Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 17

This week, Miles and Ekaterin meet in the Vorkosigan House attics to discuss the separation that Hugo and Vassily have forced them to. As readers may recall, they haven’t been together yet.

Did you enjoy the Flowers of Vashnoi? Great! Don’t tell us about it here. Causal mentions of who liked the book lead to discussions of why, and those inevitably reveal plot details. Flowers is set after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, and we will talk about it then. This blog post contains NO discussion of Flowers of Vashnoi and I have asked the moderators to delete all comments that mention it, even briefly or peripherally.

The Vorkosigan House attics are both a literal and emotional archive of Vorkosigans past. Miles, not knowing why Ekaterin has come, starts the conversation by showing her a series of artifacts from his grandfather’s life—a case of obsolete energy weapons, a collection of Cetagandan scalps, and his grandmother’s saddle. Olivia’s saddle is almost a sculpture, elaborately embellished with hand-carved olive leaves and with Olivia’s monogram. Ekaterin suggests that it’s too valuable to be used, but Miles insists that the saddle was made to be enjoyed rather than merely hoarded. We have seen Piotr as an old man, and as a general, but this—seven or so books after his death—is our first glimpse of Piotr as a lover. Miles describes his grandmother’s life as a work of art, here skipping over her death, along with all but one of her children, in Emperor Yuri’s War. We’ve heard a lot about Yuri’s War, and about the roles that Piotr and Aral played in it. We know that Piotr put Aral in uniform right away and kept him by his side throughout the war. Aral’s military training came from his father and even in their worst moments of conflict, the disagreement over Miles’s existence at the beginning of Vordarian’s Pretendership, they strategized together as easily as breathing. It’s easy to assume that Piotr was always and only the Old General.

But if Olivia’s life was a work of art, Piotr must have been part of that work. I’m not clear on the timeline of the Cetagandan Invasion and Mad Yuri’s War, so I don’t know if Piotr would have met Olivia as a dashing war hero or if they had a pre-war romance. Either way, they seem to have known a time of peace, when a beautiful saddle would have been a much-admired gift and an invitation to join Piotr in a ride. If Piotr and Olivia could have a moment of peace in their much more troubled times, surely there is hope for Miles and Ekaterin, even if not yet. Miles’s stated thought about his grandfather is a strategic one—he remembers Piotr’s advice, “You should get over rough ground as lightly as you can.” I am also reminded of Piotr’s other advice, about not second-guessing the man on the ground, which Miles applies here without directly mentioning it.

Miles and Ekaterin’s conversation about obligations gets at what it means to be Vor and at what their relationship means to them. Ekaterin’s family sees her romantic prospects in a utilitarian light—Alexi Vormoncrief was attractive to them because he served their purposes—seeing Ekaterin provided for, carrying a Vor name, observing the traditions. They don’t see Miles in the same light. Sure, he’s rich, but in their eyes, he’s also a mutant and thus not truly Vor. Tien was, of course, also suffering from a genetic mutation, but they couldn’t see that. Olivia’s saddle helps Ekaterin put words to her own thinking—she doesn’t love Miles for his Vorkosigan-ness or his money, but as a thing to be enjoyed. The notion of being obligated to Miles was repugnant to her because it stood in the way of that. Dorothy Sayers’ influence is incredibly evident in Ekaterin’s consideration of the purpose of love. Peter and Harriet were a deeply introspective couple, and—possibly because they are being denied other outlets for their romantic feelings—Miles and Ekaterin are incredibly thoughtful here. Bujold emphasizes this further with their discussion of the upcoming Council votes. Miles points out that the shadow of an accusation of murder that has Hugo and Vassily so concerned might disappear if he voted to confirm Richars as the Vorrutyer heir, over Dono. Ekaterin is appalled. They part in the hope that Ekaterin’s Uncle Vorthys can sort out this mess when he returns from Komarr and they won’t actually have to wait a year to be together.

