Category Archives: Series

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 3)

Barrayar starts the same day as Bujold’s first Vorkosigan novel, Shards of Honor, leaves off. It fills in the drama that takes place during Cordelia’s pregnancy with Miles that was alluded to in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Written with the typical pace and wit that this series has become known for, this action packed installment won yet another well deserved Hugo Award for Ms. Bujold. If you’ve made it this far into the series, come back to old friends and enjoy the ride.

Cordelia Naismith – now Lady Vorkosigan – takes up the lead role that had been laid down for the future based books about her son. While Miles’ quick thinking and preternatural skill of getting himself into one jam after another can be good reading, it’s a nice change of pace to read how Cordelia solves problems that she did not take part in creating. Her strength and resiliency grounds the story in a way only adults can.

The tale essentially becomes one of survival as civil war breaks out on Barrayar as the old guard of politicians try to keep the newly appointed Regent Aral Vorkosigan out of power following the Emporer’s death. Evading assassination attempts, capture, and betrayal, Cordelia and the faithful Sergeant Bothari must do what they can to remain free – and keep her unborn child Miles alive. The story builds quickly into an all out sprint that doesn’t end until all Barryar has been changed. Yet again, the Vorkosigans are at the middle of events that shake the galaxy. Just a normal tale for this family.

Few authors provide such easy and enjoyable reading as Lois Bujold. Even if you’re not a science fiction reader, these stories are about the inner and outer struggles of life. Plus they’re a whole lot of fun. Highly recommended!

 

7 stars out of 10

 

photo: theestle.net

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 5)

Some books are fun from first to last. Bujold has a special talent for drawing the reader in quick and not letting go. The Vor Game is no exception, and it’s no surprise why it was selected as the first of her Hugo Award winning novels. (I think it’s just because enough people realized that there was a good series here. The Warrior’s Apprentice was just as strong of a book.) Returning to the unlikely hero of Miles Vorkosigan again, this fast paced adventure begins on an arctic island on Barryar and ends with the fate of this edge of the galaxy being decided. Bujold does not tell small tales when grand ones will do better.

Miles, now a little older and maybe a slight bit wiser, is getting his first assignment as an officer. Unfortunately, it’s to an arctic weather base – where he is to be the weatherman. His dreams of interstellar heroism seem to be smothered by boredom until he starts to uncover a mystery that could end his career as quickly as it started. Plots, political intrigue, and pirates propel Miles to take up his old persona Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries. The real mystery is can he ever let it go again.

There is nothing bland about The Vor Game. Even the exile of Kyril Island is given depth and menace as Miles spends his time there. Without giving anything away, the interactions between Miles and the Emperor were fun and engaging. Especially well done is the grandiose figure of Miles Naismith. How he waltzes back to the head of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet is a tightrope act that Bujold carefully maneuvers him though. In fact, the special talent of the novel is finding the knife’s edge and staying there. As a reader it makes for many a tense page – all the while being immensely enjoyable. Commander Cavilo is Miles’ match, and a beautiful young woman is hard for a young officer to resist. How the web untangles is fun the whole way.

Don’t miss out on this series. It builds with every novel and The Vor Game is a gem.

7 stars out of 10

photo: jaymantri.com

The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 4)

The second book published in the Vorkosigan saga, the fourth in chronological order, is the entrance of Miles Vorkosigan – the young, deformed yet brilliant child of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith (the heroes of Shards of Honor). At first, it may seem like you’re reading a book about any old SF wunderkind, but Bujold skillfully raises Miles to extraordinary heights without making it seem farcical. By the end of this one book, you know that you’re reading about a hero that will be a favorite to many including yourself. This book is a must read. I would recommend beginning with Shards of Honor for a full character arc, but it’s not necessary. Enjoy this first encounter with Miles.

Miles Vorkosigan’s story begins with trying to get into the Barrayaran Officer’s Academy, but he is unable to qualify due to his malformed body caused by an attack when his mother was pregnant with him. To console himself from the disappointment, he travels to his mother’s home planet of Beta Colony with his bodyguard Sergeant Bothari and Bothari’s daughter, Elena. Along the way to deal with his overactive mind and curiosity – and maybe to help impress Elena, Miles starts an adventure of commerce, piracy, rebellion that grows at every turn. Where it ends, nobody knows, but Miles and his crew are caught in the whirlwind until it does.

The super brainiac kid is an overused trope in writing in general. Some handle it well, such as Card with Ender’s Game, but most do not. Bujold’s strength lies in her ability to write characters that you care about and make them true to themselves. You want to root for the brilliant Miles, you hurt for the embattled Bothari, you want Elena to be happy. All the while she crafts a story of many pieces and brings them together to great conclusions. Her books don’t usually end with one resolution but many. This book is no exception. Bujold has four Hugo Award winning books, but this book was written before her first win. I think it may be her best – award or no.

If you want to read a great storyteller bring together layers of story arc so well that you don’t realize what’s happening, then read Shards of Honor then The Warrior’s Apprentice. The two books are mirrors to each other and have a powerful symmetry in story and emotion. You will not regret the time spent.

