When I think about my literary tastes with regards to science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) I realise that from the get-go I’ve always been attracted to more adventury, character focused, space-opera kind of stories. When I was at school I devoured all the Andre Norton I could lay my hands on – and I still have super fond memories of the Tom Swift novels in my high school library. The Norton was undeniably superior fare, but even so … for me it was all about the fun and the imagination and the characters. Hard science was never my thing. Ideas over people never floated my boat.
So I suppose that makes it pretty much inevitable that I would fall hook, line and sinker for Hugo and Nebula winner Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga novels.
In a recent writing podcast I talked about how to create vital, compelling characters. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you’d do a lot worse than reading these books to see how a genius does it. And if you love really great space opera, exciting and adventurous and profoundly character-driven, you shouldn’t go past this wonderful series.
At the heart of the Vorkosigan saga is one Miles Vorkosigan. Son and grandson of great warriors, scion of an aristocratic house, Miles is intellectually brilliant … and physically limited. Victim of a terrorist attack while still in utero, it’s a miracle he even survived. And from the moment he was old enough to understand what happened, and what he lost – never to be regained – he’s fought to be seen as whole, as legitimate, as more than just his stunted body. Of course, it doesn’t help that his culture is severely phobic about physical deformities, thanks to a history with gene-mutating weapons of mass destruction.
The Vorkosigan saga takes place in the far future, in a time when humanity has spread out to the stars. Miles’ home planet, Barrayar, has Russian antecedents and a rigid class-based, aristocratic culture. His father, Aral, has significant ties to the Imperial house and the government. HIs mother, Cordelia, is from a far more liberal planet, Beta Colony. (Their story is told in the duology Barrayar and Cordelia’s Honor). Miles is an odd blend of his parents: traditional yet unorthodox, proud and arrogant yet hugely compassionate and empathetic. He’s witty, inventive, confident … yet plagued with doubt. An ethical man with a strict moral code who pulls off one of the greatest cons in military history.
Of course, Miles and his parents aren’t the only brilliant characters in the series. For one thing there’s his cousin Ivan, a walking, talking reminder of how Miles was meant to turn out. There’s his shadowy mentor Simon Illyan, and Barrayar’s Emperor Gregor, his haunted boyhood bodyguard Bothari and Bothari’s daughter Elena … to name only a few. They each play a vital part in Miles’s life and adventures, helping him to become the man he was destined to be.
More than that I don’t want to say, because spoilers. But seriously – if you haven’t immersed yourself in this engrossing, fascinating, intriguing and emotionally fulfilling saga — go do it now! The first book in the series is The Warrior’s Apprentice.
But Bujold is a must-read not only because of Miles and his adventures. She is, plainly stated, one of the best in the business. Her work is a joy to read because it’s so beautifully crafted, so exquisitely executed. There is a gloss and a polish, a seamless finish, to her prose that allows a reader to sink beneath its surface and never need to come up for air. When I read Bujold my inner editor is never roused – and that doesn’t happen too often these days.
As well as the Vorkosigan saga, Bujold has written a number of fantasy novels. The Curse of Chalion is one of my all-time favourites. And The Sharing Knife saga is a different kind of fantasy again.
Bujold is a great writer, winner of multiple awards, whose work ranks among the best the speculative fiction genre has ever seen. If you’re not familiar with her fabulous tales, I hope I’ve inspired you to start reading, pronto.