If books were written for re-read bloggers, the chapter would end right there. But books are written to be read, not to be conveniently blogged, so Bujold plows from that moment directly in to a reception at the Palace without so much as typing a new chapter heading. At the Palace, Ivan is lamenting his poor life choices in the romance department. He’s assisted in this by Falco Vorpatril, who taunts him for “losing” Cassie Vorgorov and urges him to settle down. I believe that Cassie Vorgorov was the young woman Ivan described as “horse-faced” in Mirror Dance. The comment made Mark think that Ivan was horribly spoiled. Today, Ivan is trying to figure out if Cassie has had a boob job. Ivan is incredibly urbane, even in his own head, so he doesn’t phrase it half so crassly, BUT THAT’S THE GIST. Miles, though clearly only slightly post-seizure, is canvassing for Council votes.

Ivan isn’t planning further involvement in Vor politics at this point—he seems to see himself more as a diplomatic attache—but he hitches a ride to the after-party with Olivia Koudelka, not realizing that this means riding with Dono. Because Ivan is WILLFULLY OBTUSE. He sees only what serves him (Olivia is wearing a pretty dress that he can compliment!) and not that Olivia has very obviously been spending a lot of time with Dono Vorrutyer, and not for purely political reasons. I cannot figure out why Ivan is so keen to find a life-partner at this exact moment. I have to chalk it up to a combination of his rivalry with Miles and weddings being contagious. Anyway, Counts Vorpatril and Vorhalas are headed to Vorpatril House for a restful conversation about some sort of water management project. Who is Count Vorhalas’s heir these days? He had a daughter at one point. How is she doing? Anyway, Ivan KNOWS THE LOCATION of TWO COUNTS. Got that? Good. Get in the car.

En route to the party at someone’s house (I forget—how important can it really be?) Dono decides to stop for one last shot at cajoling a vote out of Count Vorfolse, who lives a reclusive life with only one aging Armsman in a house he has subdivided into flats to rent out to status-driven proles. That sounds like a sound financial move to me. There are some difficulties with parking. SEE? This is what happens when you allow construction projects without a permitting process that addresses impacts on traffic and parking! And work on the Vorkosigan Garden project has been suspended, probably with disruptive piles of dirt and excavation equipment still scattered all over the surrounding roads, because of Lord VK’s romantic difficulties. The permitting office probably needs to get out there and write some tickets, plus someone at the municipal level really should have done an environmental hazards assessment on the plans for a beautiful, educational public space full of variably toxic native species. I LAY THE PARKING PROBLEM AT MILES’S FEET.

But I digress.

Dono speaks earnestly to Lord Vorfolse through the intercom at the door. Their conversation is inconclusive, which is an improvement over several other conversations Dono has had lately. You need a thick skin to go knocking on doors. BUT THEN, there is a problem with the car. The driver has been stunned. There are thugs with stunners in the parking garage. (Lord Vorfolse has built a parking garage for his tenants, I want Lord Vorfolse and Tsipis to get together for lunch.) Richars, who, in a Nixon-like move has failed to realize that he has the votes and doesn’t need the illegal activity, has paid some people to grab Dono and punish him for his presumption with a spot of street surgery to undo that sex change. Dono is supposed to be conscious for the main event. Richars’ hired thugs didn’t reckon on Ivan’s presence or Olivia’s combat skills. Their combined intervention saved me from an episode of vomiting and sobbing into my dog.

Human sexuality is a spectrum not a dot, and I think many of us might find, if we looked carefully, that Olivia is within our personal spectra. I love Olivia. Dono loves Olivia. Ivan is realizing that his feelings for Olivia are irrelevant, because she’s OBVIOUSLY QUITE TAKEN. Olivia’s dress is also a first aid kit. I brought a first aid kit to a protest once. It came in handy when I got sunscreen in my eye. I really hope Olivia would like me. And allow me just a moment here to point out the benefits of using natural fibers in evening wear—Earth formal wear usually relies on synthetics which are useless when you’re trying to stop bleeding. Dono has a gash on his thigh but he’s going to survive the night.

Join me next week when Alexi makes another play for Nikki, and the Council of Counts votes!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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