Ah, the space opera of old, with ray guns sizzling and the Patrol just waiting for the sub-space yell for help to come high-tailing it through hyperspace to the rescue! (Exclamation points optional, but rarely left out). But that was the old days, and this is now the 21st century, and a new brand of space opera has arisen, championed by Ms. Bujold. Somehow the ray guns and exclamation points have disappeared, but not the sense of breathless, pell-mell, don’t stop to smell the roses action.
This is the latest in her long line of books about Miles Vorkosigan, nimble of mind, short of stature, often subject to seemingly irrational urges towards rash actions. For this book, he is somewhat toned down, perhaps a little more mature, being now a happily married man, as well as having been promoted to be Imperial Auditor. When his honeymoon is interrupted by a request to go straighten out a diplomatic mess in Quaddie space, about three pages into the book, you just know you’re in for another wild ride through Miles’ version of how to solve a problem, which is never by just diplomatic means. The ‘problem’ in this case quickly turns into something of a murder mystery (sans body), and Miles must deal with how to gather pertinent information amongst a group of people who are not only antagonistic, but feel that anyone with two arms and two legs (as opposed to four arms) is sub-human and has criminal tendencies.
Bujold, as usual, keeps many threads spinning in this adventure tale, from Miles’ relationship with a hermaphroditic old friend to a possible all-out war hanging on the resolution of this problem. But perhaps because Miles must now operate very much in the open, rather than as a clandestine undercover operative, there seems to be a little less excitement to this tale than some of the prior works, with Miles only able to operate as a one-man desperado army near the tail end of the book. The tongue-in-cheek humor that suffuses earlier books is not nearly as prominent in this novel, a definite detriment as this was one of the series’ basic charms. Characterization for anyone other than Miles is fairly sparse and often rather stereotypical. And the resolution of the murder mystery struck me as somewhat far-fetched, as merely a way to bring in even more far-reaching consequences and complications.
Still, a nicely entertaining book, another entry into this new breed of space opera that shows that this type of fiction still has life left in it.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)