The Vor Game is the latest novel that we read as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially falls, after the novel The Warrior’s Apprentice and the novella Mountains of Mourning, and before the novel Cetaganda. It’s about Miles Vorkosigan again and was first published in 1990. Miles is given his first mission after graduating from the Imperial Military Academy and it is not what he expected or hoped for.
Tsana: After skipping over the academy years, we meet Miles again as he gets his first assignment as a freshly-graduated ensign. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed we missed out on Miles’s inevitable Academy hijinks, but this book does deliver plenty of hijinks to make up for it.
Katharine: Do we get to see any in flashbacks?
Tsana: Not that I remember. Certainly nothing major.
Katharine: Well that’s a dang shame. Bujold is still writing though, so perhaps we could get some further short stories… doubtful, but maybe if she’s reading our discussions… :p
In all seriousness, I do mostly appreciate that we jump from action to action - we know enough about their human nature to assume what went on in those years - he manages to outwit most of their exercises and instructors and gets bullied but mostly copes with it all. We meet him again when he receives his first actual mission… and it’s pretty disappointing.
Tsana: Yep. After hoping for ship duty, Miles is assigned to a polar weather station. Cold, miserable and occasionally filled with infantry cadets. Not at all in space. I think the only reason he doesn’t kick up a fuss is because it’s suggested that if he manages not to stir up trouble for six months he might be rewarded with a shiny new ship assignment. But Miles is bad at not stirring up trouble…
Katharine: Basically as soon as he gets there he’s overwhelmed with how poorly it’s run. The chap doing his job and supposed to be handling his handover is a drunk, many of the other workers don’t seem to care for the standard of their work, and of course Miles has a whole new range of people to be bullied by. It doesn’t take him long to be almost killed by a hazing attempt.
Tsana: All of which was almost expected, but… well, before we get into spoilers, should we briefly talk about how there are two very distinct parts to The Vor Game? The first part, set on the miserable polar island, and then a very distinct second part set elsewhere.
Katharine: Yup - by the end of the book it seems like a lifetime ago we read about the polar station - they don’t feel connected in the slightest. It isn’t a bad thing, or jarring in any way… if anything, it just shows how chaotic Miles’ life is. I’m not sure how much else we can say without the spoiler klaxon?
Tsana: *klaxon sound effects*
Tsana: The real trouble for Miles on the polar station stars when he butts heads with the general in charge. And comes to a head when a dangerous and delicate situation involving other staff members arises. But you know, when I was reading about the general being a bit crap, I was wondering whether someone contrived to send Miles to that island to obliquely deal with the general. I was actually a bit surprised it wasn’t confirmed in the text (perhaps because things spiralled in the latter part of the book), but what do you think?
Katharine: Hrm, that is an interesting thought. It certainly ties it into the later part of the book to give Miles a realistic ‘villain’ who’s out to get him, but I think if it were the case, his father and Illyan would have made some sly comment about tidying or something.
Tsana: True. But it remains my headcannon. ;-p In anycase, Miles’s run-in with the general gives him an opportunity to show us, the reader, his moral fibre. Joining the protesters on the ice was very selfless, more so than we’ve seen from him in earlier stories, I think.
Katharine: It’s a very crafty headcanon, I like it! And yeah, throwing himself and his status behind standing up for everyone else is reckless but brave, and probably shows what an excellent leader he’ll someday be - I assume.
Tsana: I like that he uses his extreme privilege (second only to Emperor Gregor, in their generation) for good and not evil. Well, aside from being unable to take orders properly. Before we jump into the next section of the book, I want to note that I found the opening less funny than I kind of expect from Miles. It had its moments, but the second part of the book was much funnier, even as things were much more dire — or at least, dire in a very different way!
Katharine: I think if they had stayed at the polar station then it would have been quite depressing overall, though I have to admit the middle was a little confusing with the constant travel here, there and everywhere… it’s not like we have a reference grid of where all these systems are located!
Tsana: In a semi-random web, I think. But yeah, I think the only reason I didn’t get completely lost was because some of the names were familiar to me. That said, the precise locations didn’t matter that much, did they? It was mostly “where is Miles relative to where he’s supposed to be?” and “where is Ungari?” and “which bit is about to be a war zone?” etc. But I’m jumping ahead a bit. Miles being assigned to Ungari and then told NOT to take operational control of the Dendarii mercenaries was a bit optimistic of Illyan...
Katharine: Yeah, I mean, does he want anyone else in control of the Dendarii? I highly doubt it, when you look at the options.
It was good to see Elena again - especially as we get to see such an improvement on her skills and abilities she has to offer - now well ahead of Gregor and Miles, despite their years of training in the Academy and (I assume) one-on-one with the best the Vor have to offer.