8 stars out of 10

photo: jaymantri.com

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga: Book 2)

As a Science Fiction reader, there are few classics, celebrated authors, important series that I have not taken a dip into at some point or another. However, I’ve always kind of avoided the Vorkosigan Saga. When looking for the next thing to read, it always gets touted as “the best” or “in the top SF series ever written.” I don’t know if it’s the sheer number of volumes, the reviews it gets as space opera, or – just being honest – that it has a female author that has kept me so reticent all these years. Probably it’s because I’ve never had a friend of mine – and this is amazing due to its popularity – never tell me I should read them. Well I finally broke down and started the series, and guess what? It’s good.

One of the difficult things about the Vorkosigan Saga is where to start. I would avoid trying to decipher the reading order initially from all the fan sites and reviewers. The books are now being put into chronological order instead of publication date. While this is fine and dandy, I don’t know if it does the series any favors. Shards of Honor was the first novel in the series published (even though now it gets called Book 2), and I think it’s a great place to start to get the tenor of Bujold’s writing. It’s pre-Miles, the hero that drives most of the following books, but it situates the universe well. And, it provides the historical backdrop for most of the following stories.

Cordelia Naismith is a captain in a planetary survey for Beta Colony. Her goal is to scientifically chart new worlds and their natural characteristics. Unknowingly she stumbles into intrigue that involves Barrayar – a military based society that is trying to flex its muscles. She finds herself united with Aral Vorkosigan, a Barrayaran commander, that is fighting his own internal political battle with members of his planet’s ruling elite. Together they walk a knife’s edge of loyalty, subterfuge, and honor while the fate of planets hangs in the balance.

There is a lot going for this book. Great action sequences, large scale interplanetary strategy, traitors, and spies, but at the heart what wins the day is the relationship between Naismith and Vorkosigan. Bujold expertly writes the “human” factor. While the heavens may be in chaos, she makes sure to keep the story honed in on the thoughts and feelings of her main characters. This is why the series is so well liked. You relate to the characters. You become enmeshed with their lives and hope for their good. Sure there are many well crafted meta-storylines creating the high drama, but it’s the drama of the heart that makes this book a winner.

Shards of Honor is not the best book in the series, but it’s a great introduction. Fast paced, witty, and grand in scope, I bet you, like me, will have to read more.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: realisticshots.com

The Grand Alliance (The Second World War: Book 3) by Winston Churchill

The third volume in the abridged collection of Churchill’s history of the Second World War (confusingly the third volume in the unabridged series goes by the same title) follows Great Britain out of the time of their isolation in the war. From 1939 until the Germans turned their sights on Russia in 1942, England was the sole force providing continual harassment to Hitler’s swelling dominion. While many other countries were friendly and supportive to the cause, there had yet to be formed an allied front against the Axis countries – except in the Atlantic where the US had already committed to help clear shipping lanes near their own shores. With grit and ferocity of will, England stood the onslaught of the German’s might and lasted. There indomitableness was rewarded when, in 1942, both Russia and the US finally entered the war as full allies. In this, Churchill knew that the war was won.

You will never read a war history quite like Churchill’s retelling of these six, almost seven, long years of struggle. No “man at the top” as it were has written about the minutiae of what it takes from day to day to keep a country focussed toward a common goal. Churchill is both witty and serious about his responsibilities. The reader always feels as if the Prime Minister has a sincere empathy with the men that lay down their lives for freedom’s sake. And yet, Churchill was a shrewd if relatively straightforward politician. He pulls and cajoles the Russians to come to the aid of the Western powers. Stalin is supremely concerned about his own nation, yet this warmhearted Brit maneuvers the cold steely Russian into joint operations. The United States military see themselves as foremost in the world, but Churchill guides them to his points of attack. With an unbelievable aplomb, we get to look in on how a historical giant orders the players of worldwide strategy into a successful defense against Hitler’s schemes.

As a good American schoolboy, I was taught how the US came to save Britain’s bacon when we finally entered the European field. This is true – to an extent. What I never knew was how much had been prepared by the continual strategy of the British Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force. The had the ideas; they needed manpower. And the USA could not provide this at first. It took much longer for the war effort stateside to gear up than one might think. Even though America essentially entered into the war on Pearl Harbor day in 1941. The main focus was toward naval operations against Japan. It was only a small percentage of US troops that made it into the European theater before D-Day in June of 1944. Once the US became an active participant, hardly a defeat was handed to the Allied forces in the west, but this was due to the exceedingly important battle plan developed for years by Great Britain.

