of everyone else determining Ekaterin's fitness, and it seemed a bit implausible: Roic, Miles' servant, desperately unsure if he deserves his place, worrying about the romance with Taura, thinks he has the right to his own opinion on the question and the time to formulate it? More plausible would be:

"She's just as bad as he is! God help me.'

It was a very sweet romance though. Poor Taura, and lucky Roic. (Maybe the other way 'round.)
ajdecon
6. Don Sample
While it was nice to see Arde, I can't help thinking that we missed the scene where he meets Cordelia again. Would he still be a little upset about what she did to him at the end of Shards of Honor? I can't help thinking that part of the reason he was in such desperate straits at the beginning of The Warrior's Apprentice was what happened 18 years earlier.
ajdecon
7. SteveC
Winterfair Gifts is probably the only Vorkosigan story I have not yet read. I hadn't realized it existed.

I would like to take this occasion to repeat, a little more calmly, what I said in another location.

I cannot believe Ekatrin is right for Miles because I can't help comparing her to Cordelia.

In every ordinary sense Ekatrin is an admirable and talented woman. She is working hard to overcome the scars of her abuse, and she is clearly capable of courage and heroism when the need arises. However, I believe at heart she is domestic, and really wants the Barrayan equivalent of the "White picket fence". And I continue to see as much or suburban American in her characterization as I do Barraryan.

(I feel that the relationship threatens to domesticate Miles, and I think that would be his spiritual death. Miles is too big a person to hate her or hate himself for that loss - as I had feared earlier he might. But he will feel the loss every night lying in bed beside her waking up from dreams of combat drops.)

Cordelia on the other hand, is not merely an admirable ordinary woman. She is extraordinary in every sense. Rather than rising to heroism when it is demanded, she is cut from the heroic mold to start with. Rather than struggling to find courage, her character drives her to it. One can imagine Ekatrin in a moment of moral or spiiritual failure. This would be unthinkable from Cordelia.

So, yes, a fine woman, Ekatrin. (Perhaps for Ivan.) But Cordelia is a tough act to follow, and I think Miles' beloved should be one who can stand beside Cordelia while we onlookers stand in awe. "OMG, *another* supernova in our lifetime."

Some may argue that Cordelia was created by a young idealistic writer and shows a character that is "too good to be true" - that the character of Ekatrin shows a more "mature" or "realistic" portrayal of a heroic female. In the end, this is a question that is better answered by faith than by reason. I believe that women such as Cordelia can truly exist, because it is what I must believe.

Your mileage may vary.

-Steve
ajdecon
8. zenspinner
Steve,

Cordelia didn't really start out three meters tall with full battle armor, either. Yes, she made captain in the Astronomical Survey, but she mentions in Shards of Honor that this was the second time she had been up for the promotion, the first time having passed it up to allow her then-lover to have it. It was a highly dysfunctional relationship, very much of the sort Ekaterin found herself in, but Ekaterin's relationship went on for ten years. Luckily for her, Cordelia's didn't. If it had, she might have found herself shutting herself down in much the same way that Ekaterin did, just to survive.

I really hate to think that we have to achieve greatness right away to have it be real. Otherwise there is no chance for those of us who found ourselves in Ekaterin's shoes and who escaped, and I really don't believe that. I know several women now who have survived horrendous abuse, who were told every day that they were nothing, and less than nothing, and their contributions were worthless, who are going on to graduate college and try to fulfill their dreams. Just because their heroism is quieter doesn't make it any less great. You might say it is greater still, since Cordelia had every advantage growing up and was only initially hampered by what she called her lack of social skills. Some women (Ekaterin is one) have fought their way back from a place so far down they never had a chance to know what up looked like. I applaud them personally. I think all she needs is a chance. That's probably all most of us need.

