Lois McMaster Bujold gained an enthusiastic following for her Vorkosigan sf series during the 1990s, as indicated by the Hugo awards voted to "The Mountains of Mourning" (1989), The Vor Game (1990), Barrayar (1991) and Mirror Dance (1994). The central character Miles Vorkosigan was introduced as a deliberately unlikely military hero, made diminutive – even, in the author's word, dwarfish – and brittle-boned thanks to being poisoned while still in the womb, and so forever reliant on fast talk, intelligence and clever strategy rather than socking the foeman on the jaw.
In the early The Warrior's Apprentice (1986) Miles showed the inspired blarney of an Eric Frank Russell protagonist as he talked his way from nowhere very much to leader of the dread – though previously nonexistent – Dendarii space mercenaries. A convenient timeline in the back of the present volume charts his further exploits in both this alter-ego role and a more legitimate career in the military security division of his homeworld Barrayar's small and much beset Empire ... whose semi-feudalism, rigid codes of honour and lords-and-ladies social pyramid are considered uncouth, almost barbaric, by larger galactic society.
While Miles is an unfailingly likeable viewpoint character, Bujold takes pains to show him as simultaneously a near-monster of pushiness and overcompensation who doesn't hesitate to use trump cards of lordly status, charisma, and even the exploitation of his own vulnerability as weapons in personal as well as combat arenas. Like a P.G. Wodehouse hero riding high on false confidence, Miles can be rapidly deflated when he pushes too far and tumbles into comic come-uppance. In A Civil Campaign, for example, he unscrupulously bullies a friend into promising to have nothing to do with the woman whom Miles fancies – a far from heroic move which betrays his own streak of gnawing insecurity, and of course backfires on him.
Much has gone before. Miles's military career came to an uncomic end after near-death and cryonic preservation in Mirror Dance, recovery from which has left him with nerve damage causing repeated quasi-epileptic seizures. Thanks to family pull and political clout with Barrayar's Emperor and Vor Lords (nobles whose names are prefixed with Vor rather than, say, Von), as well as his acknowledged talents, he next becomes a free-roving Imperial Auditor with alarming powers and responsibilities – not unlike those of an Imperial Censor or Inquisitor in old China.
This brings us to Komarr (1998), where Miles investigates apparent sabotage of the solar mirror that was central to terraforming plans for this eponymous subject world, one social embarrassment being that while previously conquering the place, Miles's own father acquired the soubriquet "Butcher of Komarr". Although generally light in tone, the novel features a grim, economical sketch of a bad marriage, and even before its subtly abusive husband is eliminated (by an anti-Barrayaran revolutionary group so high-minded that every one of the many deaths they cause is accidental), our hero has fallen mightily for the emotionally scarred wife Ekaterin Vorsoisson.
A Civil Campaign (1999) is the immediate sequel to Komarr, and gives the saga an enjoyable twist into pure social comedy with a spice of politics. Its dedication begins: "For Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy ...", presumably Austen, Bronte, Heyer and Sayers. The last in particular suggests conscious echoes of how a wealthy, overconfident, undersized member of the privileged classes (Lord Peter Wimsey; Miles) can bungle his initial courtship of a traumatized woman (Harriet Vane; Ekaterin) who's as yet profoundly unready for a new relationship. As the incurably pushy Miles scatters patronizing largesse and begins to plan his "civil campaign" of romance in terms of laying siege to some massively defended fortress, we can sense that there are bad times just around the corner, and that Nemesis is waiting for our hero with a well-stuffed sockful of sand.
In the foregoing books, Bujold laid down various further threads of back-story that now usefully complicate Miles's romantic schemes; followers of the series will recognize old friends. His "brother" Mark, a clone initially produced and raised by terrorists to be a programmed assassin (and still struggling to marshal a "Black Gang" of resulting subpersonalities: Howl, Gorge, Grunt, the suppressed Killer) has returned from the high-tech galactic world Beta with a girlfriend and an eccentric biogenetic innovator. The former, Barrayaran student Kareen, enjoyed Beta's sexual freedom but to Mark's dismay is now relapsing thanks to the stricter code of Barrayar and the disconcerting proximity of her parents. The latter, a fugitive from rough justice on planet Escobar, is developing a dotty but plausible scheme for solving food problems with the delectable exudations of his pet "butter bugs" – despite a measure of irrational opposition from early tasters revolted by these insects' pustular appearance:
"Bug vomit," said Miles, working through the implications. "You fed me bug vomit." [...]
"It's just like honey" Mark said valiantly, "only different."
Meanwhile, the colossal state marriage of the Barrayaran Emperor Gregor to a princess from Komarr is fast approaching, with ripples of tiresome protocol expanding in all directions. "I've seen planetary invasion plans less complex than what's being booted about for this Imperial Wedding." Meanwhile, on woman-starved Barrayar, the hoped availability of widowed Ekaterin provokes a buzz of interest that worries Miles no end. Meanwhile, our hero's friend and rival Lord Ivan Vorpatril is wistfully fancying reunion with one of his old mistresses, an encounter which thanks to Betan biotechnology is an awful shock. Meanwhile certain members of Ekaterin's Barrayaran family feel they could do a far better job of raising her nine-year-old son Nikki – with whom Miles incidentally gets along well, in part because he's as good as Wimsey at talking uncondescendingly to children; being short may help.
The Meanwhile list goes on and on. Miles's own father and mother, who held centre stage in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are still around and still formidable despite semi-retirement. Meanwhile, the rumour that Miles himself was responsible for the death of Ekaterin's unloved husband – a rumour which like all the best lies has one faint toehold in fact – is being eagerly milked for political blackmail. Meanwhile, various more or less dirty tricks regarding succession and inheritance are timed to detonate at a climactic session of the Chamber of the Council of the Vor Counts ... but nothing in this lofty political court could go as spectacularly wrong as the Miles Vorkosigan dinner party at which too many of his imprudences come home to roost, not at all helped by a contribution of sheer Wodehousian farce from the butter-bug plot strand. We will draw a veil.
Lois McMaster Bujold is clearly having enormous, contagious fun, and eventually disentangles her complex of narrative knots with the proper generosity of high comedy. Even the most tiresome person in this story suffers no worse fate than being posted to the miserably arctic "Camp Permafrost". Good cheer ultimately pervades all. Is this latest view of the Vorkosigan universe a final goodbye, as it were, to Robert the Trooper and Joe the Vet in favour of Jane, Charlotte, Georgette and Dorothy? I suspect that dark as well as sunny episodes still lie ahead, and that after this slightly unexpected and occasionally hilarious story, Bujold will contrive to surprise her readers again.
All in all, A Civil Campaign is a skilfully constructed, pleasantly unpretentious entertainment with especial appeal for those familiar with the sequence, or at least its latest few instalments: space opera shading into soap opera. It's something to have built up characters solid enough to withstand the withering fire of laughter and slapstick. Cultivating a successfully light touch, as here, is far harder work than large-scale action where infelicities can be masked by the smoke of battle. Wodehouse knew that too.