Review: A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold

A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest installment in her Vorkosigan saga, has a number of things to live up to: its subtitle, A Comedy of Biology and Manners; the potential established by past books (particularly Komarr, which began the story arc concluded here); and the sample chapters web-posted by Baen. The novel, possibly the most ambitious and skilled offering from Bujold to date, manages to fulfill all of these expectations with a satisfactory tale of love, growing up, and growing into yourself and your family—and oh yes, of those bugs on the cover too.

Bujold has always written character-centered novels, and A Civil Campaign is no exception. Only two previous Vorkosigan books have been told from more than one point of view, but A Civil Campaign uses five, two completely new: Miles, newly-minted Imperial Auditor and the center of most previous Vorkosigan novels; his clone-brother, Mark; their cousin, Ivan; Ekaterin, a widow Miles met during his most recent Auditor's case; and Kareen, Mark's best-beloved and a childhood friend of Miles and Ivan. Bujold's books filter everything through the viewpoint character's eyes (for example, Miles and Kareen see the same chairs as "spindly" and "graceful," respectively); this type of narration allows the reader to see not just the characters' actions, but their internal commentary and the subtle yet illuminating details in their mental depictions of events. For instance, Miles still thinks of many things in military terms (perhaps too many), despite his discharge from the service: "Miles paused in momentary admiration of his father's ability to deliver lines like that. It put him in mind of the way a combat drop shuttle delivered pinpoint incendiaries."

Particularly interesting for readers of past books are the characters of Kareen, who appeared only briefly in a prior book, and Ivan, who has long been the subject of speculation among fans and characters alike. For example, Miles would never have this reaction to a characteristic comment of Emperor Gregor:

"All right . . . " said Gregor slowly at last.

The look of growing curiosity in his eyes made Ivan's skin crawl. He's going to say it, I just know he is . . .

"Let's see what happens."

Seeing events through the eyes of different characters also allows for multiple information on and interpretations of the same events. Paradoxically, this works most effectively for the pivotal dinner party, the only chapter told completely from Miles' point of view, since the night can then be contemplated—at length—by others on the morning (or afternoon, or evening) after.

The five central characters are extremely well drawn, but they are not the only ones so favored. In particular, Count and Countess Vorkosigan (Miles & Mark's parents) and Gregor are wonderfully and economically portrayed in their brief appearances. Nikki, Ekaterin's nine-year-old son, is one of the more realistically likeable children I have encountered in fiction. Dialogue is the other major characterization tool in Bujold's books, and the conversations involving these characters are particularly revealing and apt.

The step from characters to plot in Bujold's books is generally not a very large one, something which is entirely the case here. What might loosely be termed the "Manners" part of the Comedy develops in the first section of the book, as the characters' emotional dilemmas, hopes, and fears build until the aforementioned dinner party, where, true to form, they all come crashing down. Without giving too much of the plot away, these include Miles' attempts at courting Ekaterin, who doesn't want to be courted after her disastrous first marriage, and Mark & Kareen's difficulties in adjusting to Barrayaran culture after their year on Beta Colony. (Note that, while this is a Comedy, there are still real hearts and lives at stake. The form does not make the pains suffered along the way any less real.)

The "Biology" portion—the threads of which are visible from the first chapters—comes forward during and after the dinner, further complicating attempts to resolve the emotional problems. The plot structure is again more complicated than that of previous Vorkosigan novels, with several plot strands winding around each other to varying degrees. Some minor plot points, mostly peripheral to the main action, could use a little more explanation; however, given the narrative structure of the book, it's difficult to see how they could be made more clear without forced explication.

If the details of the plot are occasionally slightly spotty, there are many details that add an additional layer of meaning and resonance for readers of past Vorkosigan books. These generally oblique references (which should not spoil past books for new readers) make A Civil Campaign feel in many regards rather like a wrapping-up or rounding-off of the series to date. To take just one small and subtle instance, new readers would not attach any significance to conferences about the Emperor's wedding occurring in a room decorated in green silk, but readers of past novels recognize that room as the former planning-grounds of a particularly ugly and honor-destroying betrayal. That the wedding is to a Komarran, resident of a planet conquered by Barrayar's previous generation, is the final grace note in this exorcism of the past.

In the course of the book, the exorcism of old secrets and ghosts continues to the extent possible; characters of one generation encounter some of the emotional perils that beset those of previous generations, and find their way through with help from their peers and their predecessors; and the characters keep growing up, moving on, and facing new challenges. In Bujold's books, adulthood is not a one-time achievement, but a continuing process. In one sense, it is part of the respect she affords her characters: like "real" people, the past has repercussions on the present, emotional development doesn't stop after one experience, and there are always still things to learn. There are a number of themes that run through the book, including secrets, family, oaths and honor, and of course, biology (as one conversation puts it: "Biology isn't destiny?" "Not anymore, it's not."). However, possibly the most encompassing and profound theme is that of change, transformation, or metamorphosis, which pervades both the plot and the characters, bringing them, not into happily-ever-after, but into a harmonious moment of calm for the characters and series to rest at. (Bujold has stated that her next novel will be unrelated to the Vorkosigan universe.)

In sum, A Civil Campaign, though not perfect, is an immensely satisfying and well-crafted novel which demonstrates how writers, too, can continue to develop and improve. This ambitious and accomplished novel ought to prove especially satisfying to prior readers of Bujold, though care has been taken to make it quite accessible to new readers (who, hopefully, will then want to track down just what happened in Komarr, and what Cordelia is most famous for on Barrayar, and how Miles came to be dead and cryo-revived, and the like). I strongly recommend it for all who appreciate strong characters and relationships, interesting plots, and the odd bit of genetic engineering to enliven the two.

%T   A Civil Campaign
%A   Bujold, Lois McMaster
%C   New York
%D   1999
%G   0-671-57827-8
%I   Baen
%O   hardcover
%P   405pp

Copyright October 2, 1999 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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