The Ivan Book: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Gosh I love this book.

I’d say this is my favourite new Vorkosigan book since Komarr.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the promised “Ivan book”, the book in which Miles’s cousin Ivan finds a girl and… well, things happen. It stands alone as well as could possibly be expected for a book so late in the series. I imagine it would work perfectly well if you hadn’t read any of the other books, and I expect there will be people who will start here and like it, but my experience of reading it is inevitably shaded and enhanced by all the expectation I had of it and by the whole rest of the series.

I got that far writing this post and then I stopped and re-read all the other Vorkosigan books in a weird order. There’s something about these characters and this universe which is deeply appealing. I think it’s the combination of a set of things that I’ve talked before and Bujold’s clear-sighted moral vision. When her characters change and learn, as they do, the lessons they learn are real. All true wealth is biological. The one thing you can’t give for your heart’s desire is your heart. When he’s cut, I bleed.

Ivan Xav Vorpatril was born in an abandoned slum on the day Vordarian died. We learn in Mirror Dance that Lady Alys has been taking him back every year on his birthday to the spot where his poor bumbling father was killed, to burn an offering. In Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance we see the end of that tradition. And we see him find, marry and fall in love with (in that order) a girl who calls him Ivan Xav. Tej is also the underachiever in her family, and she and Ivan are adorable together. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is adorable as a whole, it’s deeply readable and tons of fun and, it’s also a really remarkably good science fiction novel.

The book falls into two halves, which I would describe as “The Ivan and Tej Show” and “Simon Illyan Is Bored.” The model for the romance plot is clearly inspired by Georgette Heyer. Heyer several times does the plot of the couple who are engaged (Cotillion—nothing could improve Cotillion but setting it on another planet) or married (April Lady, Friday’s Child, The Convenient Marriage) and who only later come to appreciate each other.

It’s also a science fiction mystery, and here we have Cetagandan secrets from the Occupation, a Jacksonian House in exile, a bored Simon Illyan, startling events at ImpSec headquarters and everything Ivan hates most.

This book also answers trivia questions I’ve been worrying at for an embarrassingly long time. Some of them go back to the “Worried about the future of Miles” thread on rec.arts.sf.written at the time Mirror Dance came out. Finally it’s revealed why Ivan is a Lord and why Lady Alys is called that. It would be worth the price of the book to me just for that.

But this isn’t just a charming romance with Barrayaran twiddles. This is the book that shows that Aral and Cordelia succeeded in the pledge that Cordelia makes at the end of Barrayar—to make a world safe for Miles and Ivan and Elena and Gregor to grow up in. Barrayarans date events by wars, but they’re not doing that for recent times, they’re saying things happened “Since Gregor took the reins.” Since the end of the Regency, in other words, since Aral fulfilled his pledge to Ezar and passed power on to a sane Gregor. Since The Vor Game, when Gregor found his balance. We’ve seen recent Barrayar so much from Miles’s point of view it’s possible to miss seeing that. They grew up safely. There’s a hydro-electric dam at Silvy Vale. Ivan has been the man who is too lazy to fail all through his career and he’s sliding along just fine, bless him.

Did I mention that I absolutely love this book?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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