Winterfair Gifts is the latest story we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It follows on after the novel A Civil Campaign and before the novel Diplomatic Immunity. In Winterfair Gifts we get a glimpse of the Vorkosigan household in the lead up to a wedding from the point of view of Roic, a junior Vorkosigan Armsman.
Tsana: Well. I had only vague memories of this one before re-reading. I think I probably just inhaled it on my first read through without stopping to think about it very much.
Katharine: It kept me up so late on a work night. I thought to myself ‘I’ll just get started for now and then hopefully finish it this weekend…’ and zip. Got to 90% past midnight and tore myself away.
Tsana: Lol, you managed NOT to finish it in one go when you got that close? That’s extremely impressive. I read it in one sitting in the middle of a weekend day. I had forgotten why we should care about Roic too, but as the novella quickly reminded me, he was the one that ended up covered in bug butter in A Civil Campaign.
Katharine: I was so tired and stressed about work that I figured I should keep something to look forward to. How old do we think Roic is in this one?
Tsana: He has to be in his 20s, I think? Upper limit of 25 at a guess? Which, on a slight tangent, isn’t it convenient how everyone counts time in Earth units? Even though Barrayar has longer days, I don’t remember them saying anything about different year lengths and hence different ways of calculating ages…
Katharine: It’s a bit sad that’s seemingly been thrown in the ‘too hard’ basket and they don’t care to explore that into something interesting. They could have said age doesn’t matter for that reason and yet they do rely on it for all their Vor quirks.
Tsana: I mean, it makes sense to have a galactic standard, so that part’s fine. But I do wonder about what happened with it in the Time of Isolation. Perhaps we’ll never know… :-( (Although, as someone who has devised a different time system in fiction, it is a pain in the arse to explain and keep track of, so I can understand the reluctance.)
Katharine: Maybe it’s something we can ask if we ever happen to go to the same Worldcon (or other con) as Bujold. So, Roic tells the story from his POV – guests are coming back to Barrayar for another wedding. Presents and messages are arriving for the happy couple and being put on display. And one of the guests just so happens to be Taura.
Tsana: And Elena with husband plus baby in tow. But perhaps this is the moment for the spoiler shields.
~~~~ SPOILERS AHOY ~~~~
Tsana: Actually, Taura’s appearance on Barrayar was the one thing I did remember from this novella. Or more accurately, I remembered it happening at some point, and eventually realised I was remembering it from this novella.
Katharine: I was sad we didn’t get to see more about Elena. I want to see her and Ekaterin sit down and hash things out and sort Miles into some sort of order.
Tsana: I feel like by this point Miles has well and truly moved on from Elena. We had that watershed in Brothers in Arms, I think, when Elena announced she was leaving the Dendarii and starting a family. And we had her visiting Barrayar in that book too, so we didn’t really need to see her burning another offering for her father. Taura was definitely the more interesting visitor in this case. Especially since we’ve previously been told she doesn’t have much time left, it feels like she deserves some sort of proper conclusion.
Katharine: So is this the last time we see her? Noooooo!
Tsana: I don’t remember. (Actually, the wiki tells me she makes one more appearance.) But it still shows us that she’s done more than just be a soldier. And that she’s happy with the life Miles enabled for her when he rescued her.
Katharine: And she also schools Roic a bit in his fairly sheltered life so far, which was nice. But back to the story. So some gifts have started to arrive and they undergo various scans and security checks and so have you. Even the creepy living cat blanket has appeared again.
Tsana: Yeah, that was weird. I’m glad Ekaterin didn’t take it badly. It’s really Taura and Roic who are the heroes of the story here. While Roic watches Miles and his parents and friends rushing around preparing for the wedding, he finds himself intrigued by Taura, even more so when they are thrust together for various activities like shopping and exercise. But it wouldn’t be a Vorkosigan story without some unexpected danger thrown into the mix.
Katharine: Of course not. So in the wedding presents are two gifts from Elli, which is a bit weird but, whatever. One being the weird cat blanket Miles used to shag her on, and the other a necklace, which he promptly helps Kat put on, then they bundle the gifts back in their boxes and start to prepare for the grand dinner to welcome everyone to Barrayar… only for Kat to come down sick with nerves or something, and hurry home.
