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The return of Miles, but not at his best
on 13 December 2010
Miles Vorkosigan is the character that made Lois McMaster Bujold's name as a writer of smart, readable, fun SF. Miles is a native of Barrayar, a traditionalist planet coming out of a period of isolation, and Miles is used to show Barrayar encountering the moden galaxy around it. The series, of which this is the 11th full novel, has taken a crippled, hyperactive, intelligent boy and, through a series of adventures and encounters, made him a man. When we last left him, he had found stability in both his professional life (working as a trouble-shooter for his Emperor) and personal life (married, with children on the way). Most major plot points, such as rival empires or Barrayan internal politics, have been resolved or drifted away.
The true brilliance of the series has always lain in McMaster Bujold's light touch in writing, and the sheer wonder of her central character. Her skills in world building are average and, as "Cryoburn" involves introducing us to a new world where countless dead lie in cryostasis awaiting resurrection, this brings the first problem. It's an interesting idea, taking an old theme of hers to an extreme conclusion, but it would be out of character for her to delve too deep into it - gritty social realism has never been her strong suit - and so it simply remains an intriguing but underdeveloped idea. Instead, we see Miles thrown into the middle of a convoluted plot about the cryostasis business that threatens Barrayar in a slightly unspecified way, which he attacks in his usual forthright and entertaining manner, producing a swift plot with some nice supporting characters, who tend to fall into familiar niches.
The usual elements of success for a Miles story are there, but never really gell. Most worrying is the decision of McMaster Bujold to use a side-character, Mile's bodyguard Roic, as a narrator. Roic is a solid, dependable character, who narrates in a solid, dependable voice, but he is simply not that interesting. The other narrator is a young native of the planet, who brings a refreshing viewpoint, but isn't given that much to do. In fact, at a pivotal point for his character, he gets almost sidelined to allow the main plot to proceed.
Ultimately, while it is very nice to read more of Miles, this adds very little to his story. The entire book has something of the feeling of an epilogue. Miles has thoroughly grown up, and it is hard to see where any further development will come from without shattering his world in a way that legions of fans will hate. It is only in the very final part that we see a hint of where McMaster Bujold may be able to send Miles next.