Lois McMaster Bujold

A Vorkosigan Saga book

Baen Books (2010)

ISBN: 9781439133941

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is a book I (and many others) have been awaiting since approximately the end of time. I discovered the outstanding Vorkosigan saga some years ago (gosh at least ten now, I think) with the marvellous comedy of manners A Civil Campaign. I then proceeded to catch up on all the previous books in entirely the wrong order, and with great glee. My first ebook reading (anyone else remember Mobipocket?) came about because of the difficulty of tracking down some of Bujold’s more obscure works, which I believe have since been reprinted, possibly multiple times.

In other words, I’m a fan.

Diplomatic Immunity was the first new release that I got my hands on after I discovered Miles Vorkosigan and his chaotic ensemble of family and friends, and while it pressed a lot of the “oh look who’s back” buttons, it felt ultimately like a bit of a damp squib – like the similarly bleh Cetaganda, it slipped quickly into the ‘Bujold books I’m least likely to reread’ pile, even as I reread Mirror Dance, Memory, Komarr, Civil Campaign, and even the very early volumes with voracious delight.

For most of this decade, Bujold has been writing fantasy, rather excellent examples of the genre, though nothing (it has to be said) that creates the same mad adoration that I feel for Miles Vorkosigan. I very much enjoyed her first two fantasy novels in particular, which did very clever things with magic and worldbuilding and protagonists, but, you know. NOT VORKOSIGAN.

I think a big part of the appeal of this madcap series of science fiction is that, much like my other great SF love Doctor Who, it incorporates so many different kinds of styles and stories that there is little chance of it going stale. From SF romance to political crunchiness to military space opera to thriller to family saga to murder mystery to comedy of manners, the novels show different sides of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, a man who barely survived childhood and battles all manner of disabilities and yet is fierce and indestructible. As with any successful series, we gather repeat characters along the way, to whom it is easy to get rather attached. Miles’ mother Cordelia, herself the hero of two early novels, an independent, liberal-thinking scientific woman who has chosen to spend her life as an aristocratic wife in a feudal society, but never stops stabbing holes in said society to make it a better place. His father Aral, a fossil and war hero who represents everything Miles values about honour and masculinity, and whose accomplishments Miles can only eclipse by achieving epic insanities at an intergalactic level. Ivan, the adorable and bumbling dope of a cousin. Elli Quinn, who chooses ships and battles over love and marriage because, DUH. Taura, a monstrous super-soldier who breaks everyone’s hearts simply by existing. Mark, a damaged abuse victim who should have been a one-time character but kept coming back and growing and developing as a person. Ahem. I could go on, but will not.

Possibly it’s time to talk about this actual book. Cryoburn, while not actually hitting the heights of my very very very favourite Vorkosigans (honestly it’s hard to top Memory which is one of the best books I’ve ever read) has all the ingredients of a very successful Miles Vorkosigan outing. It also shows that yet again, Bujold is not afraid to take risks, to change up any patterns her series has developed, and even the world itself. I’m not going to address in the least the most important change she brings down upon Miles’ world, because it’s the massivest spoiler of all spoilers, but suffice to say – this is, like Civil Campaign and to some extent Diplomatic Immunity, a book which could stand very successfully as the last of the series, and yet unlike both those volumes it could as easily be the new beginning that refreshes the books so entirely that we see another five out in the next decade. Ms Bujold, in case you’re wondering, I’m voting for the latter!

Cryoburn introduces us to two new point of view characters, another of those narrative choices that helps refresh and reinvent this series at regular points, rather than letting it stagnate into a single method. Roic, the guardsman who featured in the rather lovely romantic novella “Winterfair Gifts” earlier this decade, takes on one third of the novel, and Jin, a young boy at the heart of the mystery.

Because yes, this one is a mystery – or, to be more precise, a police procedural. This is very much the direction that these books have been moving for a while (with an exception made for A Civil Campaign) and this is an excellent example of the genre. The story takes place on Kibou-daini/New Hope, a planet obsessed with cryogenics, and the scientific extension of life. This theme, of immortality and the cost of extending life is explored in great depth throughout the novel, and it is that use of theme which lifts this beyond being an ordinary SF/crime hybrid into a powerful and unforgettable chapter in the Vorkosigan saga. While it works in many ways as a standalone novel, I don’t think that the emotional impact would be nearly as effective for a new reader, so I recommend that someone looking to hop aboard the Vorkosigan train goes back to Shards of Honour, The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, or even (as I did) A Civil Campaign. To really understand the ending of this book, you’re going to want a little grounding in Miles’ background, and how he got to this particular place.

I should add, I loved the POV voice of Jin, the boy who sees Miles and his people through new eyes. Writing from the perspective of a child is tough to get right, but it works brilliantly as a way to remind us all who and what Miles is, to add that level of surprise at his capabilities (which his own people are pretty immune to by now) and to introduce us to this new planet and its social concerns. I was less interested in the POV voice of Roic, who didn’t really have a plotline of his own to justify the use of his perspective, which seemed more to be an admin necessity, to report on events that Miles or Jin did not witness.

This is a good one. Not one of the best, but more than worth the wait. I really really hope that we get more, because I was left desperate to know what happens next, and the glimpses of Barrayar were not nearly enough. Also, can you believe that after all these years, and with quite a lot of skipping ahead, Miles is still only 39? There’s a lot of juice in this orange yet, and I am excited to see where Bujold takes us next. Just because this would make a powerful final book in the series doesn’t mean it should.