31 March 2009

Novellas I love: The Mountains of Mourning

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite currently-working writers. My buddy Phil introduced me to her books while we were stuck in an airport on weather delays. Now I have an entire shelf devoted to her books (though since the Sharing Knife books are hardcover, they're on a different shelf for oversize books.)

The Mountains of Mourning is set shortly after Miles' graduation from the Imperial Service Academy, and his plans for a relaxing two-week home leave between graduation and finding out his assignment are shattered when a woman from the back country shows up at his doorstep to speak to Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan about the murder of her infant. Aral decides to send Miles to Silvy Vale as his Voice (and Lord Vorkosigan): both the messenger and the message.

Messenger and message, in one man: times are changing.

The hill woman sat on a hassock, a half-eaten oil cake clutched in her hands, staring open-mouthed at Miles in all his power and polish. As he caught and returned her gaze her lips pressed closed and her eyes lit. Her expression was strange — anger? Exhilaration? Embarrassment? Glee? Some bizarre mixture of all? And what did you think I was, woman?

Being in uniform (showing off his uniform?), Miles came to attention before his father. "Sir?"

Count Vorkosigan spoke to the woman. "That is my son. If I send him as my Voice, would that satisfy you?"

"Oh," she breathed, her wide mouth drawing back in a weird, fierce grin, the most expression Miles had yet seen on her face, "yes, my lord."

"Very well. It will be done."

Harra's daughter was born with harelip and cleft palate, you see, and Barrayar has an aversion to mutations, especially in the Vorkosigans' district, which got a hefty dose of radiation after the Cetagandan invasion 100 or so years before, when the Cetas nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi. When Cordelia was pregnant with Miles, they were the targets of a teratogenic gas attack, which left Miles crippled.

His whole life, Miles has struggled to be worthy. He's got some big shoes to fill, when he becomes Count Vorkosigan:

And how much is he haunted by Grandfather? Miles wondered. He doesn't show it much. But then, he doesn't have to. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, space master strategist, conqueror of Komarr, hero of Escobar, for sixteen years Imperial Regent, supreme power on Barrayar in all but name. And then he'd capped it, confounded history and all self-sure witnesses and heaped up honor and glory beyond all that had gone before by voluntarily stepping down and transferring command smoothly to Emperor Gregor upon his majority. Not that the Prime Ministership hadn't made a dandy retirement from the Regency, and he was showing no signs yet of stepping down from that.

And so Admiral Aral's life took General Piotr's like an overpowering hand of cards, and where did that leave Ensign Miles? Holding two deuces and the joker. He must surely either concede or start bluffing like crazy....

I love this story, because it encapsulates Barrayar in under 100 pages: the history; the Time of Isolation; the Cetagandan invasion and the resistance led by one General Count Piotr Pierre Vorkosigan; the peculiarities of social norms. And Miles' growing realizations that Barrayar needs to change, that he loves this backward, barbaric ball of rock that eats its young. It's beautiful and sad.

We are all here by accident. Like the roses.

My only complaint is that there's no Ivan in this one, though young Ivan was a bit of an annoying cad. I'm rather glad the author got a better idea on that one ;) I adore Ivan.

You can read it at Baen's Webscriptions.

(Aside: Has anyone else noticed that General Count Piotr Pierre Vorkosigan has the same name twice? Since Piotr and Pierre are both equivalent to Peter? That's what the Vor naming conventions will get you.)

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