The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Thursday, August 07, 2014

TITLE: The Mountains of Mourning
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci fi
SERIES: Vorkosigan series #3.5

Miles Vorkosigan is sent to a small mountain village to investigate the murder of an infant, killed because she had a physical defect. Miles must deal with deep-seated prejudice against “mutants” and uncover the real killer in this novella that won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award..

This short story comes in an anthology with two others, set later in the series (after books I hadn't yet read when I read this one). Bujold's written a sort of framing device for them which, unfortunately, is also set chronologically later. I kind of ignored it, and stuck to the short story itself.

The Mountains of Mourning is set 3 years after the action in The Warrior's Apprentice. At the end of that book, Miles succeeded in gaining entrance to the Barrayaran Imperial Service academy (in fact, we got a really neat scene right at the end showing just how well he was going to do there). He's now graduated and is looking forward to spending a nice holiday at Vorkosigan Surleau, in the family's summer residence.

On the very first day, though, his plans have to change. Coming back to the house he encounters a clearly exhausted, desperate young woman who refuses to go away until she can see someone to demand justice. Miles discovers she has walked all the way from a distant village, and assists her in seeing his father, Count Vorkosigan. He thinks that's his work done and Aral will just make sure she can see the District Magistrate, but his father has other ideas.

It turns out the crime the young woman, Harra, is so desperate to report is the murder of her newborn daughter. She had been born with what Miles knows is a cleft palate, but the villagers call "cat's mouth". It's an easily repairable birth defect, but Barrayarans have long been terrified of mutations. Traditionally, mutants have been killed at birth. Aral Vorkosigan, intent on modernising Barrayar, has had his government ban the practice, but old traditions die slowly out in the middle of nowhere.

Harra is convinced her husband had their little daughter killed, very much against her will. She wants justice, but the Village Speaker, who is supposed to dispense justice, won't even accept there's a case. The entire village have been putting immense pressure on Harra to just accept it was a natural death and leave it at that. She won't.

Instead of sending Harra to the District Magistrate, Aral decides Miles will go back to the village with Harra to investigate the murder. His role will be to represent his, Aral's, voice, but also to provide a clear visual message. Because the Barrayaran attitude towards mutants is one that Miles, with his physical issues, has experienced himself (even if he keeps reminding people his physical aspect was caused by teratogenic harm, not a mutation!).

It's a melancholy story with a very neat plot, and I thought it was very good. It's structured a bit as a classic Golden Age mystery, with its closed number of potential suspects and an investigator with the power to do the classic Hercule Poirot reveal, but Harra's pain about her daughter prevents it from really being a cosy mystery. It's sad, but the ending is hopeful.

Miles is quite interesting here. I'm writing this after reading the next story, and he feels more mature here, possibly because of the sombre nature of what's going on around him. The story provides some insight into his character by increasing our understanding of the attitudes he would have faced growing up, even insulated by his father's position. We knew some of it already (witness his grandfather's reactions in the previous books, for instance), but this brings it home even more.

A good entry in the series.



Darlynne,  7 August 2014 at 21:38  

I've been reading the series completely out of order, listening to a number of the books as well. I continue to be impressed with each one and in awe of Bujold's (or is it McMaster Buljold's) talent. What great characters.

Rosario 8 August 2014 at 06:48  

She's amazing. I can't believe she's not better known, but I find whether pretty much all my romance-reading friends online know about her, my off-line fantasy/sci-fi-reading friends have never heard of her.

Bona Caballero 19 September 2015 at 17:26  

I'm reading the books now in the order suggested by Lois McMaster Bujold which is, I think, the same you've followed here. After Warrior's Apprentice, which was a dissapointment -more due to my frame of mind than the book itself- I really liked this story. It's a suspenseful whodonit worth the while. I would recommend it more to people who like procedurals than science fiction fans themselves. It's amazing the different subgenres Bujold inserts in her saga.

Rosario 26 September 2015 at 09:33  

Bona, I'm really glad this one appealed to you. I think you really start to see Miles' depths here. Are you planning to continue, then? If so, you'll find Bujold continues to play with several other subgenres. I think you'll enjoy them.

By the way, on the order. Yes, I'm following Bujold's suggested order, and it's worked beautifully. The only exception is Ethan of Atos. I think I'd leave that for the end. You do find out more about Ellie Quinn, but the sidestep (there's no Miles there) is probably not worth the distraction.

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