Discussion Post: Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

vorkosigan

Komarr is the latest novel we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Memory and before A Civil Campaign. It introduces a new recurring character and gives us a closer look at the planet Komarr than we’ve had so far.

 

You can read Tsana’s review of Komarr here and Katharine’s review here.

 

Tsana: So this novel shows us the start of the next phase of Miles’s life, which changed dramatically in the previous book, Memory, when he was forced to leave the Dendarii. Now he’s solving mysteries/problems and having adventures… which isn’t too far from what was happening before, just with fewer soldiers. What did you think?

 

Katharine: I liked how he was basically shadowing one of the other Imperial Auditors, yet they still worked in unison and bowed to each others strengths. More jobs in life need to be like that.

 

Tsana: I think it helped that Vorthys knows for certain how competent Miles is, whereas most people Miles encounters don’t because they haven’t read his classified files. Also, the whole reason they’re both Auditors is because they’re competent, which is sometimes a tall order in real life… ;-p

 

Katharine: Very true, but I can dream of my version of utopia :p So yes, Miles is on one of his first investigations as an imperial auditor, and it’s taken them to Komarr, where a spaceship has happened to crash into the solar mirror that’s vital to the continual terraforming of the planet. Imperial Auditor Vorthys is the other chap with him, and his niece happens to live on Komarr, so it’s there they go to stay for what they first assume will be a few nights and nothing else.

 

Tsana: However, Auditor Vorthys’s niece is, Ekatarin, our other point of view character in this book. So we know from the start that she’s going to be important for the story — roughly half the book is told from her point of view, in alternating chapters with Miles’s point of view. And, minor spoiler, Ekatarin is set up to be another recurring character. As a result, her personal journey from the start of the book to the end is much more significant than Miles’s. Miles just gets the hang of this new Auditor gig, while Ekatarin goes through some big life changes.

 

Katharine: It’s good seeing how people view Miles every so often. We’ve seen him go through some pretty significant changes and so you think he doesn’t look as ‘mutie’ as he would have previously, but this book reminds us yet again just how the majority of people view him.

Ekatarin is from Barrayar, and old Vor. She married young to Etienne “Tien” Vorsoisson, who has a genetic disorder that he’s frightened of being publicly known – even though Vorzohn’s Dystrophy is treatable – which just shows how judgemental Barrayans are about any condition. Ekatarin is worried for their son, Nikolai, and wants to start his treatment immediately… however Tien forbids it until they can treat it in absolute secrecy… which of course is far more expensive. This provides the majority of the tension between their once-happy marriage.

 

Tsana: When we got more of the backstory, it sounded like Ekatarin’s marriage to Etienne Vorsoisson started off well only because she was young (twenty to his thirty), idealistic and a bit naïve. As soon as things started to get a little challenging in their marriage, Etienne became emotionally abusive, mostly to Ekatarin, but also to his son. In the eight or nine years since (they’ve been married ten years at this point), Etienne’s moodswings, angry outbursts and a string of jobs in various locations, all quit prematurely, has eaten away at Ekatarin’s happiness and sense of self. It was really painful to read most of the married couple’s interactions.

 

Katharine: Especially as we see Ekatarin light up when eased into security around her uncle when they go out for lunch together, and then again as Miles becomes determined to make her laugh. We see hints of what she used to be passionate about – she has a deep interest in botany, but the constant moving made keeping her own garden pretty pointless after a while of barely a year in the same place. She has one plant that’s over seventy years old – that Tien throws from a great height at a certain point in the story when the options are either her, the plant, or himself.

 

Tsana: Maybe we are getting into spoiler territory now. (plant spoilers!)

