A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Friday, November 13, 2015

TITLE: A Civil Campaign
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 544

SETTING: Barrayar
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: 8th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

The recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson returns to Barrayar, following the events described in KOMARR, and finds herself under siege from several suitors, including Miles Vorkosigan. Miles' initial attempts at courtship result in colossal disasters, affecting as well Miles' brother Mark, who is forbidden from courting his own ladylove by the girl's outraged parents. Some nasty political maneuverings by ambitious Vor aristocrats create new trials for Miles while he wages his campaign for Ekaterin's heart. Intrigue, wit and high hilarity make this Hugo and Nebula finalist a must for readers of science fiction and romance alike.

I took a little break from the Vorkosigan series after reading this one (it's intense!), so I'm a bit late with this review. But now I've just started Diplomatic Immunity, so I'd best catch up!

A Civil Campaign takes place right after the events in Komarr, and it's basically a romance. There are a few other threads here, including Mark and Kareen's romance and their latest business venture, the preparations for Gregor's upcoming wedding, as well as plenty of political intrigue, including a couple of tricky succession questions involving friends of Miles' that are going before the Council of Counts. The focus, though, is on Miles and his wooing of Ekaterin.

Now, I must say Komarr lulled me into a false sense of security. Everything seemed to be going fine. Miles had made an impression, Ekaterin, in spite of telling herself she had been put off marriage for good after her experiences, had admitted to herself she was really attracted to Miles. Surely it would all be plain sailing from there? But oh, how things fell apart!

Basically, Miles is constitutionally unable to take things easy. He approaches wooing Ekaterin as a campaign he must win. He applies all his guiles and his well-earned experience in manipulation. But the problem with that is, a campaign suggests a war, and if you're waging a war, then someone must be the enemy, and that's exactly how it feels from Ekaterin's end.

I'm not going to spoil things, but there's a scene (the dinner party scene, for those of you who've read the book) which was probably the most painful I've ever read, in a truly excellent, wonderful way. It was the perfect collapse of Miles' elaborate strategies. What was so wonderful about it was that I was really impressed by how well Bujold inspired mixed, contradictory reactions in me. On one hand, I wanted Miles to succeed in his quest to get a HEA with Ekaterin. So I felt anger, real, almost incandescent anger at the careless sabotage of Miles' arrangements. He's such a vulnerable character inside his maniacal, powerful outside. But at the same time, I'd got more and more uncomfortable with the calculating way he was going about wooing Ekaterin. That bit I think might have hit on a personal soft spot. I have had a couple of experiences with guys who I thought were friends suddenly revealing that they had never actually been interested in friendship in the first place, that the friendship bit was only an excuse to get close. That feels like a betrayal, and what Miles was doing with Ekaterin felt like just that. So I also wanted him to get his just desserts for how he was treating Ekaterin as a prize to be won, and I felt that scene delivered satisfaction in spades.

And so did the rest of the romance, once we were over that. I loved that Miles does, in the end, get it. He understands what he did wrong and he makes up for it, not because he needs to do that to get Ekaterin, but because he's truly sorry he's hurt her and wants her to be happy. And I just loved the big gesture at the end. I don't usually, but this was a bit of a reversal of the usual scenario, and it worked for this couple. It felt triumphant.

On the whole, this book reminded me very much of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane's romance in Dorothy L. Sayers' books, which, considering the dedication of A Civil Campaign, seems like a conscious homage. I saw the conflict as being about how an individual couple can build a truly equal relationship, one in which the woman is completely free, in the midst of a sexist, patriarchal society. A society, too, where both have been brought up, so one which they've absorbed in their upbringing and subconscious attitudes, even as they tell themselves (well, in this case, more like "he tells himself") they're modern and galactic. Bujold made me believe they'd succeeded in building something beyond those constraints.

It's a book that is as funny as it is intense (Mark's latest business venture, which includes an absent-minded scientist and disgusting bugs that vomit a yummy edible butter, adds a much-needed element of farce). It was wonderful. I can certainly see why it's so beloved by everyone who's read this series.

There was only one element which I felt was a bit dated, for all that this book is set in the far future, and that is the transphobia in a couple of sympathetic characters' reactions. One of the subplots involves a character who has had a sex-change operation, and there were some reactions which had more than a tinge of revulsion. It's something that I'm pretty sure Bujold, who shows a remarkably progressive attitude in other areas of the narrative, would write differently today, as it feels like in the last 15 years the issue of trans people has become more visible and understood.



Sun,  13 November 2015 at 08:01  

Excellent review! You made me want to re-read the whole Vorkosigan Saga all over again. but... *eyes the tbr piles and gulps*

Rosario 16 November 2015 at 06:31  

Thanks! I can see myself rereading this series again and again in the future!

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