Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 4

One of the delights of A Civil Campaign is that Bujold uses more than one viewpoint character. We haven’t gotten much of Ivan’s perspective in the series so far, but we do this week as he joins Alexei Vormoncrief and Byerly Vorrutyer for a beer in the pub near the Ops building. I learned a lot from their conversation.

The officers who serve in Ops headquarters at Vorbarr Sultana are not interested in cleanliness in their food-and-beverage service establishments. The calculated dinginess of the Ops Department’s favorite bar establishes it as a male bastion. Ick. This does not stop Ivan and Alexei from drinking there, and By is leaning on the bar when they walk in. The Gift of Rereading is that this looks a smidge suspicious. By is the sort of person who wears nice suits. I can’t think why he would frequent this bar—which is (a) gross and (b) popular among the serving officers in an institution that By does not work for—without some kind of ulterior motive. I know exactly how I missed this the first time around—I was busy with the conversation—but I now think I was very obtuse to have done so.

Alexei is SUCH a snot. He informs By that he “really should” wear his House blacks because his blood relationship with his recently deceased cousin, Pierre, gives him the right to do so. I sincerely hope that somewhere there is a Count or Lord Vorgoth who chooses to wear his House blacks all the time. They could! I don’t know if they technically “have the right” as per Lt. Alexei Vormoncrief of Ops, but Bujold has yet to describe the Vor Uniform Use Authority that scrutinizes Vor before they leave the house and demands that they go change into something more appropriate. Possibly Alexei would like to volunteer for the position. Alexei also seems uninterested in considering the possibility that Byerly, who has no known means of support, cannot afford a set of House blacks, and may not have a House uniform at all. He’s not a member of the Council of Counts, not the heir, and not in charge of delivering gifts to the Emperor every year on his birthday. He doesn’t seem to have an urgent need, and Pierre doesn’t seem to have been the sort of count who would see all of his relatives properly kitted out from his personal or District funds. Byerly does seem to be wearing nice suits in this book, but all I can verify about them is that they’re tailored. They could be second-hand.

The main business here is Alexei’s announcement that he has sent the Baba to propose to Ekaterin’s father for her hand in marriage. That’s what the conversation about family trees was really about, back in chapter three—he needed her father’s address. Alexei is very concerned with the Vor trappings, and not so much with the fact that no one does that anymore. Kou and Drou didn’t do that, thirty years ago. Tien did it, ten years ago, but I’m hardly going hold him up as a good example on the romantic front. Alexei thinks that charming Ekaterin’s family will be sufficient and that Ekaterin will want her own household again, as well as a hand with Nikki, who Alexei plans to send to boarding school. Alexei thinks boarding school will make Nikki less obnoxious. Obviously, what he means is that he thinks Nikki should go reenact Lord of the Flies somewhere far away.

This is not what Ivan sees as the evil in Alexei’s matrimonial planning, because Ivan hasn’t met Nikki, and because Ivan is himself a graduate of a proper Vor boarding school and probably assumes that there are a limited number of ways to educate the upper classes. Ivan is more concerned with the possibility that he has made a strategic error in telling Alexei about Ekaterin. He had no intention of depriving Miles of his romantic conquest, just of making him sweat for it. He had no idea that anyone (other than Miles) might progress to marriage proposals. Ivan also has not troubled to get to know the lady, and he suddenly realizes that he doesn’t know if a marriage proposal might improve her situation. Alexei is better looking than Miles, and Ivan is not sure if that might be relevant to her decisions. Alexei has also let word of Ekaterin’s existence slip to Major Zamori, who Ivan thinks could be a more formidable threat.

Although the focus here is on Alexei’s romantic concerns, Ivan is somewhat distracted by his own. Ivan had a traumatic date back in chapter 1 and he’s feeling his biological clock ticking. While Alexei is in the head, Byerly suggests that Ivan might be useful to his cousin Donna’s motion of impediment to her cousin’s inheriting the Vorrutyer estate and Council seat. Byerly encourages Ivan to come see Donna when she returns from Beta Colony. Ivan asserts that he has neither interest nor influence in politics, but his fond memories of a youthful affair with Lady Donna win the day. Ivan will be meeting Donna at the shuttleport.

Meanwhile, Mark and Kareen are also facing impediments to their love. While they are pleased to be reunited, she has some issues with her role in Barrayaran society. Kareen is supposed to be a good daughter, which is supposed to mean that she’s not sneaking around to sleep with Mark. For his part, Mark is understanding. He’s heard a Barrayaran folk tale about a mutant who ended up with his head in a pot of basil. This story appears to be based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, which John Keats turned into the poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil” in 1818. Kareen denies that she is interested in putting Mark’s head in a plant pot, or that her father would do any such thing. Mark is risk-averse and respects her boundaries. Mark has a lot of problems, but he is a genuinely good person, and he cares a great deal for Kareen. He also realizes her value as more than just a romantic partner—she has a role to play in his butter bug business. Kareen needs money so she can return to Beta Colony to finish her education. Mark needs someone to tell Enrique to bathe and change his shirt. Kareen will be paid in shares, for the moment, as Mark spent more than he had budgeted for the quarter getting Enrique off Escobar.

Next week—More people get sucked into the butter bug scheme!

 Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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