 

~~~ spoiler shields up! ~~~

Tsana: The extent to which Ekatarin thought that Etienne’s being shitty to her was her fault, was absolutely heartbreaking. Even by the end, when he’s dead and things are slowly improving, she’s still categorically decided that there’s something wrong with her, instead of blaming the horrible situation she was put in.

 

Katharine: Totally gaslighted, to the point where even when she is prompted several times over as to what she could do when she could do anything, she still struggles to properly view her options.

 

Tsana: Yep. Struggles to even see herself as worthy of having options. Though at least she’s quick to do something about Nikki’s illness as soon as she’s allowed to. That’s the only thing she’s let herself care about that didn’t (exactly) directly involve Tien. As I said, heartbreaking.

 

Katharine: I also lovely how we saw Nikolai – he’s such a real kid. Monosyllabic about school, but loves ships and can talk someone’s ear off if given half a chance, and loves getting his uncle and his full attention for any amount of time. And it was excellent to see Miles’ ability with him – considering it’s not like Miles grew up with kids around him, he sure knows how to talk to them like adults and treat them seriously.

 

Tsana: And such a contrast to Tien. Like when Nikki is showing Miles his spaceship toys and Miles is impressing him by saying “I’ve been on one of those” and “I used to own that one” and so forth. But then Tien walks in and yells at Nikki to clean up his mess and stop bothering people. Way to read social cues, dude. But it’s all kind of symptomatic of how self-centred and out of touch with reality Tien is. Not even his workmates see his as especially competent. (Although he ends up being even more incompetent than they realise!)

 

Katharine: Tien is just such a desperate figure, isn’t he? Ekatarin comments how nothing ever goes right for him – he always swears that any issue is the fault of someone else, he never makes the rank he hoped for, and then he can’t even cheat a system intelligently. It’s like people who end up in jail for stealing $2,000 – was it really worth the effort? Goodness, no.

 

Tsana: If he’d just been a bit more sensible and intelligent from the start, things would have gone a lot more smoothly for him and his family. But then they probably wouldn’t have ended up on Komarr and wouldn’t have met Miles, so the story works out better this way. And Tien’s foolishness certainly helped Miles crack the case…

 

Katharine: This is true. Did we want to discuss the plot? It was decent, but totally overshadowed by the field of excellent characters – I loved how the villains of the piece weren’t evil people. They were just desperate.

 

Tsana: I liked the plot. It’s properly science fictiony. Not only is the disaster with the soletta mainly relevant because it will slow down (or, if not fixed promptly, reverse) the terraforming of Komarr, but the actual mechanism of subterfuge ends up being quite science fictional in itself. (They did not, in the end, merely ram the soletta with an ore ship.) In true Bujold fashion, there are misdirections and mistakes which make the mystery more difficult to solve. It would have all been simpler if the Komarran terrorists’ first test hadn’t gone so awry with the soletta. Or harder if they hadn’t had to rely on Tien to keep his mouth shut and accept a bribe, which Ekatarin then discovered.

 

Katharine: She really knows how to keep a cool head, doesn’t she? She handles Tien well (as sad as that is that she had to), and then when confronted with the terrorists both she and her aunt handle them with wit and corrections throughout their anti-Barraryar tirades.

 

Tsana: Miles calls her “over-socialised” at one point, which is probably a fair assessment. Living with Tien she has learnt to keep her true feelings to herself so well, she’s not even always aware of what they are. There were a sad few times with Miles when she freaks out for having made a joke or something but Miles reacts in a perfectly normal human way. These scenes of her restraint even in Tien’s absence did as much to paint a picture of how poorly he treated her as the scenes in which he actually appeared did. Obviously, I was not sad that he died.

 

Katharine: It makes me wonder if she would have been attracted to Miles if meeting in an ordinary situation, rather than with such sharp juxtaposition against how Tien treated Nikki and herself?

 

Tsana: So one thing I found when re-reading this book was that I didn’t actually remember when it ended. I knew what eventually happens with Ekatarin and Miles (and now, having finished this book the timeline is a lot clearer in my head), but I couldn’t remember when and in which book things happened. I had even forgotten Tien existed and, having been reminded, what happened to him in the end. (My first guess was gaol, but obviously death is much neater.) But because of Tien, Miles can’t spend the book seducing her, like he might have in other circumstances. And then, with Tien dead, he manages to restrain himself (just) and give her some time to come to terms with things. It’s not a done deal, yet.

But more to the point, Miles would have liked Ekatarin anyway. She’s the perfect combination of his type and accepting of life on Barrayar. And once Miles sets his mind to impressing her, I think she would be swayed eventually. Since it’s not a done deal, Miles still has some wooing to do…

 

Katharine: I know we haven’t discussed the book as we usually do, but you saying that makes me want to dive into the next book already.

 

Tsana: What have we missed or skipped over in this discussion?

 

Katharine: Uhhhhm. The planet necklaces sounded nice?

 

Tsana: Those were cool, but not very plot relevant. Miles totally bought that extra Barrayar in the hope of finding a girl to give it to though.

How about the occasional Komarran snide remarks about Miles’s father as the Butcher of Komarr? I thought Miles dealt with them pretty well.

 

Katharine: It really does show how much he’s matured over the past ten years. I especially liked what he said in reply to the goading ‘If you unleash ImpSec, the consequences will be your doing’, which was ‘Almost correct. If I unleash ImpSec the consequences will be my responsibility. It’s that devil’s distinction between being in charge and being in control. I’m in charge; you’re in control.’

Now that is really quite clever.

 

Tsana: Yes, that bit of negotiating with the terrorists was interesting to watch. I also enjoyed seeing ImpSec from the other side. With the Dendarii missions ImpSec came across as all-seeing and all-knowing, especially since Miles didn’t have to deal with potentially incompetent underlings.

 

Katharine: I also liked the line where Miles remembers how Simon wishes upon him exactly the type of person Miles has been. Poor lad.

Something I would have liked to see more of, but totally understand why we couldn’t (the novel was busy enough as it is), would have been more references to what it’s like living in domes. Such as we saw in Ethan of Athos with their constant vigilance (said of course in the style of Prof Moody) against disease and biohazards. We see it minimally with the idea of how you know by three years old the need for having a fully charged breathing mask, but I would have liked to see more little quirks like that.

 

Tsana: I think the difference — from what we did see — is that Komarr has an atmosphere, it’s just not a very oxygenated one. That’s why they only have to worry about oxygen masks when they go outside. They still have airlocks, but they don’t have to be nearly as strict about it as when there’s vacuum on the other side. The biggest problem they have is too much carbon dioxide outside, to go along with the insufficient oxygen. So they don’t have to worry about pressure suits or shipping in air — they just filter the bad stuff out of the outside air, and add in some oxygen. Overall, a much less stressful and carefully balanced situation than a space station is.

 

Katharine: I would have liked something about, idk, sunlight or wind or something – surely the mirror being knocked would have made some difference? Although if we get comments from Kat and Nikki once they’re back on Barrayar then I’ll be happy.

Can we go read now, please, mum? Please?

 

Tsana: They did talk about how the mirror stuffed them up by taking away some of their heat (and light). And the Komarrans are getting a fixed and bigger mirror out of it to celebrate Gregor’s birthday. Wins all around!

 

And now, yes, we can go read the next book. The hilarious comedy of manners that is A Civil Campaign, in which Gregor gets married. Join us for our next discussion in about a month!

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