*There will almost certainly be spoilers ahead, for multiple books. You have been warned.*
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest in Lois McMaster Bujold’s SF series The Vorkosigan Saga. Set after Diplomatic Immunity but apparently before Cryoburn (Count Aral is apparently still alive, though absent), it continues Bujold’s new practice of telling the story from a view-point other than Miles Vorkosigan’s. Personally, I am a fan of this choice. Miles has already found his Happily Ever After and settled down, so as much as I adore Miles, stories centered around his point of view might become a bit stale and unbelievable. There comes a point where even the most intrepid adventurer must retire, and Miles has mostly reached his. However, having other characters, especially ones connected to Miles, tell their stories allows for us to sort of peek into the lives of Miles and Ekaterin and their family, and get just a taste of that special Milesian flair.
So, Alliance is told from two points of view, that of Captain Ivan Vorpatril (Miles’ cousin, you’ll remember) and Lady Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua Vorpatril better known as Tej throughout the book. This is one of the early twists of the story. Ivan in previous books has been characterized as a bit of a womanizer but also a confirmed bachelor. Even, perhaps, an aggressively confirmed bachelor who goes out of his way to avoid matrimony, or even commitment of any sort. However, within the first third of the book, he meets Tej and promptly marries her. No, he hasn’t lost his mind, it’s all part of a ploy to get Tej and her genetically modified blue companion Rish off of Komarr and into the heart of the Empire. The two women are scions of a minor House in Jackson’s Whole, where inter-House rivalry has stripped their family of their power and in some cases their very lives. While the two women on the run, they get caught up with some schemes Byerly Vorrutyer (another cousin introduced in A Civil Campaign) is meddling with in his position as Imperial spy. Byerly enlists Ivan’s help in rescuing the young women, and during the ensuing confusion Ivan marries Tej (who he was already attracted to but hadn’t gotten anywhere with) and makes off with her to Barrayar, which is isolated enough to make pursuit difficult.
Meanwhile, from Tej’s perspective, we discover that Tej and Rish are Jacksonian enough to use Ivan for his protection, even up to and including causing him to fall in love with Tej, and then breaking his heart once they’ve gotten what they need. Except Barrayar is so far out of their realm of experience that they find themselves in many unexpected situations. Tej, particularly, was never entirely happy with the Jacksonian way of life, and finds Ivan’s life on Barrayar compellingly attractive (and Ivan too). However, the second twist is when House Arqua (Tej and Rish’s family) turn up whole and unscathed minus a few deaths which are presumed to be reversible in the future, after the ladies had given them up entirely for dead. The Arquas are intent on using Barrayar to rebuild their fortunes, and then traveling straight back to Jackson’s Whole to retake their property, with Tej and Rish in tow. Rish is more than happy to be reunited with her House, but Tej is less certain. She helps her family on Barrayar, but finds herself conflicted between the pull of House Arqua and House Vorpatril.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance seems, at first glance, to be a love story centered around Ivan, that most unlikely of serious lovers. But it’s really the story of Tej, and her struggle to break away from her family so she can find her own life and happiness, while simultaneously not burning her bridges with them. Despite the callous and cavalier reputation of Jacksonians, the Arqua family actually do love each-other, albeit occasionally dysfunctionally. In a way, it’s harder to break away from a loving but overbearing family than from a family which one is an outcast of. Love is the tie that binds, after all.
I greatly enjoyed the principle characters as well. There’s Ivan of course. A Civil Campaign gives us a taste of his wit and ability which is often overshadowed by his cousin Miles’ brilliance. This book gives us another, deeper taste of the same. Ivan is no Miles, but they certainly bear a familial resemblance intellectually. Ivan is just better at hiding his away out of laziness and apathy.
Tej is one of my favorite characters. She’s clever, capable, and interesting in her own right, and through her eyes we get another perspective on Barrayar, similar to the one we get from Cordelia’s Honor, and yet entirely distinct from Cordelia’s perspective. Her internal struggles with the competing demands of family and husband resonated with me quite strongly. I also enjoyed her close, companionate relationship with her sister/servant Rish. They complement each-other with strengths and weaknesses, proving to be a good team.
This brings us to Rish, who is quite a unique character. More properly named Lapis Lazuli, she is one of six genetically modified sort-of-children of Baronne Arqua, known as her Jewels. The Jewels are so-called because they are each modified to embody a particular hue. In Rish’s case, her skin is bright blue (hence Lapis Lazuli) and her hair is white. Beyond the coloration changes, she also possesses extremely heightened senses and encoded abilities with dance and athletics and such. The Jewels are often used as a dance-troup by the Baronne, at least in public, but they are also fully members of the House and thus quite involved in all the House chicanery up to their exquisitely-colored necks.
Overall, I enjoyed the whole book. I would not classify it as one of Bujold’s best books, but neither was it her worst. It was light-heartedly entertaining, and the end was very satisfying. I would definitely heartily recommend this one to any of Bujold’s fans, especially those who love her Vorkosigan Saga books. Most tellingly, it left me hungry for more Vorkosiverse books, and sent me back to my bookshelves to re-read a few of my old favorites.