A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
(Baen, £17.99, 405 pages, hardback, published 1999. Published in the UK by Earthlight, £6.99, 405 pages, paperback, June 2000.)
The latest instalment of the Miles Vorkosigan saga is subtitled A Comedy of Biology and Manners, which is an accurate and rather sly summation of its major themes.
Lord Miles Vorkosigan, ex-Galactic Agent Provocateur for the Barrayaran Imperium has overcome a vast multitude of enemies in his chequered career; bigots who despise his physical handicaps, deranged military superiors, fascistic galactic warlords, clone slave-traders... But now, alas, he faces a challenge of an altogether higher order, for he has fallen in love with the beautiful, bereaved Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who has a soul-deep aversion to love and marriage in all their varied forms.
Complicating a courtship of already almost deranged complexity, is Miles' much-less-than-sane clone-brother Mark, with his plans to launch a bio-engineering financial empire (from Miles' basement), his feckless and interfering cousin, Ivan, and a whole host of supporting characters from Emperor Gregor himself down to Ekaterian's nine year old son, Nikolai.
All these people have competing agendas and most of them manage to contribute to the mounting shambles of Miles' romantic ambitions. Humour, of course, is hardly a rarity in the science fiction genre (think Pratchett, Holt, Harrison), but subtle plotting and genuine wit, sadly are. Bujold's Vorkosigan sequence has given her ample scope before now to display both, but never on such a sustained and delightful level. This is truly superior farce, rich with incident and characters.
If there is, in fact, anything wrong with this book, it is the simple fact that it cannot be read to best effect as a standalone. There are ten previous books in the Vorkosigan sequence and to get all the in-jokes you would actually have to read the lot. At an absolute minimum, just to keep up with the plotting and characters you'll need to be familiar with the last three or four (but, don't think of this as a handicap, think of it as an opportunity!)
In sum, A Civil Campaign is an inspired reading of character, beautifully plotted and marvellously witty. Not to be missed.
Review by Simeon Shoul.
This review was first published in the British Fantasy Society
newsletter, Prism, Sept/Oct 2000.
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© Simeon Shoul 11 August 2001