Discussion Post: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

vorkosigan

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. For the first time we get to focus on Ivan, Miles’s cousin. Chronologically, this story takes place after Diplomatic Immunity and, for all that Ivan frequently appears in Miles’s stories, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance contains very little Miles…

You can read Tsana’s review of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance here, and Katharine’s review here.

Katharine: Wooo Ivan! (That is the tl;dr of my review.)

Tsana: In which we learn that Ivan is quite capable of having strange things happen to him even when Miles is safely on another planet. Despite what we’ve seen in snakes?earlier books, it’s not all Miles’s fault.

Katharine: And when it does happen, he’s quite adept at coming up with suitable scenarios and resources for saving the day. All while being quite considerate, too. Line right up for your Ivan fan club badge, people!

Tsana: When what does happen?

Katharine: Strange things. Such as By appearing from nowhere and asking Ivan to keep an eye on a woman who seems to have some trouble after her.

They’re out on Komarr – neither Miles or Ivan are on Barrayar – with Captain Ivan Vorpatril playing secretary to an admiral. Cousin By who we met in A Civil Campaign appears out of nowhere and doesn’t leave much information at all… which is probably why Ivan quickly winds up being tied to a chair and foiling an attempted kidnaping. Which is one way to win the trust of the woman he’s been asked to protect, at least…

Tsana: It’s a continuation of the general trend of “no one ever tells Ivan anything”. But the absence of anyone to hide behind does bring out the best in Ivan and shows the reader just how competent he really is, despite trying to hide it and not draw attention to himself. In the earlier books we got glimpses suggesting that there was more to Ivan than just “that idiot”, but now we really get a chance to see it.

Katharine: Such as being able to run on very little sleep, handle questioning from local authorities, and sure, he may seem to ‘just’ be a secretary however doing such a job well shows just how much intuition and greater understanding of everything as a whole is needed in order to keep your boss afloat. We often see Ivan referring to snakes, as in, what does the admiral need to see sooner rather than later – something his eventual replacement doesn’t seem to get right at all. But now I’m really jumping too far ahead.

Tsana: We see Ivan being good at his job, which doesn’t contradict anything we’ve seen earlier but which also isn’t something we’ve witnessed either way. His job was always relatively peripheral to Miles’s stories. Ivan’s General likes him and that puts Ivan in quite a senior position, even though he is still only a captain. And Ops is also not the same can of worms/snakes as the ImpSec we have frequently seen through the eyes of the other characters (and continue to see in this book).

Katharine: Ivan got promoted before Miles did, didn’t he? Way back when Miles was ‘just a courier?’

Tsana: Yep. Miles was very jealous and got himself retrospectively captain-ed during/despite his medical discharge.

Katharine: Thankfully they’ve both matured quite a bit since then. So, the woman By has asked Ivan to keep an eye on is a woman called Tej. Who happens to have a hidden half-sister, Rish. Hidden because she’s bright blue and stands out quite a bit. Half-sister because they’re from Jackson’s Whole. Tsana, care to explain their family (I certainly don’t really understand the older members very well), and why they’re on the run?

Tsana: It does get a bit complicated, doesn’t it? I think if I’m going to explain it all in detail, we have to put the spoiler shields up.

<spoilers below!>

Back in the day, when General Piotr (Grandfather to Miles and Great Uncle to Ivan) was young, the Time of Isolation had recently-ish ended and Cetaganda decided to invade and occupy Barrayar. Tej’s grandmother, Moira ghem Estif (at the time a haut lady), was stationed on Barrayar doing Cetagandan haut lady things (more about this later) during the occupation. Actually, the reason she was on Barrayar was because she’d been awarded to General Rae ghem Estif who was in charge of the occupation aka Ninth Satrapy. To avoid being executed when the Barrayarans fought back and the Cetagandan invasion failed, Moira and her husband moved to Komarr, where Moira produced a daughter, Udine, Tej’s mother. Udine took up with a Komarran trader/pirate, Shiv, and together they established House Cordonah. Shiv and Udine had a bunch of children, most of them genetically modified in some way. Tej was the only one not to have been gengineered (aside from a standard gene cleaning). A bunch of her siblings are the Jewels — brightly coloured dancers that Udine created partly for entertainment but whom she treats as lovingly as her more standard-looking children.

Katharine: Isn’t Tsana great, everyone? I’d just tell you all to go read the wiki. So they’re on the run as there was a hostile takeover at Jackson’s Whole, and while they’ve all practiced for emergency departures including escape runs and such, it seems like it may not have gone to plan for everyone. When Ivan starts getting the whole story from Tej and Rish it isn’t looking good for the majority of their family, and there may be one person safe (who was sent away to study medicine).

When By first asks Ivan to go keep an eye on Tej (Rish being there was a pretty well-kept secret), he goes to her place of work and flirts with her, then follows her home. At which point she drags him inside and ties him up, and Rish makes an appearance. Ivan being his lovely annoying self is set to spend the night tied up until he foils a real kidnaping attempt, proving that he may be their best current chance on Komarr, and brings them back to his secure apartment. He’s still only getting bits and pieces from them, and when they’re followed to his apartment by whoever it is after them, the women almost decide to go through with jumping from the balcony to end it all… when Ivan instead convinces Tej to marry him to buy them all some time. That way they can come to Barrayar under his protection. There’s a circle of breakfast cereal and everything.

Tsana: (I mean, I got some of that from the wiki.)

Incidentally, Rish’s presence being a secret is quite an achievement seeing as she is blue in colour (Lapis Lazuli being her stage name).

You’ve skipped over a lot of the tension Ivan has to deal with on Komarr, but that’s the general gist. He convinces Tej to marry him by promising that they can get a divorce later when it’s safe for her and Rish to leave. An amusing turn of events since By’s original plan had been to get Ivan to seduce Tej and we got to see just how mediocre Ivan is at seduction. Being turned down and then later shot and tied to a chair is hardly a tale of seductive prowess for the ages.

Katharine: The fact he’s just a nice guy who means well (and actually does care) is just one of the reasons he’s a favourite of mine. Another thing that shows Ivan’s boss does really appreciate him is how he both trusts Ivan is doing the right thing when he starts hearing whispers saying otherwise, and offers them his ship to get home to Barrayar. Something Ivan and Tej, who at least are taking on one part of their newfound marriage status with some determination, are quite thankful for. So seduction technique fails or not, Ivan has a very willing bedmate.

Tsana: I was mainly just amused by Ivan’s explanation that his success with the ladies came down to a numbers game more than anything else.

Katharine: And how most of them end. Well, all of them do until you marry one, at least. I found the chats between Ivan and By go a long way at building their characters to show they’re not just ‘typical men’; we see them both worry and think hard about their respective interests, which shouldn’t be something to note in this day and age and yet it still is, sadly.

Tsana: I think neither Ivan or By would be significant characters if there wasn’t depth to them. So many people would never have allowed it. ;-p

I also enjoyed the developing relationship between Ivan and his now almost-stepfather Simon. It’s come a long way from Ivan’s freak out at the end of Memory when he realised (thanks to Miles) why his mother was hanging out with Simon so much.

Katharine: And it’s been so rewarding to see how Simon is progressing as his mind settles from the awful malfunction. He’s still quite capable – surely more than most would be at peak health – so much so that we see what happens when he gets bored. In this case, Simon watches with amusement when the majority of Tej and Rish’s family showing up on Barrayar – mostly safe and sound. What we don’t know for the majority of the novel is that it was a happy mistake, and they are actually on Barrayar to seek their fortune. One that Tej’s grandmother buried long ago. So long ago, in fact, that it’s under the current ImpSec headquarters. And Simon’s so bored that even though he knows this, he encourages them along to see how far they manage to get. Utter madness.

Tsana: The only problem is that Simon doesn’t tell anyone else what he knows (except to a small extent Ivan) and the Arqua clan are actually a few steps ahead of where Simon thinks they are and all of that comes to a head rather dramatically. A lot of people exclaim “What the hell, Simon?” Gregor included.

Katharine: By which you mean the Arqua have method and means of burrowing in under HQ, managing to get into their old store rooms, and uncover untold riches. Unfortunately when they were looking around initially they discovered a defector from the days of old with explosives that were never detonated – which Tej asked Ivan a few questions of, but they wind up (Ivan included, thoroughly frustrated at this point as weeks have gone by with Tej dodging him), leaving him in place when they finally excavate their billions. Ivan and Tej even have a bet riding on whether there really is anything of value in the old vault. Simon seems to think they found it all years ago and seized the goods, which Ivan bets on. Tej is sure its still there. If he win, she stays with him forever. If she wins…

Tsana: He stays with her forever. Gosh if only those two had had time to talk to each other! Although their lack of communication isn’t as ridiculous as in some media where characters have ample opportunity to talk and then just don’t. At least Tej had good reason to keep avoiding Ivan (to stop him finding out about the vault thing). Otherwise it would be skating dangerously close to my least favourite trope.

