Review: Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn

(Baen Books, 9781439133941)
(Review first appeared in ASIM 49, December 2010)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s new SF novel, Cryoburn, is—let me check my maths—the umpteenth book in her Vorkosigan series, released after too many aeons since its immediate predecessor (Diplomatic Immunity) while the author concerned herself with crafting fantasy novels (a task at which, it should be noted, she does possess some talent). A return to the universe of Miles Vorkosigan, nobleman, professional troubleshooter, and pint-sized personal maelstrom, is, nonetheless, past due. If you’ve not previously checked out Bujold’s space opera masterworks, Cryoburn is as good an introduction to the series as any, although immersion in the (by now considerably extended) back catalogue would heighten appreciation of some of the character nuances, grace notes, and offhand humour in this latest work.

Kibou-daini, a planet on the far side of Escobar’s wormhole nexus, and therefore far removed (in a geographical sense) from the Barrayaran worlds, has recently brought itself to the attention of Emperor Grigor through its announced intention to open a cryopreservation facility on Komarr. As a business decision, it makes little if any sense—Komarr is a world not yet fully fit for habitation, its terraforming an ongoing operation, and its distance and difficulty of access from Kibou-daini would make for a considerable obstacle to communication, supply, and travel between the Komarr franchise and the parent corporation. Just why have nearer, more ostensibly profitable sites for expansion been overlooked in favour of this barely-hospitable Galactic backwater? There is much about the arrangement that doesn’t smell right, and when something with Barrayaran connections doesn’t smell right, Miles Vorkosigan’s is the name that springs to mind. As fixer-upper, if not as first-place cause (or on occasion, as both). So the former mercenary admiral, now Imperial Auditor, is sent to Kibou-daini to sniff around.

While it would be simplistic to say that Kibou-daini, as a society, has found a way to cheat death, the planet does appear at least to have made some form of pact with it. Life on Kibou-daini is overshadowed by the cryocorps, a few monolithic corporations concerned with the cryonic preservation of the terminally ill, the well-to-do disaffected, in fact just about anyone who thinks their lot might be better a hundred years from now. Including, on occasion, some of those who would really rather stay warm, thanks, but whose vitality is in some measure inconvenient for those in a position of power. Kibou-daini, it seems, has found a viable alternative to the big sleep. And it’s up to Miles, his long-suffering Armsman, Roic (although as Roic himself would observe, just about anyone of more than passing acquaintance with m’lord would qualify under that sobriquet), and his contracted cryotreatment expert Raven Durani to rectify a tragic error, a crime, and an insidious grab for corporate wealth.

If Cryoburn lacks the fever pitch of some of the novels detailing Miles’ escapades as the leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries—to paraphrase the late E. Presley, there’s a little more conversation,  a little less action—it’s worth remembering that Lord Vorkosigan is now middle-aged, a man with a family and an important and dignified position, and might be expected to have slowed down somewhat in his approach to injustice, chicanery, and something-is-rottenness. Plus, with several decades of life-experience in pushing well past the limits of sanity due practice while pursuing goals of Imperial expediency and natural justice, Miles’ planning—think of a mindmeld between Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, and Machiavelli, with delusions of James Bond for added zest—should surely be a bit more robust, a bit more sure-footed, these days than in his younger years, no? No? Well, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. What I would have some certainty about is that standing too close to Miles Vorkosigan can be dangerous, for friend and foe alike.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cryoburn; wished it was longer. It’s not the consummate compulsive page-turner of Memory or Mirror Dance, but it is a solid, suitable, and intriguing new addition to the Vorkosigan canon. And Bujold’s ability to throw the whole series into a tailspin, through the use of three simple words—you’ll know them when you encounter them—is spine-chilling. Which, given the book’s subject matter, seems an entirely appropriate physiological response.

There’s another reason, beyond just the 340 pages of consummately-crafted text, to launch into Cryoburn. Almost all of the Vorkosigan backstory is included on a free CD-ROM that accompanies (at least) the hardcover edition of the new novel, alongside interviews and other goodies. It’s a powerful additional incentive to check out the new book, but if you haven’t read Cryoburn’s predecessors you might want to brush up on a few thousand pages of onscreen reading before you turn your attention to what’s on the paper between those covers.

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