Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Chapters 10 and 11

Possibly the most influential thing I read this week was this review of Netflix’s new holiday movie, The Princess Switch. I am no more likely to watch The Princess Switch than I was before I read the review—television takes a looooong time, ya’ll. I’ve got some pretty major commitments on the pie crust front this week before I get too busy celebrating the winter holidays to watch movies about other people who are also celebrating the winter holidays. But I strongly recommend the review which a) was a hoot and a half and b) made me a happier person.

Why is that here, in this blog post about Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, a book that is not on Netflix, and is also not set at the winter holidays? Because holiday movies are made of tropes that make us feel warm and fuzzy, and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is also made of these tropes. We are very much in the section of the book where we roam from scene to scene feeling warm and fuzzy.

It’s not a surprise either! We had the hilarious first meeting where Ivan struck out with an ugly vase because statistics are not on his side. We had the kidnapping and the rescue. We had some scrumptious takeout while our young not-yet-lovers got to know each other. We had a surprise wedding, and a kind-of-sort-of honeymoon. We had dinner with Ivan’s mom, which was very nearly a second abduction—her driver, Christos, didn’t have an arrest warrant and appeared willing to lay siege to Ivan’s living room for however long it took. Chapter 10 opens with the makeover sequence, not that we get to see much of it—we’re just assured that Tej and Rish are properly dressed for Barrayar now. Lady Alys wasn’t directly personally involved because she had to work that morning, but she sent her personal secretary/dresser.

This section of the book starts to widen the circle into Ivan’s annoying, but relatively non-threatening friends and relations. We’re going beyond By—By has been around since the beginning of the book. Rish is dating him now. Dating By gives Rish an option other than Ivan’s couch. In her circumstances, I would also give By serious consideration. He’s guaranteed at least one dinner just for the chance to not awkwardly pretend to sleep in the living room while the newlyweds simultaneously consummate their union and plot their divorce.

In Chapter 10, Tej tells the whole story to Gregor. Since we, as readers, have just read the first ten chapters of the book, this is primarily a chance for us to catch up with Miles’s household. He’s currently holding steady at two babies plus Nikolai. Ekaterin got an amazing mural artist from the South Continent to re-do the front hall floor at Vorkosigan House—not because bug butter leaves permanent stains, but because the floor had some sad visual associations for Countess Vorkosigan. I can’t remember what those sad associations are. Um. Miles was injured there a few times? Negri died at Vorkosigan Surleau, so it wasn’t that. Anyway, the new floor is amazing—it features lots of plants. Some of the stones in the mural came from the Vorkosigan District. Little Sasha (Aral Alexander) is toddling, and has learned to take off all his clothes. Ivan finds this alarming. We don’t get to see Helen Natalia on this visit, because she’s sleeping. She is alleged to be more verbal than her brother. Nikki has a lot of homework. They’re all going to be decamping to Sergyar for a visit in the near future.

Gregor is in the library. He has a nice smile, and he and Laisa have jointly produced a few sons. This seems like an opportune moment to address the question of whether the Council of Counts would ever accept a female heir to the Imperium. In my opinion, which carries all the authority and weight of any opinion belonging to someone other than Lois McMaster Bujold, the answer is of course, eventually. I think they’ll need some time to get used to it, and several female heirs to countships first. The Counts are an inherently conservative body, but they have been willing to innovate when they feel it is in their best interests to do so. They didn’t really like confirming Rene and Dono. Since they did that, a number of other Barrayarans have been found who also have Cetagandan genes. The counts are starting to get used to the idea that a twenty year occupation left a genetic mark on Barrayar. Purging the Cetagandan element from Barrayaran society would be a dark and violent chapter in Barrayaran history, and they don’t seem to have a leader willing to call for that at this time.

Every now and then Barrayar surprises me.

The Counts weren’t happy confirming Dono either. They only did it to punish Richars for the crimes he tried to commit. The Counts of Barrayar took a vote and decided against political violence. They didn’t have to! But they did. Because they have decided they don’t like people making politics with a few quick slashes in a parking garage. I can think of a significant number of Barrayaran politicians who would have been happy to resolve their political conflicts with a few quick slashes in a parking garage. This is a really new generation of Barrayaran politicians. They think of themselves as conservative, but they value stability more than tradition. Sometime in the next twenty years, they will be forced to ask themselves which course best promotes stability: letting women succeed to countships, or seeing a number of people get sex change surgery in order to succeed to countships? They might not like either choice. But have you SEEN Barrayaran women? I think they’re going to push the point. Once there are a significant number of women in the Council of Counts, I anticipate changes to the laws of succession to eliminate male primogeniture as the default. If nothing else, the succession laws are a political bargaining chip that someone will want to use in pursuit of other goals. A Count who doesn’t want his title to pass to his oldest daughter will still be able to supersede primogeniture by confirming a different heir during his lifetime. Probably. I don’t know what they’ll come up with, but I suspect they’ll keep that.

None of that happens in this book. Instead, we get a Ma Kosti tea, delivered on a train of little trolleys. Ivan drools a little. Gregor has three miniature cream cakes. Oh, Gregor. Ekaterin offers the new Lady Vorpatril her support in finding her way in Barrayaran high society, and gives a tour of the dining room and garden. No one mentions butter bugs. Oh, and Tej’s brother is working with the Duronas. What a coincidence!

In Chapter 11, Ivan and Tej join Alys and Simon in making a memorial offering to Padma Vorpatril, who died the day Ivan was born, just shortly after the tea where Gregor’s mother drew the line at a third cream cake. Which demonstrates my point about the Barrayaran peace being sturdier these days. It doesn’t change the incontrovertible fact that Padma died of Barrayaran violence, though, or that Ivan’s birthday has always begun with an offering burned in the middle of the street. For thirty-five years. Ivan is older now than his father will ever be, and Tej is the same age Lady Vorpatril was when she became a mother and a widow. This scene makes me think of Romeo and Juliet. I realize that many readers—both of Shakespeare’s play and of Bujold’s books—might find this weird, but bear with me: Romeo and Juliet is a play about the impact that civil conflict has on young love, and there’s some pressure on Juliet to get married to promote her family’s political goals. Theoretically, there’s some pressure on Romeo too, but the play doesn’t have a scene where Romeo’s dad tells him to look hard at the nice lady he’s about to meet because his biological clock is ticking. That’s special for Juliet.

Alys went through blood and fire on the day that Ivan was born. She blames Padma. She says he went out not so much to find help for her, but to find relief for his own fear about what she was going through. If he had been braver and stayed with her, he wouldn’t have been caught, and they could have lived out the last days of the Pretendership safely in hiding. Alys has been angry ever since.

I notice no one is lauding Bothari’s skill as a midwife.

Alys is ready to let go. The bakery they used to go to afterwards has closed, and Alys and Ivan don’t even lament it. Ivan says it had gone downhill. Alys says his palate grew more educated. It doesn’t matter. The bakery, originally chosen for its convenience, has closed. Ivan has grown up. Alys has moved on.

Having attended to tradition with his mother, Ivan takes Tej and Rish to dinner with Duv and Delia in the evening. They talk about the first time Ivan was kidnapped. Also, Duv has written some chapters in a new Barrayaran history. He has a PhD, remember? He and Delia also have toddlers at home. Toddlers are very popular on Barrayar this season. I appreciate everyone’s restraint in not asking Ivan and Tej about their reproductive plans.

That’s the beginning of Chapter 12, but it seems like a good place to stop for the week. Best Thanksgiving wishes to readers in the US! Join me next week when Tej learns to drive!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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