My grandfather served in North Africa – where the majority of the action of this book takes place. I don’t know a lot about his service as he passed away in my youth. He was an mechanic in support of air based action. It’s amazing that so many operations of vital importance happened off the continent where the supposed heart of the struggle lay. It’s as if Olympian engineers of war decided to fight somewhere that wouldn’t mess up their civilization. But it did, hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in North Africa. The many battles of Tobruk and Benghazi, the struggle for Egypt, the swift offensive on Tunis. These are magnificent and costly battlefields that most will never walk because they are so far from our cultured world. Churchill does his best to humanize every campaign, but the scars of the war were greater than most perceive. There may not be a finer set of histories for this time, but come knowing it’s not the view that the average man had.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov

Alone (The Second World War: Book 2) by Winston Churchill

The second volume in Winston Churchill’s history of World War II focuses on the time period after France had fallen to the German invasion until the entrance of the United States into the conflict. It was a hard time for the British people. Their nation was the only free European country actively opposing Hitler’s scheme of domination. For this, Germany turned its full strength upon the island and brought Britain to its darkest hour. This volume is a testimony to the unconquerable spirit the British had in the face of a merciless enemy.

In a few short years, Germany had gone from a struggling bankrupt nation into a war machine that controlled nearly half of all Europe. After all the missteps that the European leaders took – which Churchill relates in Milestones to Disaster – the British army finds themselves in Occupied France facing complete destruction. Alone begins with the account of the unbelievable escape accomplished at Dunkirk – the largest marine transportation event in the history of the world at that point. Thousands of ships, many civilian, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

After this miraculous feat of logistics and sheer will, Britain is isolated on their little island home. They know that Hitler will come to destroy his final opposition. Churchill, in amazing detail and frankness, reveals how England steeled themselves for the onslaught. Massive defense measures of every town went into action. Every port was mined and patrolled. Every able bodied citizen was assigned a war duty task such as fire watch, food supply, child care. The Royal Air Force was called upon to keep constant vigil in the air while the Royal Navy swept the seas and harbors. At no time has there been a country more single-minded in its effort for defense. The delightful shores of Albion became a bulwark.

Through this and the Battle of Britain to come, Churchill rallied the people with his speeches. Never for a minute was surrender considered an option. Optimism and perseverance was always the tone. The strength of this history is the resolve of the people of Britain to overcome. Hardships came in droves, but they survived. A fictional account would only ring hollow. This true story gives the reader iron in his spirit to face the evil of their own time.

In the end, we know they came through. With dreadful losses, England lasted until the world could rally. Their determination probably saved the future of freedom. You should read of the debt we owe to this brave people whose lives shone in what was “their finest hour.”

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov  – London, 1940

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners: Book 2) with Mitosis (Book 1.5)

There’s no spoilers for Firefight, but if you haven’t read Steelheart yet, then you’ll probably want to skip this.

The second book of the Reckoners series takes the action and the plot to another level but it leaves some of the dialogue charm of the first one behind. This is probably due to the tension inherent in the David/Megan relationship and the switch to another Reckoner cell. However, on a whole, Sanderson has expanded the Reckoner universe in a good way. He gives depth to the characters that have been a little thin up till now. More understanding is brought to the Epics dealing with their powers and the source of them. The ante is raised going from Newcago to Babylon Restored (Manhattan) ruled by the enigmatic Regalia. All in all, Firefight survives the sophomore slump with a strong sense of its own identity.

Following Steelheart’s overthrow in Newcago the Reckoners, led by Jonathan Phaedras, find themselves drawn by clues to Babylon Restored – the mostly underwater remnants of Manhattan island. There Prof and David (now increasingly known as Steelslayer) must figure out Regalia’s plans to keep the city and its many inhabitants from being destroyed. Of course along the way, David wants to find Megan and save her from the corruption of Epic powers. He believes that together she may be able to overcome Firefight. The local Reckoner cell doesn’t make it easy for David to fit in, but they’re all working on the same side….right?

The issue with stories where key characters are getting corrupted by some force is how to keep the characters true during their corruption phase. I felt like Sanderson walked the line with this in Firefight. Prof and Megan’s struggles seemed to sometimes be no big deal and at other times almost without hope. I’m sure this is to keep the tension high in the struggle, but it came off as forced and somewhat arbitrary. Again, I think that this is an issue with first person perspective – trying to reveal the heart of other characters while stuck in the head of the protagonist. But, kudos to Sanderson for at least wrestling with humanity as opposed to just having superheroes with issues. That is what mainstream media keeps offering up as depth.

Like all middle books, there’s still plenty of more answers to be solved. If the third book was already out I’m sure that I would go ahead and read it, but this isn’t the type of series where the months of waiting are going to be taxing…looking at you Patrick Rothfuss. If you like superhero stories or just fun action, these will please.

Mitosis

Mitosis is the short story interlude between Steelheart and Firefight. The main purpose is as a post script to the story in Newcago after Steelheart is slain. It follows the pursuit and destruction of another Epic named Mitosis. The story helps draw the two novels together in a continuous flow. It’s not necessary, but it does bridge the gap well. The reason for mentioning it here is that Mitosis’ story is alluded to several times in Firefight. So much so, that it might do you well to read this brief intertestamental tale. It’s worth the hour of your time.

Firefight – 6.5 stars out of 10

Mitosis – thumbs up

photo: youtube