Brothers in Arms is the first Bujold book I read. I didn’t like it much. I can therefore confidently say that it isn’t a good place to start the series. The reason why I didn’t like it relates to my spearpoint theory. Briefly, a spearpoint is a tiny sharp point that needs a whole long spear behind to make it go in. Similarly the weight of significance of things in fiction sometimes need long buildups to make them get proper impact. This is a book that needs the weight of earlier books to have the impact it needs. A lot of what’s good about it depends on knowing things already, out of the context of this book
So it’s weird really that it’s only the second book about Miles, in publication order.
Six months after I read this, when I picked up Shards of Honor, all I remembered about it was the cat blanket, mercenaries and lots of running around after a clone. So much of what’s good about it went right over my head without context. I can’t believe Galeni made no impression on me, but he didn’t. (Galeni is one of my favourite characters in the whole series, perhaps my very favourite after Mark and Miles.)
In the thread about The Warrior’s Apprentice, JoeNotCharles talks about how much better Bujold has got at setting up implausible situations and making them believable. For me as a reader I’ve never had any problem with the implausibility of her situations except in Brothers in Arms, where the clone of Miles being controlled by Galeni’s father didn’t convince me. If I’d already known Miles as Naismith and as Vorkosigan, if I’d had the grounding in Barrayar you get by reading the other books, I’d probably have had no problem with this either. But it’s not just that. I’d have cared already. With spear-building a lot of it is ensuring that the reader cares about the right things. I came to this book without already caring, and it didn’t make me care. I liked it enough to finish it, and to pick up another book by the same author when I came across one, but it took Shards to hook me.
Having said that, when you do already care about Miles, Ivan, Barrayar and the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, there’s a lot more here. Galeni is introduced, and with him the complexities of another generation on Komarr. It’s very nifty to see how Komarr is introduced as a title for Aral, pretty much, “The Butcher of Komarr” in Shards, and of course everything we hear about it there is in the context of Aral’s career and Barrayaran politics. Then we hear about the battle from Tung in Apprentice, and here we see how things have played out. We get more Komarr again later, especially in Memory, and more Galeni too. I love the way politics and technology move and change and interact and things go on outside of the stories. This is one of Bujold’s real strengths.
Mark’s especially interesting, and so is Miles’s attitude to Mark. Miles thinks of Mark almost at once as a brother, and as something he wants, and as someone to rescue, not as an enemy. Mark is a shadow of the way we see him in Mirror Dance, but having a clone of Miles is a very interesting thing to do, and in only the second novel she’d written about Miles. Miles is already doubled and torn, Naismith and Vorkosigan, now he’s literally doubled too.
If this were a normal series, and she’d decided to write about Miles, you’d expect another book like The Warrior’s Apprentice, a caper with mercenaries, and with Miles’s loyalties being stretched. You wouldn’t expect this book about a clone, you wouldn’t expect an eight year gap, you wouldn’t expect Elli Quinn, who was a fairly minor character the last time we saw her, to be such a significant love interest. You would expect Ivan to make an appearance, which he does, but you wouldn’t expect him to be so intelligent. Ivan’s eight years older too, and he doesn’t do anything idiotic in this volume at all. (I’m fond of Ivan too.) Aral and Cordelia do not appear. Indeed, there isn’t much Barrayar at all, Barrayar is represented by the embassy, and we don’t see much of that except for Galeni, and for Galeni to work you need to Barrayar/Komarr contrast.
The other thing this book really needs is The Borders of Infinity, the novella. Now that was published in 1987, two years before the book, but it takes place immediately before, and an awful lot of the action of Brothers in Arms is a direct consequence of the events of the novella. I’m very glad it’s now bound in with it, and I think it always should have been.
One last thing—this is the only time we see Earth in the series, and I remain unimpressed by it. The other planets are much more interesting.