Lois McMaster Bujold’s 2012 Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is an SF adventure. It’s set in her Vorkosiverse, but unlike most of the other novels, which focus on Cordelia Vorkosigan or her son Miles, it stars Miles’ cousin Ivan Xav Vorpatril — better known as “Ivan, you idiot!”
Ivan is widely viewed as a shallow, lazy womanizer. This is in large part a well-crafted mask. Ivan eschews any appearance of dedication or boldness. He is not viewed as a threat; as a consequence, he is still alive, an achievement many bold Vorkosiverse characters cannot claim. (Well his cousin Miles is bold and threatening; naturally, he died once. It’s just that Miles being Miles, he got better.) If Ivan has his way, he will have a long, unremarkable career followed by a long, unremarkable retirement.
Ivan is not going to have his way.
Ivan Vorpatril is a minor military functionary at Imperial HQ on Komarr. He’s asked by an ImpSec friend to wangle an acquaintance with a young woman using the name Nanj Brindis. Ivan begins to suspect that there is more to Nanj than meets the eye when, after he arranges a second encounter with her (having failed at his first attempt at wooing her), a blue-skinned woman zaps him with a stunner.
Nanj is actually Tej, a scion of House Cordonah, a major family on the evil libertarian planet of evil libertarians, Jackson’s Whole. The blue-skinned woman is Rish, her loyal servant. Both Nanj and Rish are on the run from the gang that staged a hostile takeover of their House. Being sensibly paranoid, they were afraid Ivan was working for the bad guys. Real bad guys show up; Ivan warns the women of the impending threat and earns their conditional trust.
Ivan lets the two women take refuge in his apartment. Which is then besieged by local police (suspecting that the women are missing because Ivan killed them) and by immigration authorities (who want to deport the undocumented immigrants). Ivan saves the day by marrying Tej on the spot1. Once Tej is married; she’s a wife and Barrayaran noble and cannot be deported. Rish is Tej’s servant and also now legal. Problem solved!
Interregnum. Return to Barrayar, fun sex on the way, moving into Ivan’s apartment in the capital, notifying Ivan’s redoubtable mom of the temporary marriage. Most assuredly temporary. In due course, Ivan and Tej present themselves to Count Falco, Ivan’s feudal superior, for the divorce.
Ivan and Tej are taken aback when Count Falco lists acceptable reasons for divorce on Barrayar and says that none of them apply to Ivan and his new wife. An affronted Falco ear-flicks Ivan for not taking marriage seriously and treating Falco’s court like a rubber stamp. Falco forbids the couple from appearing before him for at least six months.
Next act: Tej’s family (most of them) show up on Barrayar. Tej had thought them dead in the coup. Ivan now has in-laws. His family and her family meet. Hijinks ensue.
You see, Tej’s grandmother is Cetagandan, of the planet Cetaganda, better known on Barrayar as the evil planet that once invaded and occupied them. Grandma knows of a Cetagandan treasure stash, hurriedly buried before the final Cetagandan retreat from Barrayar. As far as Tej’s grandmother knows, that cache hasn’t been found. If the family can get their hands on the contents of the bunker, they will have the resources to regain their House on Jackson’s Whole.
Too bad that the new Imperial Security HQ has been built right on top of the bunker.
The only possible solution is a zany caper. And despite his finely honed survival instincts, Ivan is going to play a central role in this caper.
Tej’s granny is a war criminal on two planets. From the Barrayaran perspective, she was part of the effort to conquer and assimilate Barrayar, which makes her about popular on Barrayar as a Japanese Army Officer in Nanking. From the Cetagandan perspective, she was part of an unsuccessful effort to conquer and assimilate Barrayar, an effort later disavowed as underlings misbehaving. She would be as popular on Cetaganda as Soviet officer Alexei Vinogradov was after the WWII Battle of Raate Road.
I wasn’t convinced by this book’s romance. Now, Miles and Ekaterin’s romance, which unfolded over two novels2, was convincing. They had enough interaction and enough time to fall in love. Ivan and Tej’s alliance is superficial by comparison. Yes, I know, there’s a long tradition of stories about wacky contrived marriages that work out in the end. But the romance plot in this novel didn’t work for me. Just as well that the zany caper plot redeemed the book.
Some readers might complain that the novel doesn’t work unless you accept one coincidence after another. Well, that can be said of many Bujold novels. The Vorkosiverse is such that if there’s a manic dwarf, a missing Imperial heir, and a criminal conspiracy to be found in the same million cubic light year volume, they will all end up on the same isolated space station at the same time. Enjoy Bujold and accept that the plots work because the author so decreed … oh, and because she’s actually quite good at creating SOD (suspension of disbelief).
I was also somewhat disturbed by the fact that criminal hijinks are presented as OK as long as at least one of the people involved is sufficiently well connected. But that’s Barrayar for you3.
This book is weightier than Diplomatic Immunity and much weightier than Cryoburn. IMHO, it’s still pretty slight. Albeit enjoyable.
The Audie-winning audiobook of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is available here.
1: Instant marriage thanks to a handy box of Barrayaran breakfast groats in the kitchen. Groats are an indispensable element of a valid marriage.
2: Komarr and A Civil Campaign .
3: I’d love to see a novel centred on Count Falco.