-Sandy
(survivor, student at Berea College, 46 years old and newly inducted into two honor societies this year. They said I couldn't do it. They were wrong.)
Naomi Libicki
9. AetherealGirl
cbyler @4 --

I always assumed that Taura caught what ImpSec didn't because they looked at the pearls before Ekaterin put them on, whereas she looked at them after they had already been activated.
Joseph Blaidd
10. SteelBlaidd
This has always been one of my favorites.

While I do wish Lois had been able to work in a comment about Arde having previously met the Countess on this reread I realized that I at least cant see a place for it where it wouldn't feel awkward or forced or tacked on.

Regarding the commentary on Ekaterin's qualifications as Lady Vorkosigan, both in story and out. One, it is a traditional part of the festivities of a wedding for the friends and relations of the principles to evaluate the suitability of "The Match(tm)." Rioc

Two Miles doesn't need a woman like his Mother for a wife. He need some one more like Aral.

When the Count and Countess got together Aral was in the process of fading into retirement and in a race to see if boredom or pickling would kill him first. He needed a sun to warm the dark places of his soul and a fire in which to reforge his shattered Honor.

Miles needs in, Simon's words, a "rheostat." He needs a domestic goddess. Earth to his Air and Water to his Fire. Someone to ground him and bring him into the balance of hearth and home. Some one to whom he can go for healing after he has returned battered and burnt from being Gregor's Fireman and who will understand why he will go out again to face the fire so that others will not have to.

And for those that question her courage and exceptionalism. While Tien and the Komarens were not as intense threats as Serg and his Fleet, she fought that first battle for ten years and had no Bothari to back her up.


P.S. Zensppiner You Rock

P.P.S. I'm in the midst of the re-read on the 14 volume saga and yes that IS its natural length. I would also argue that it is only one very looong book
:-)
- -
11. heresiarch
zenspinner @ 8: "Cordelia didn't really start out three meters tall with full battle armor, either."

Nor was she invariably protrayed so in the book. I can't say that the moment where she threatened Mehta with drowning was a shining exemplar of moral perfection. Her relationship with Bothari is also quite morally ambiguous--she uses him to kill, and to keep her hands (if not her soul) clean. What Cordelia has isn't a record of perfectly moral action, just of perfect intuition--she never lies to herself or anyone else about the consequences of their actions. She never loses sight of right and wrong, even when it would be much easier to do so.

But Miles has already learned that. He already carries a Cordelia around in his heart saying things like "Miles, what have you done to your baby brother?" He needs something else from Ekaterin: someone who from spinning off into the night, who can act as a loving but independent editor of his wilder notions. He needs someone who will neither argue with him pointlessly when he orders her to crash the aircar nor do it purely on his say-so. I think Ekaterin provides that balance.
Ursula L
12. Ursula
Part of the reason for all the evaluating of Ekatrin, I think, is that the people doing the evaluating are liege-sworn to the Vorkosigan family. This isn't a job they can quit if Ekatrin turns out to be a lousy employer. And they're emotionally tied to the Vor system - they want a Lady Vorkosigan who isn't just a good employer, they want one they can serve with honor.

The others doing the evaluating are the old Dendarii. Miles created and maintained the Dendarii through pure force of will. As Mark noticed when "playing" Admiral Naismith, the Dendarii were all personally loyal to Naismith, literally willing to lay down their lives for him. These people know nothing about Ekatrin, and very little about Lord Vorkosigan. They know Miles won't be returning to the Dendarii as Admiral Naismith. But their instinct still is to look out for him, and to try to live up to his expectations. They don't want to see him trading the life he had before, with their loyalty, for anything less. Their pride demands that he trade his life with them for something and someone who is at least as good.
Nicholas Alcock
13. NullNix
SteveC, Miles *already* wakes at night from dreams of combat drops. They're *nightmares*.
ajdecon
14. SteveC
Sandy (zenspinner),

Thanks for your response, and the very best wishes for your life ahead.

