Komarr (Vorkosigan Saga, Chronological #11)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
First published in April 1999
From Goodreads: Komarr could be a garden with a thousand more years’ work, or an uninhabitable wasteland if the terraforming fails. Now, the solar mirror vital to the terraforming of the conquered planet has been shattered by a ship hurtling off course. The Emperor of Barrayar sends his newest imperial auditor, Lord Miles Vorkosigan, to find out why. The choice is not a popular one on Komarr, where a betrayal a generation before drenched the name of Vorkosigan in blood. Thus, the Komarrans surrounding Miles could be loyal subjects, potential hostages, innocent victims, or rebels ready for revenge. Lies within lies, treachery within treachery, Miles is caught in a race against time to stop a plot that could exile him from Barrayar forever. His burning hope lies in an unexpected ally, one with wounds as deep and honor as beleaguered as his own.
(Warning: contains spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga)
I was a little surprised and rather delighted to discover that Komarr switches back and forth between viewpoints- from Miles to a new character, Ekaterin Vorsoisson. It’s always interesting to see Miles from another perspective so you can see more clearly what he and other characters are really like when not lit by the glow of Miles’s somewhat tarnished halo.
The incident that brings Miles and his fellow Imperial Auditor, Vorthys, to Komarr seems straightforward enough. A ship crashed into and destroyed the giant mirror that helps direct heat to the surface of Komarr to aid the terraforming effort. Without the mirror, the planet could easily revert to the frozen wasteland the first colonists found. As Vorthys is an engineer by trade, he is running the primary investigation, while Miles is acting as assistant so he can get a better sense of what all an Imperial Auditor’s duties entail.
Enter Ekaterin. She is Vorthys’s niece and married to Tien, an administrator of a terraforming department on Komarr and all around lousy human being. Ekaterin and Tien offer to host the Auditors while they’re on the planet, and so Miles- in addition to being wrapped up in the investigation of the damaged mirror, also finds himself wound up into the Vorsoissons’ family drama. And even though it’s in poor taste, he falls head over heels for Ekaterin, despite the fact that she’s married to his host.
There’s less action in Komarr than in previous books, due in part to Miles serving the Barrayaran Empire in a civilian role now, rather than a military one. I’m fine with this change. I don’t remember now if I expected every book in the Vorkosigan Saga to be an action-packed adventure when I started reading, but I think it would have been exhausting if there hadn’t been some sort of shift away from endless space battles and Miles talking his way out of another round of trouble. Given how many teenaged protagonists populate the myriad scifi/fantasy series out there, having a character age into his thirties is a welcome change. Miles is still impulsive, but not in the potentially disastrous way that he was at age 17 or 21. He’s able to bite his tongue and think things through before he answers, the way I expect a good leader to do. Young Miles flew by the seat of his pants and created a positive outcome by sheer force of will and luck. Slightly older Miles understands the possible consequences of his actions and can see that the people around him are fully capable of responding to emergencies, too. It’s a welcome- and healthy- change.
This older Miles can also recognize that some events are beyond his control, and that he can’t save everyone no matter how hard he tries. The ghosts remain, but they don’t weigh so heavily on him.
I was a little unsure of Ekaterin at first. Being a member of the Vor class (an old military caste that has turned into more of a noble class of government officials), she takes her oaths seriously, especially her wedding vows that bind her to Tien, a jealous man who is constantly searching for advancement and get-rich-quick schemes, and who assumes that those higher up than he have achieved their ranks due to nepotism and cronyism. Still, Ekaterin refuses to speak against him or consider leaving him because she made an oath to stay with Tien, for better or for worse.
The arrival of the Imperial Auditors makes her question this pale existence she’s been living, though. She’s drawn into their conversations and sees that the world outside of the one Tien had built around her isn’t the only one, and she might possibly remake her life for the better.
Ultimately, Ekaterin grows as a character and finds her own strengths. Bujold, after all, is not a writer who creates static characters. What I appreciate the most about Ekaterin’s changes is that they are not inspired by love/lust/infatuation for a man (Miles, in this case). After putting up with years of Tien’s mistreatment of her and after making a few discoveries of her own, Ekaterin sets out to change her own life for her own sake. She’s not the only one of Bujold’s characters who doesn’t just blindly follow men around, but because in Komarr we’re treated to Ekaterin’s point of view and not just Miles’s, that change, and the factors that drive it, is more obvious.
The deeper into the story I got, the more I grew to like Ekaterin. She’s able to think in an emergency and doesn’t let her emotions overwhelm her, even in dire situations. She’s smarter than she thinks she is, and she has her own wants and passions that aren’t related to Tien or Miles. She’s a full human being with strengths and flaws, and her development through the book (and the rest of the series) feels perfectly natural, even though she is much different at the end than she is when she first appears.
Komarr might be more on the science end of science fiction, with its talk of terraforming and trajectories and gravitational fields, but there is enough action to keep things rolling along, and plenty of subtle human drama for those looking for character development. It’s not my favorite of the Vorkosigan books, but I can safely say that it’s in the top five.