Just for sheer fun there hasn’t been a better book this year than Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest Miles Vorkosigan adventure. Driven by science fiction ideas, A Civil Campaign is none-the-less also a wonderfully effective romance novel.
The three rocky romances of the story more than live up to the billing of the novel’s sub-title, “Comedy of Biology and Manners.” While both the humor and the romance play a prominent role in A Civil Campaign, Bujold still gives readers everything that we’ve come to expect from her earlier novels: clear, effective prose, characters steeped in honor, heart-rending conflicts, fast-paced plots, and underlying it all, a sense of grace, humor and wisdom.
The three men who star in this story, Miles, Mark, and Ivan, have their love lives thrown into such deliciously comical disarray that the reader can well imagine Bujold laughing gleefully in the background. Our charismatic and tortured hero, Miles Vorkosigan, having found his lady, now just needs to convince her that she’d like to be married, and specifically to him. And, oh, he needs to keep his courtship a secret...from her.
After enduring a smothering, soul-destroying marriage (see Komarr), the last thing on Ekaterin’s mind is remarriage. She may be unaware of it, but Miles is acutely conscious that Ekaterin’s reputation and honor are at stake if he screws up. There’s a horrible fascination in watching Miles’ devious manipulations hurtle towards disaster.
The other love stories have varied tones. The darker thread in A Civil Campaign features Miles’ fat clone brother Mark, he of the multiple personalities. Mark’s warped upbringing as an assassin, prior to being adopted by Miles’ family, has damaged him to an almost incomprehensible extent. To see him struggle with his feelings of being an outsider in the close-knit Vorkosigan family, and be denied the woman he loves, provide some of the most powerful passages in the book.
Miles’ cousin Ivan is now, as he has always been, the comic relief. He’s the big, handsome, determinedly-low-key foil to Miles’ own physical shortcomings and blazingly brilliant personality. The farthest thing from Ivan’s mind is marriage. With his rather rakish bachelor tendencies, Ivan is far more interested in getting a date in a city where eligible men outnumber the women. Unfortunately for him, his date partners seem to be running rings around him.
There is even a minor fourth romance for the ultimate geeky scientist who might discover love for something other than the butterbugs which consume his entire life. Who needs the birds and the bees when you have butterbugs?
The whole novel abounds with delightfully witty dialogue, comical situations, and a gentle humor, making this a treat for fans of the Regency novel in particular. It crosses genres from science fiction to romance beautifully. While A Civil Campaign can be enjoyed as a reader’s first exposure to Miles and company, the experience is unquestionably enriched by having read at least Komarr, if not the entire series that has come before. Without this background, it’s difficult to imagine some of the jokes being as funny, some of the reminiscences being as poignant, or some of the conflicts being as moving.
Bujold’s characters never become farcical or melodramatic. She has remarkable control over the emotional tension of the story, investing the reader in the main characters’ struggles, hopes, and aching fears to such an extent that the triumphant climax of the story becomes a stand up and cheer event, one that is as powerful for the reader as for the characters themselves. What a simply terrific reading experience.