The Mountains of Mourning is a novella that we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially falls, more or less, between the novels The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game. It is about Miles Vorkosigan and was published in 1986. Miles is back home on holiday after graduating from the Imperial Military Academy and is given an official task by his father the Count.
Katharine: So we left Miles just as he gains entry to the Imperial Military Academy and we join him again just as he’s graduated – he’s on home leave, ten days out from his first assignment… very seamlessly done! Do we get any or many flashbacks to his time in the academy? I’m glad we didn’t have to see it all but I wouldn’t have minded seeing some!
Tsana: I think there might be a bit about it in The Vor Game? I’m not entirely sure, so we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, The Mountains of Mourning had a very different tone to The Warrior’s Apprentice, although the setting did remind me a little of what Cordelia sees in Barrayar. What were your impressions of it?
Katharine: It was good – it didn’t treat the reader like an idiot. There are quite a few changes, such as his new bodyguard, and it doesn’t take pages upon pages to labouriously introduce the reader and really hammer home how weird Miles felt or still feels about it. We’re just given the new bodyguard’s name and then we learn of him as the story goes on. Excellent!
Tsana: And there are some memories on Miles’s part to remind us that Bothari existed and that Miles still thinks of him. In terms of the actual story, I think this is the one that deals most directly with ableism and the attitudes of Joe Poor Barrayaran towards Miles and other people with “mutations”.
Katharine: Yeah, the term ‘Mutie’ is a bit confronting. I wonder how Miles got by in the Academy with this hostile and antiquated view… should we raise the spoiler shield so we can jump right into specifics?
Tsana: WHOOOOP WHOOOP SPOILERS ENGAGED
Tsana: The story starts off with Miles deciding to randomly help an exhausted backcountry woman get a meeting with his father in his doling-out-judgement capacity. Little does he know that the woman’s problems will soon drag him away from his planned holiday back home.
Katharine: I have to admit, I was a little surprised at Miles’ selfish moments here. It’s good to see he’s still young and not sickeningly good beyond believability, but he quickly thinks he wishes he’d never decided to help her and even turned her away from the gates. He mourns the loss of the lightflyer he’d been planning to buy, and often reflects at the harder times in the novella of where he’d be if he’d been relaxing as he’d planned.
That’s not to say that Miles is entirely callous. He does of course get invested in the woman’s problems, and devote himself entirely to carrying out his father’s duties properly. He also notes that he knows that particular guidance or even facts have been left out by his father as part of a challenge, for his father to see how he’ll do.
The duties require Miles to act as Voice for his father, travelling back with a woman, Harra, who has come to them for justice for infanticide, to the mountain district (hence the title). Her baby was born with a harelip and a cleft palate, and being from a more old-fashioned part of the once quite savage Barrayar, the baby is killed for being born less. There was a new clinic Harra wanted to travel to with the baby for an operation – when she had recovered from the birth – but that option was taken from her. And now it’s up to Miles to investigate the old-fashioned way (ish, he has a few technical advances) to find out who the criminal is, and what the punishment should be. Harra swears it was her husband, Lem, and though the community lacks for communication technology Miles is used to taking for granted, Lem has gone into hiding by the time Miles arrives, and almost every person there expects Miles has come to kill him – fairly or no.
Tsana: Regarding Miles being selfish, for all his problems he’s still a young guy with a very privileged upbringing. Seeing him being self-involved is perhaps an antidote to how with it he was in Warrior’s Apprentice, especially the parts where he went to very great lengths to help people (but even then, he was mentally planning to run away from some of the responsibilities when things got hard).
As far as Miles investigating the murder goes, how did you find the mystery-solving aspect of the story? I think it wasn’t too heavy on, say, deductive reasoning, but that there was enough there to make an interesting read during which I wasn’t bored.
Katharine: Well yes, and also we don’t really get to see how hard/demanding it was in the academy – I straight up would have been pretty dang annoyed at losing my few days of comfort and freedom. I wonder if that was part of Aral’s thinking?
I agree that it wasn’t too heavy on – Miles notes he doesn’t know the people well enough to judge their character, and as technology is highly limited out there (I wonder what the aura machine thingy is that he briefly mentioned!) he knows all he has is the truth serum and for that, they first need to track down where Lem is. What is does leave time for is Miles finding his feet among the people, and discovering for himself and us, the reader, in how he deals with them. I was impressed with how he embraces his disabilities, and in many occasions, halts his personnel where they want to shoo away people and he ‘let’s them look’. He takes being called a Mutie Lord countless times, which brings us to the parallels of what he’s there to investigate, and his own viewpoint on that. This baby was killed for less medical issues than his own, and his own mother was told to abort her baby – him – even by Aral’s father. Their only real significant person of power at that time.
Tsana: I figure the time at the academy would have done two things (at least) to Miles’s attitudes. 1) He would have become desensitised to bullying after being forced to live in close quarters with so many other young men after a relatively isolated childhood, and 2) some of their privileged worldviews might have begun to rub off on him, a little bit at least. (I am assuming he probably spent a lot of time with other Vor.) Hence the constant thoughts of his lightflyer.
But, this task from his father is also very obviously an opportunity for Miles to meet some of their subjects and begin to use himself as an example of why they should be more inclusive. He goes out of his way to not seem scary etc to the kids — who are, of course, the future of Barrayar — and tries to be firm but fair in steering the community towards the values that they need to embrace. From Aral’s point of view I can see why he would think sending Miles, a competent and functioning person with visible deformities, to teach the villagers that there is hope for those with minor birth defects would be useful for the progress of the villagers and for Miles’s hereditary education.
Katharine: And all this also comes at a time important to Miles as we see at the start of the book. It’s one of his last links to his grandfather – he has completed the family tradition of graduated from the academy and he’s done it with commendations. He burns an offering at his grandfather’s grave, and says ‘Here we are after all. Satisfied now?’ And then pretty much immediately has to go to a community of ignorance that clings on to the old fashioned and savage way of thinking. He’s reminded of what his grandfather firmly believed to the extent of five years of banishment, and it was only when Miles was able to walk that he came around. Glacially slow. And it’s only now that Miles has been able to prove to his ancestors also that he’s okay. He’s managed to meet their expectations of what it means to be Vorkosigan, and Vor.
Tsana: And in the village he proves who the perpetrator is fairly and without corruption (albeit with the use of truth drugs that some of the villagers are understandably a bit scared of). Miles is a sign of progress and modernity with his military uniform and his technology. But just as he arrives on horseback, it’s progress that doesn’t want to leave anyone behind. And that’s the message he and Aral are sending the people of the mountains as to why they should put their trust in their Count. For all that some of their attitudes were outdated, they weren’t so uniformly outdated that Harra didn’t come to the Magistrate/Count for help. Not everyone was happy with the status quo.
Katharine: And that was good too. Even for how fair Miles was, how careful, how considered, how he took the time over and over again for the locals to approach him, be rude to him, and have their say… the regard he took for the relationship between Harra and Lem, their families, and the community in general… he doesn’t win everyone over. And he still says that’s okay. In many ways he’s wise beyond his years – he doesn’t seem to let much get to him. Other than the brief mention of Elena…
Tsana: The story struck a very careful balance between Miles in the moment and Miles thinking back a few years (for him) to issues we most recently cared about as readers, just one book ago. I think Bujold does this well, telling us enough to keep us happy, while keeping Miles pretty well on task. It was an interesting interlude that taught us more about where Miles comes from. I, for one, am looking forward to reading about where he goes next.
Katharine: Agreed, agreed, agreed. Out of my way, commitments! I want The Vor Game!