Tsana: And speaking of Gregor, I absolutely love that storyline. Miles accidentally running into the Emperor and obviously having to rescue him. And no one can argue with that later on. For all their chastising Miles for not following orders, Barrayar as a whole is lucky he took it upon himself to rescue Gregor, or they might be down one Emperor.
Katharine: And the whole plot line humanises Gregor - we often see the ‘royal only wants to be a commoner’ storyline, but I haven’t seen it done so realistically where he literally just gets on with the bad food and fixing little bits of tech and actually feels proud when he starts managing okay.
I also love how they (Miles and Gregor, once ‘rescued’) all operate in full knowledge of how things could be perceived - they know how others could assume Miles wants the throne, and yet Gregor has full trust in him even when armed, surrounded by strangers. It’s lovely to see such a bromance.
Tsana: Well they are cousins and were raised as foster brothers, so that’s maybe not so surprising. Also, I wonder whether it all goes back to the Vordarian Pretendership (check name!) for Gregor. When he was fleeing for his life with Cordelia he was shoeless for a while there and lived with very ordinary people. He was only four, but I’m sure that sort of thing leaves a lasting impression. I like how human the Emperor is to Miles. And their shared understanding of depression, which was a little understated at times, but definitely there.
Katharine: I would love to see more of them growing up together. Especially the parts with Ivan and Elena. Cordelia and Aral really are good at adopting, aren’t they? Miles has both parents, but the other three kids are basically alone in a way…
Tsana: Ivan still has his mum!
Katharine: Yeah but how is she after all she’s gone through, too? Is she coping?
Tsana: We see more of her later on. She’s doing OK. She’s Vor, afterall. But back to Cordelia and Aral adopting kids… possibly because they can’t have more of their own at this juncture, since any “normal” kid would quickly usurp Miles in the eyes of others as the only legitimate Vorkosigan heir. And they don’t want that for Miles, of course. (That’s part speculation and part I’ve-read-later-books.) Which leaves parenting all the stray kids they can.
Katharine: Which is lovely, as they’re obviously awesome at it. How could they usurp Miles? Just because he wasn’t literally born? Now there’s an interesting debate…
Tsana: More because of Barrayar’s ongoing ingrained ableist attitudes…
Katharine: Blargh. Anyway, where were we… Gregor! I love how he also comes through for Miles in the end too - swaggers into Illyan’s office and they both get to present Miles with something he didn’t really think possible… and all I was thinking, was, what does this mean for Elena and Miles’ slightly strained atmosphere?
Tsana: You’ve lost me. How does Miles’s medal relate to Elena particularly?
Katharine: To be honest I’d already forgotten about the medal entirely - I was speaking more of his next ‘mission’, to be officially in charge of the Dendarii?
Tsana: Well as far as his relationship with Elena goes, he was always in charge of the Dendarii, just MIA while at the academy — a large source of the strain. I got the impression Elena was pretty annoyed at him for disappearing. She’ll probably be happier with him having a more active role. Especially since things with the Dendarii went a bit to crap while he was away, with Oser taking over (again).
Katharine: Do we get to find out more about Baz? I feel like we hardly know him - which makes it easier for Miles to be glad Elena is safer, but also leaves us a bit in the dark of what he’s like as a person.
Tsana: I honestly don’t remember. The most prominent Dendarii that I remember from my previous readthrough didn’t actually appear in this book (but did in Warrior’s Apprentice), which shows how unreliable memory can be. But even if I did remember, I’m not sure how much I should be telling you! Not that I’ve done too well at keeping my mouth shut except about actual spoilers.
Katharine: Eh, you’re fine - usually I forget pretty quickly or fail to put two and two together anyway! I think I’ve said all I can about how much I love the dynamic between Miles and Gregor (and the same can pretty much be said for Ivan and Miles, too). I still miss reading about Aral and Cordelia, and I want Elena to get closure around her father… but mostly, I just want to keep reading. Oh, actually, what do we think about Cavilo?
Tsana: Cavilo was a good villain. In many ways she fell into female action character stereotypes… which were subverted by Miles not underestimating her like, apparently, everyone else did. The general playing the key role of everyone else, in this scenario. From a purely feminist point of view, he had it coming.
Katharine: And I did like how she tries to use her feminine wiles against him, which flusters him entirely to the point of running away… only to then bemoan the sex he missed out on? Sigh.
Tsana: Well at least he’s self-aware enough to realise she was unlikely to want to hook up with him for any non-shady reasons.
Katharine: This is true.
Tsana: And I think that just about covers everything I wanted to say. How about you?
Katharine: There’s probably something else, but I just want to get started on the next book!
Join us in about a month for our discussion of Cetaganda!
Previous discussion posts: