Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Cryoburn” — Once More into the Breach, Dear Friends.

(Editor’s note: we know that it’s “Unto” the breach, but I like the way Barb’s title works so please, no emails about how we butchered Henry V again – Jason)
Lois McMaster Bujold‘s signature hero, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. has been the protagonist of eleven books now and several short stories, mostly taken from the books, so he is not unknown to most readers — and that’s a good thing, because Cryoburn starts out with Miles hallucinating and on the run. Apparently, he was given a drug that didn’t agree with him after he was taken, yet despite his hallucinogenic state, he somehow managed to escape his captors. This is probably the most unusual start I’ve ever seen to a novel, and it would not work if we didn’t know Miles so well from the previous eleven books. This sort of start is something very few writers would ever attempt because it’s so difficult to portray Miles’s confusion, yet keep the reader interested and focused at the same time. To Ms. Bujold’s credit, she kept me interested; I wanted to find out what would happen next, and played along with what I knew was an authorial trick.
(As an aside, is it any surprise Baen Books, Ms. Bujold’s publisher, picked Hallowe’en as the best time to “treat” the reader with a new novel from Ms. Bujold about Miles? I think not.)
 
As the story moved along, I found out that Miles was on Kibou-Daini, a world where there were companies called cryocorps that fought over dead people. Due to the strange laws of Kibou-Daini, the dead vote through the auspices of the cryocorps, and the living most often are far less influential than the dead because of this oddity. Whoever freezes the dead for later revival controls the votes, which is why all of these cryocorps have such enormous power; they fight over the sick or old so the still-living person will pick one of them before he or she dies. The cryocorp the person has picked then controls the dead person’s vote until that person is revived after whatever illness or injury that killed them is now curable.

Emperor Gregor, the ruler of Barrayar’s three-planet empire, had sent Miles to evaluate the cryocorps as a whole because one of them, WhiteChrys, wants to set up shop on Komarr, the richest of the three planets Barrayar controls. Miles was the de facto choice because Miles, himself, had died earlier in his life and been revived (see the book Mirror Dance for further details), and as a Barrayaran Imperial Auditor, he has a great deal of civic and political power (plus the backing of Emperor Gregor), to the point that most companies, countries, and planets know to deal with him calmly, civilly, and politely — except for whatever reason, Kibou-Daini didn’t understand this or just plain didn’t care, which helped set up this adventure nicely.

Miles being on Kibou-Daini is a two-edged sword, as the people of that planet find out; he is incredibly intelligent, very gifted at problem solving, and is a compulsive meddler, just about the last person a corrupt government or set of corrupt cryocorps wants around.  And he promptly stumbles into a major problem, which as usual is brought to him by accident, in fact by the very first person he sees after being drugged.  This boy’s name is Jin, and he takes pity on Miles without knowing a thing about him.  First, Jin brings Miles water, then Jin helps to hide Miles until Miles has all the drugs out of his system. But Miles finds out very early on that Jin’s mother, Lisa Sato, was killed and put into cryo-stasis due to a political fight over whether or not a certain form of cryo-freezing actually works. She’d found it didn’t work, and was about to say so — on a world where your being frozen after death is a major civil right (in order to be later revived), this was a big, fat, major hairy deal — but was killed to keep that information quiet.

Around this time, Miles sends Jin to the Barrayaran Consulate to let them know Miles is alive. The Barrayaran Consulate is headed by Consul Vorlynkin, who is a career bureaucrat and an honest man, someone who is appalled at how Miles Vorkosigan does business. (This is the typical reaction most people have when dealing with Miles Vorkosigan; I suppose Ms. Bujold felt she had to have at least one person be appalled by Miles in this story or it wouldn’t feel authentic.) Then Miles’ bodyguard Roic, called Armsman due to a Barrayaran quirk of naming, gets free of the captors, along with Doctor Raven Durona; Durona is a specialist in cryo-revival, and was seen, briefly, in the earlier Mirror Dance, while Roic has been a character in several novels and stories, most prominently in the story “Winterfair Gifts.”  These two characters help give the reader a sense of continuity amidst unending strangeness.

Cryoburn is the first novel from Ms. Bujold about Miles since 2002. It is paced differently than most of them, as Miles is now thirty-nine years old and isn’t capable of much physical exertion due to his health problems (many of them exacerbated by his death, then revival, ten years before). There are some rousing action scenes here, and a great deal of intrigue, but most of the story is unsettling because of how it starts — Miles in a drugged-out state — and because of what it’s about — the various cryocorps, who vote en masse for dead people, legally.

What I appreciated most about Cryoburn, other than Ms. Bujold’s fine writing, was her humanity. We see a lot of Jin Sato, and later, his younger sister, Minako, and the fact of Lisa Sato’s murder — and her eventual planned revival — is one of the highlights of this book. That Consul Vorlynkin likes children, and has a child on another planet he rarely sees due to a divorce, adds to the humanity of the situation; that Miles himself is worried about his wife and children back on Barrayar, and his elderly mother and father — both incredibly effective people, but getting older and starting to slow down — helps keep this book grounded. We also see Miles’s clone-brother Mark and Mark’s long-time girlfriend/partner, Kareen Koudelka, as Mark is a businessman and knows a good opportunity (the cryo-revival side is one that’s been overlooked, it appears, by the Kibou-Daini cryocorps), when he sees one. All good.

But I cannot close this review for Cryoburn without mentioning the very last bit of it, so if you do not want your reading spoiled, please turn away now.

******** SPOILER ALERT ONE ***********

******** SPOILER ALERT TWO ***********

Ready? Set?

******** SPOILER ALERT THREE ************

All right. The very end of this book is the most unsettling bit of all for a long-time reader of Ms. Bujold’s novels, even though if you’ve read her stories from the start, you knew this would have to be coming eventually. It seems that Miles’s extremely able father Aral Vorkosigan, who was an Admiral, then Regent of Barrayar while young Gregor grew up to take the throne, then Prime Minister of Barrayar, then finally the Viceroy (along with his extraordinary wife, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan) of Sergyar, has died in his sleep. The cause of death is found to be a brain aneurysm, and Miles immediately goes into shock.

Now, Mark and Miles are told of their father Aral’s death on Escobar, which is a transfer point to get back to the Barrayaran Empire, by the simple expedient of the Barrayaran Ambassador coming up in his dress uniform (he is a retired member of the military, as are many Barrayarans due to Barrayar’s heightened militarized culture) and asking for Miles as “Count Vorkosigan.” Mark notes Miles going into shock, then reflects on how Miles’ old life is over — Miles is now Count Vorkosigan whether Miles wants to be or not.

The last five viewpoints, including Mark’s, are seen as drabbles — stories told in one hundred words or less — and I suppose this is as good a vehicle as any to describe the shock, horror and rage people feel even when a person’s death is uncomplicated and comes after leading a very rich and full life. I don’t particularly see why Ms. Bujold wanted Miles to say the common Anglo-Saxon word for fornication four separate times in his drabble — perhaps she was a few words short of her ideal drabble? — but it’s obvious Miles is extremely unhappy and is going to let everyone around him know it. Then we see Cordelia’s viewpoint — that extraordinary woman — and her brief fight with Miles over why Aral Vorkosigan will not be frozen for later revival; Aral did not want it, you see, and Cordelia respects his wishes. That she knows, as an older person, that sometimes it’s better to go into eternity than live on as less than what you were, is something she can’t possibly relate to Miles despite Miles actually having died and been revived; she wisely doesn’t even try.

The final two viewpoints are Ivan Vorpatril’s — Miles’s cousin — and Emperor Gregor himself. They are moving, especially Gregor’s, but I personally would’ve liked to see far more of both of them, and far more of the aftermath of Aral Vorkosigan’s passing than I got. These drabbles merely “whet my whistle,” as the saying goes, for more about how Miles Vorkosigan is going to handle being the full-fledged Count . . . and I’ve always wanted to read more about Ivan’s struggle to become fully adult and a capable person in his own right. (That story was told, a bit, in A Civil Campaign, but surely there must be more to Ivan’s adulthood than this?)

So the end of the story, with the five quick drabbles, underscores the whole point of Cryoburn — it’s all about death, and individual choices, and whether or not a person should try to come back — or not — is a choice that should be left up to the individual. Cryoburn is unsettling, lyrical, and has rousing action,  along with much intrigue and humanity, but what it all boils down to is whether or not the individual human life matters. It is obvious Ms. Bujold believes that any individual, whether well-known or not, is worth it, and that gets through despite the unsettling way Cryoburn opens, and the extremely shocking way Cryoburn ends.

***** END DISCUSSION OF SPOILERS

Cryoburn is  very worthy, but do not expect it to be light reading. Instead, it is about the weightiest of choices: about humanity, human suffering, loss, and redemption. I admire the craftsmanship of Ms. Bujold and her obvious writing skill, but can’t say I particularly liked Cryoburn in the same way I enjoyed The Vor Game or Mirror Dance or A Civil Campaign.

On the whole, I’d recommend Cryoburn; its unusual premise and strong sense of humanity are praiseworthy, and as for it being unsettling? Life itself is often unsettling, and the death of people we’ve come to know over the course of eleven-plus books (as Miles’s parents had two by themselves, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, now contained in the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor) is merely a part of life that must be endured. Because nothing lasts forever, and no one lives forever — we can only do what we must with the time we have, as Ms. Bujold has so ably shown.

 
-Reviewed by Barb
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  1. #1 by Barb Caffrey on November 1, 2010 - 11:39 pm

    I fought and fought and fought the spacing and font issues, and I think I’ve fought them mostly to a standstill.

    Just know, folks, that I tried — I gave it at least forty-five minutes of effort to make this look right, and my computer just did not want to do any better than this.

  2. #2 by Sarah on November 2, 2010 - 1:52 pm

    Spoiler.
    *
    *
    *
    I agree with you on the poignancy of the drabbles at the end of this book. I’d like to point out something you didn’t from Cordelia’s though. Her thought “Ensign Daubner, I’m sorry.” both tied this time back to their (C & A’s) first meeting in Shards of Honor and showed that she probably has changed her mind about the best choice in that situation and is acknowledging her responsibility for what happened then. It’s a very mature and complicated thought in a few words. And hearkening back to that conversation emphasizes for long-time readers why she is sure she knows Aral’s wishes.

    I thought that was a particularly adroit bit of writing on Lois’s part as well as a very effective moment in the story.

    Rumors are that the next Vorkosiverse novel has a working title of “Ivan” and is set on Komar a year or two before the events of Cryoburn for those of us who are waiting on the edge of our seats for another book!

    -Sarah

    • #3 by Barb Caffrey on November 2, 2010 - 2:16 pm

      Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad Ivan’s tale will be more fully told. Great news.

      As for your “spoilered” comment, I did consider that, and agree with you that Cordelia’s complex reaction was very well told in only one hundred words. But I didn’t really know how to relate that in my review except by what I said; sometimes it’s better to go into eternity than live as less than you were, especially as there’s no hope things will ever be any better. (Perhaps Ensign Dubauer would’ve been better off; it surely seems that way from this end. But Cordelia did not know Dubauer would never be better when she asked for Aral Vorkosigan’s help in keeping Dubauer alive; that she blames herself now for her compassion is, as the saying goes, “only human.”)

  1. http://elfyverse.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/new-book-review-lmbs-cryoburn-plus-remembering-my-husband-michael/« Barb Caffrey's Blog

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