Thursday, 31 March 2016

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Kibou-daini is an obscure planet in a remote corner of the wormhole nexus, but one with a specialisation in cryogenic freezing and revival as a means of cheating death. With the planet planning to expand to Komarr, the Barrayaran Empire decides to take a closer look. This means sending in Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan. Unfortunately things go wrong almost as soon as Miles arrives. Left lost and injured in a maze of cryo-tombs that extends for kilometres, Miles needs to call upon every ounce of his resourcefulness to survive.

Cryoburn is the most recent Vorkosigan Saga novel to focus on the series' erstwhile central figure of Miles Vorkosigan. The two more recent books (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, published later although set earlier than Cryoburn, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen) have focused on other characters with Miles playing a much-reduced role. So this is the last ride, maybe for a while, we get to have with Miles encountering a problem and sorting it out in his own, inimitable style.

Cryoburn is satisfying on that level, but it also sees Bujold flexing her writing skills. A lot of the book is told from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old boy, Jin, whom Miles encounters on his travels. Given the labyrinth plotting, conspiracies and feints of the average Vorkosigan book, having it filtered through the understanding of a child is challenging but Bujold pulls it off to deliver something fresh, giving us a new perspective on Miles and his world (and makes me think that a YA-focused Vorkosigan novel could actually be a very interesting read). However, the book also give us something more evolutionary and adult as well. This book is set seven years after Miles's previous adventure in Diplomatic Immunity and he is now approaching forty. He has matured a lot in that time, becoming a father several times over and is now less manic, less prone to blundering straight into situations and is more thoughtful and analytical. This is all relative to his former self, of course, and he remains the same character, but an older, more seasoned and more wary one.

Indeed, Cryoburn feels like a musing on the passing of generations, with Jin representing a new generation of children growing up in a more peaceful period of nexus history and Miles spending chunks of the book analysing his father's and grandfather's lives and what they went through. The book's musings on death, mortality and legacy also feed into this, but Bujold expertly avoids making this a maudlin or depressing book. Quite the reverse, the notion of mortality and the precious commodities of life and time are joyously celebrated...right up to the final, startling moments of the novel, which may rank among Bujold's finest-ever pieces of writing.

Cryoburn, an upbeat and uplifting book about death, is one of the stranger but stronger books in the series (****½). It is available now in the UK and USA.

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