Tsana: And Ekaterin continues to be sick in the lead-up to the wedding (which is something like two days after the guests arrive). It’s a bit worrying when seen from the distance of Roic’s vantage point. I think not having all the details, like we are used to when Miles is the protagonist, adds to the tension in this case. On the other hand, Ekaterin being nervous about getting married after having been in an abusive relationship previously, is pretty understandable. And that’s how most of the characters are thinking of it.
Katharine: Roic is kept pretty busy – when he’s not on duty he also has to help extend the security detail to account for the expanded family – whether it be as you say earlier, the shopping trips and exercise. What I love about this series is how the Vor know and care for their staff (well, these particular Vor), and in return they care for them back – they already care for Kat as one of their own, and Roic is sometimes worried that she’s having second thoughts entirely. It’s Taura who shines a bit more light on the subject.
Tsana: They’re all particularly attached to Miles, and as you say, I don’t think that’s entirely Miles’s charm that we also saw with the Dendarii. But I absolutely loved the bit where Roic sassed Miles, and how he was thinking about acting like Pym, the head armsman. So good!
Katharine: I love Pym. He was sassy at the butterbug fiascos, and then in this I thought he was going to drink himself to ruin in shame, or something. Because it turns out the cause of Ekaterin’s sickness is… DUN DUN DUN!!!11… a gift that was security screened and everything! SAY IT AIN’T SO!
Tsana: I think the more traumatic part was that the gift appeared to come from Elli. And it’s not completely unrealistic for an ex-lover to want to poison the new wife. But it’s Elli! Who we all know and love. Taura, who detected the poison thanks to her genetically modified eyes, didn’t want to believe it and tried to hide the necklace which Roic saw and interpreted as theft (and a complicated round of sexual politicking).
Katharine: And regardless of how well (or not) Elli and Miles parted ways, and even if she wasn’t given multiple opportunities to be in Kat’s place, we kind of know that Elli wouldn’t do such a thing. And yet, who else could it be?
I kind of didn’t really believe Roic would assume Taura was stealing – I mean, maybe it’s part of the armsmen training that I can’t fathom as there would be a whole heap of priceless stuff in that house they’d constantly have to protect… and yet, surely most people would just step in and go ‘what are you doing?’
Tsana: I mean, he doesn’t really know her. And the misunderstanding doesn’t last long, so that’s OK…
Katharine: Oh, absolutely. Was just a slight niggle. We get to see Roic believe Taura really quite quickly, and take the responsibility to notify ImpSec – which I was impressed with. He doesn’t contact Pym or anything, just responds to the intel.
Tsana: Well Pym was at some fancy dinner with the family (that Taura came back early from). But Pym’s reaction when he does get home was interesting. Basically, he feels so bad about missing the poison that he assigns himself to night shifts for a week and gives Roic a holiday. Even though no one else really blames him. Mostly they’re just really pleased with Roic — bonus for Roic: he gets to redeem himself after the bug butter incident. That’s pretty much his journey across the novella. Redemption and getting to know and accept Taura.
Katharine: And using his holiday to show Taura a good time.
Tsana: As he should!
Katharine: What I loved in this one was the things like Aral giving stern words to Ivan to not do anything silly at any stage… but Ivan manages to sneak in a rude ice sculpture among the decorations (did we mention they get married in the snow, in the garden Kat designed? Because they do). Aral sees the vulgar sculpture. And Cordelia mutters something to him that has him cackling away.
Tsana: Very restrained Ivan. The outdoor frosted setting of the wedding sounded lovely. I am also amused at how Miles just couldn’t wait to have it in warmer weather. I think they’re getting married after only six months of engagement (and hence not that long knowing each other).
Katharine: And yet Kat’s handling everything so well. She’s barely fazed by the murder attempt and instead wears the necklace (once it’s safe) in a ‘fuck you’ gesture – even though the culprit is apprehended very quickly. She earns Taura’s respect and would probably have Elli’s, too.
Do you know what else I liked? How casual Gregor was in this. He was there as a foster-brother, snatching a little bit of normal life not often possible to emperors.
Tsana: Everyone says Ekaterin is acting very Vor about it all — and hence is a good match for Miles and his dangerous lifestyle. But I think she has a lot of similarities to Cordelia, with her tough as nails attitude. Although this was harder to see before she came out of her shell.
Katharine: She’s so hard to ruffle, isn’t she?
Tsana: Yep, and it will stand her in good stead as we will see in future books.
Next up we’re taking a small detour from chronology with the novel Falling Free. Join us in a few weeks for our discussion of that book!