Katharine: And so of course the bomb goes off. The Arqua hired an old acquaintance to help ship out their treasure who of course gets too greedy and ambushes them, and accidentally sets off the explosives. This causes a water main to burst, which both blocks their escape and means they have to shut themselves in the vault against the rising water levels, which presents a problem of both light supply (dwindling), and air (much more important.)

Remember in a previous book how, thanks to Mark, Ivan gets trapped in a wall with water rising, and it’s dark, and he had to sit in there for hours? It would be easy to say that he doesn’t handle this all too well but in fact he does. He didn’t like the idea of going underground to begin with, but does, for Tej, and brings along a ridiculous amount of extra lights which turns out to be of benefit. He literally puts out fires. He (and others) take out the backstabbing couriers. He keeps calm, clings to Tej who clings equally tightly back, and keeps all Arqua safe when ImpSec finally arrive and save them all. Nawww…

Tsana: Of course the bomb goes off. It’s Chekhov’s bomb, it has to go off. Just like Chekhov’s inconveniently placed sewage pipe has to rupture. The best part is how the combination of these two factors also causes the entire hideous ImpSec building to sink into the ground. Especially hilarious since no one in the building gets hurt. Poor Simon, he always wanted a less ugly building but the old one doesn’t get destroyed until after his retirement. (And it wasn’t even Miles who destroyed it, which I’m sure came as a shock to many.)

Katharine: I loved everyone’s reactions to the whole building sinking, and the note that people who left before orders came to leave are the people who should be given promotions. And I love that Gregor arrived in a full motorcade style event despite it’s hella late (technical term), to find out just what the hell is going on. And then the next day gives Simon a full dressing down, and sends them all on an off-world posting that could be interpreted as punishment, but also has the added benefit of avoiding assassination attempts and other general fallout for what transpired. Out of sight, out of mind. And in reality certainly seems more like a holiday, given that (where Ivan and Tej go at least), there is sand, Tej in a bathing suit, and in a hammock with Ivan.

Because at the end when the Arqua have met with Gregor (who has three different things to discuss with them being in charge of Barrayar, the finances, the security…) and a deal is done (where Gregor is significantly ahead which only wins their respect), Tej tells her family that she’s not joining them. She’s staying with Ivan, which they can’t really understand… but finally, she does. And Ivan couldn’t be happier.

And I can’t wait to see an actual meeting between Ivan and Tej, and Miles and Ekaterin. Like, properly.

Tsana: I’m not sure we get that the way you’re imagining… unless it’s in the upcoming novella that I haven’t read yet (since it’s not out yet and was only just announced).

Katharine: Dammit. I always think of scenes I need after each book and they never happen!

Tsana: But just think! A new Vorkosigan novella, unexpectedly, right where it fits in with our reading schedule and chronological order. What are the odds? I also think this is the shortest gap Bujold has had between saying “no more Vorkosigan saga books” and then writing a new one. Previous gaps were more years wide than this one has been.

Katharine: Gotta love coming in at the end of it all and just swanning through all the books. I do admit, having it fit exactly where we’re up to is a bit spooky. But my first question really is… is Ivan in it?

Tsana: No idea! But apparently it’s about Ekaterin and is called “The Flowers of Vashnoi”. And it should hopefully be up for ebook purchase next week! (With a fancy hardcover from Subterranean Press TBC but probably next year.)

Katharine: And we’re very open to the offer of review copies!

Tsana: I don’t think it’s going to be that organised. I’m planning to get my copy off iBooks when it appears. (Hopefully there won’t be any delays.)

Katharine: If they had Ivan for a secretary, they would be. I’ll be pre-ordering from wherever as soon as it appears. Bring it, world! …I think we’re done here?

Tsana: Yep! So join us soon for our next read, “The Flowers of Vashnoi”, which will be followed by Cryoburn.

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