I suppose I am a bit guilty of the rose-colored glasses that come with infatuation (and if observers suspect that anyone infatuated with a fictional character, no matter how admirable, needs a life, I couldn't really argue :)

Part of why Cordelia is easy to idealize is that some of her toughest battles were fought offstage, before we meet her. We see her shining integrity and are perhaps blinded by the light. The path she took to arrive there is less obvious.

Believe me, I have the greatest respect for anyone who overcomes the mental and emotional scars of abuse. I wish it would happen more.

I am moved to share a poem I wrote a few years back, which is about that.

I had originally hoped that this might be suitable as a set of lyrics, hence the designations of "chorus" and "bridge". Alas, that was not to be. But I think it works well as poetry nonetheless.

It is written in the voice of a young woman in her twenties who has struggled free of a repetitive abusive relationship.


ROLLER COASTER MERRY-GO-ROUND (Revised 3/4/04)

(chorus)
Roller coaster merry-go-round
Ride the circle up and down
Through tears and laughter that mark where you've been
Come back to where you started again


Thought you were the perfect boy
Thought my heart would burst with joy
Couldn't believe someone would care
Couldn't believe you were really there

They say love is always rough
I found out that's true enough
Didn't take long for the fights to start
Didn't take long to break my heart

(chorus)

Finally couldn't take no more
Finally put you out the door
Time to let the nightmares cease
Time to finally get some peace

Just when I thought I'd cured the disease
There you were, on bended knees
Empty promises, phony tears
Made me set aside my fears

(chorus)

"Time to try again", we said
"Happiness is just ahead"
Don't really have to say no more
happened again, just like before


(bridge)
Seems I should be tired of this never-ending ride
Why don't I just turn and walk away?
Leave this wheel of hope and pain that has me trapped inside
To search with courage for a brighter day

Don't understand these chains that bind, don't know why they're so strong
Keep waiting for someone to to set me free
But, looking in the mirror, seems I've known it all along
That I'm the one that's always held the key

Roller coaster merry-go-round
No more circling up and down
Now the endless circle's through
Now I'm finally over you

Faced the mirror with open eyes
Finally understood the lies
That's the biggest battle won
Circle's ended, ride is done

(c) 2004 Steve Crocker
scrocker1946 ***at*** gmail.com
comments welcome
ajdecon
15. The Amazee Az
I think people have a hard time accepting Ekaterin for Miles' partner and equal because he's *Miles*. Ekaterin's gusto pales by comparison because she's just trying to get by. She reacts, she doesn't act, and when she does, it's largely off-screen. Of course, women on Barrayar are wasted. This isn't Athos where you get social duty credits for running the house. In some ways, because Miles is wealthy and Ekaterin is not, her story smacks as a Cinderella story, and let's face it, despite the five million versions to make the story seem fresh, Cinderella's a pretty boring character. The appeal in the story is that her problems go magically and instantly away, that someone's extremely sucky life got not only better, but way better. I think the thing that makes Ekaterin the most real to me, is Miles's apology letter, saying that he wants to see the world the way she does.

If you take Shards away from Barrayar, you see the Cinderella phenomenon happen with Cordelia (for the first 2/3 of the book), though she has the benefit of being a POV character. Here you have a prole girl, plunked into the aristocracy and her husband is doing Important Stuff while she cheerleads, wears some pretty dresses and tries not to complain too much. It's the post-Cinderella story, which is, if anything worse. Here you have someone with no "problems" and and you forget why that character was interesting. Sure, Cordelia thinks Barrayarans are weird, but we've all read enough about the middle ages that we can imagine what she, being from Beta, can't. Taken out of context, you wonder what Aral saw in Cordelia, aside from being an overall good person. You forget that Cordelia didn't come to Barrayar for a life, she came for Aral, who, in turn, sobered up for her. You forget that Aral's reputation prevented him from moving to Beta himself, or that his self-esteem was so low, that he seriously thinks the only job he could ever get is as a judo instructor. Finally, at the end of the book, after Cordelia tosses the Vordarian's head on the table in all its shopping bag glory, Aral admits that he forgot that she too was a person capable of action and worth. It's easy to forget when you are following the person at the head of everything and not the woman behind him.

So that's what's hard about Ekaterin. All of the people who meet her feel the need to point out she's great, because that's what they thing. But us, we just see Miles.
ajdecon
16. The Amazee Az
For me, the thing that I missed more than the conversation between Arde and Cordelia (I'm sure it happened offscreen, years prior- Miles' name was Naismith after all, and Arde did meet Cordelia's mother in WA), was the acknowledgement that Arde and Baz are Miles' Armsmen. By rights, they should have been wearing livery at the wedding, something that Roic would not have failed to notice.
ajdecon
17. Yrf
I figure Arde and Baz are both retired armsmen and have been for a long time. We know armsmen can be retired since Miles calls a few retired ones up in Memory. They might have been "officially" retired shortly after TWA.

(though, even while retired, they're still Miles's liegepeople)

I can't imagine Aral keeping too many open slots, and we know Pym was Bothari's official replacement on Aral's twenty.

But yeah, I wanted a mention of that too.
Liza .
18. aedifica
Were they ever armsmen? I missed that, if so. Liege people, yes, I caught that. But so is Elena Miles' liege woman, and she was never his armsman.
ajdecon
19. The Amazee Az
Miles swore both Arde and Baz as armsmen simple in the Warrior's Apprentice. Miles swore Arde in to get him out of charges on Beta when Miles bought the RG. Miles swore Baz in to convince him to fight for him, omitting his name because Baz didn't know it. At the end of TWA, Baz asks Miles what house he serves, and Miles replies that he doesn't want to shout it out in this crowd, but suggests Baz buy brown and silver if he wants to go shopping for livery. Baz, who recognizes the Vorkosigan colors, is left sputtering as Miles hops aboard the fast courier.
ajdecon
20. Don Sample
And Elena was briefly sworn as an Armsman to Mark.

I don't think anything was mentioned about what Baz and Arde were wearing at the wedding. I just assumed that they were in their Armsman uniforms. Roic didn't take note of it because their status was well known among the other Armsmen. The notable thing would have been if they hadn't been wearing their uniforms.
A. L.
21. Rymenhild
Are Baz and Arde actually legally Armsmen? Additionally, is Elena legally Mark's Armsman in Mirror Dance? I know there's a maximum limit (20?) on accepted Armsmen, and that possessing any more Armsmen than that is a violation of Vorloupous's Law. I also know that when Armsmen retire or die, the Vorkosigans seem to replace them at once. I'm not sure whether Baz and Arde are actually counted into the Vorkosigan official score. It would be like Miles to blithely ignore the rules as he swears in his liegemen, wouldn't it?

As for Elena, her case is even more dubious. In ACC, during Lord Dono's interview with Gregor, we're told that it's a violation of Vorloupous's Law for a count or count's heir to swear in Armsmen before officially confirmed in his position. Mark isn't the confirmed Vorkosigan heir when he swears in Elena as Armswoman simple, and I wouldn't be prepared to bet that there was an extra slot available for her.

I imagine that in Elena's case, and probably also in Baz's and Arde's, the Vorkosigans treated laws governing loyalty oaths and treason as ... guidelines.
ajdecon
22. Catherine12vt
As I recall, Miles officially releases Baz and Elena at the beginning of Memory (when they leave the Dendarii to start their family). So Baz is probably not officially an armsman anymore.

Elena's status as "Armswoman" to Mark is both legally dubious to begin with, and also probably invalidated by Miles' un-death - once Miles is alive again Mark is not a count's heir anymore (definitely a complex legal situation all around).

Don't know about Arde. It didn't seem that Roic recognized him as an armsman, so he probably didn't wear the livery. I don't think there is any particular requirement that he would have to dress the part though - perhaps he was being discreet so he wouldn't have to field a lot of questions on the (probably classified) circumstances that led to him being an armsman. Or maybe he was retired at some point.

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