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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn
Lois McMaster Bujold
or why you should run out and buy this woman's latest book, right now...

As I've been known to mention a time or two, this is an art blog, so stuff has gotta tie in. (Except when it doesn't.) However, in this case there is indeed a connection. Lois McMaster Bujold published her first novel in 1986, about the time I was learning the bead business at Priya Imports. By 1988, I had formed my company, and was marketing my work by showing at craft shows and the occasional small art fair. My darling spouse, the ever patient wizard, was at this point still willing to help pack the car, shlep the stuff, and set up the canopy (which back then was probably a Jenkins Crafted Canopy).

But once we were set up, there wasn't much for him to do except people watch, since he loathes the selling process with a passion. So we were at one little show and he wandered off, discovering, much to his delight, a used book store. Now, here, I will insert a little bit of open source type wisdom, which is that used bookstores (and, I imagine used record stores as well) are just below public libraries in being new authors’ great helpers, because they allow the ignorant and understandably wary public to try something new with little risk.

Back then, we were poor. My artsy escapades actually made up a significant portion of our income (and my admiration really goes out to full-time artists with children, btw—I knew once I had kids that would end my full-time involvement with art, and I was right). We barely bought new paperbacks, and buying fiction in hardcover was an unjustifiable expense—not only monitarily, but even just in sheer terms of space. —But we did frequent used bookstores, which provided our main source of entertainment.

So back comes the wizard with a somewhat battered paperback, with a spaceship in the center, and the faces of a woman and a man, shading from blue-violet to red-orange. It was actually rather striking, despite some cliches (like the rather star-warsy tie-fighters circling around in the background.) Military sf, I thought. The wizard has always been fonder of that than I have, but I'll give anything a whirl. Maybe he even recommended it. I wasn't particularly excited. I had no idea what lay in store.

I had in my hands Shards of Honor, the author's first novel. It's a straightforward space opera that in some ways evokes the classic example of the forms written by E.E. Doc Smith (which by the way I first encountered by way of Albion's rare book room! —since they were at that time totally out of print): there's new worlds, there's adventure, there's even a romantic subplot. It starts out with Cordelia Naismith, captain of a Betan research vessel that is doing research on a newly discovered (and presumeably uninhabited) world, returning to her camp to find it destroyed; she herself is immediately attacked. When she regains consciousness, she is the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, captain of a bunch of Barrayarans, who also claim the planet.

Their cultures are utterly different: Beta, oldest of Earth colonies, is wealthy, extremely liberal, urbane, and sophisticated. The planet Barrayar, by contrast, was cut off from the rest of galatic culture by a cosmic accident that threw their technology back to horse-and-buggy levels, with the attendent patriarchal, hierarchical class structures that still persist after two generations of being reunited with spaceflight-level technology. Burdened with an injured comrade on the one side, and a mutiny on the other, the two join forces on an extended hike in an effort to make contact with their superiors.

As they cope with the planet's fauna, their mind-crippled comrade, and the slowly dissolving distrust coming out of their radically different backgrounds, they inevitably become a team. When at last they do reach civilization, can they then overcome the artificial barriers their societies—now currently on opposite sides of a rather nasty war—have imposed?

Of the 18 novels (more or less) she has in print, only one, The Spirit Ring (a standalone fantasy, not linked to any of her other work) was to my mind not a winner right out of the gate, and even it is better than most of the stuff out there. The bulk of her work centers upon the Vorkosigan family, particularly the generation that comes after Aral. The stories, most of them novels, are variously space opera, mysteries, or even comedies of manners (sometimes all three); but they're always entertaining, character driven with smart, sensible protagonists, who may occasionally make incredibly stupid decisions but never, ever, ever are Too Stupid To Live.

I understand some people will not cross genre boundaries, which never made a great deal of sense to me, who started with horse and dog stories (Walter Farley, Albert Payson Terhune, Jim Kirkegaard, Marguerite Henry), graduated to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, wandered through various colored faery books, devoured science fiction in high school, eventually discovered mysteries, and finally even found a way to pick out decent romance (with the advent of online reviews), with a smattering of mainstream fiction (not to mention graphic novels) along the way. Even westerns—in the form of Zane Grey—appeared in my reading diet. There's nothing I won't read, provided it's well done.

I have discovered I like stories with dynamic characters, who learn something in the course of the story, and with plots that follow their protagonists’ lead, and yet have some sense of accomplishment—even if it only be Jane Austen's (whom I adore) ivory but two inches wide. The language and setting can be spare or exotically rich as long as it's consistent. Bujold, though occasionally very playful indeed, tends to what she calls a ‘spare’ (and non distracting) style. Both the author and characters have a very nice line in wit, which, while not absolutely necessary, certainly puts most excellent frosting on what is already a highly delectable confection. For all that the books feature soldiers and space battles, the single most important recurring theme—most explicitly explored in Ethan of Athos, about an obstetrician from an all-male planet who must leave his insular world in search of new ovarian tissue cultures to replenish the Athos’ dying reproductive stock, has to do with the ways in which culture and technology drive one's biological (particularly reproductive) choices.

One aspect that does not come up very much in the sfnal world of the Vorkosigans is theology; so when she wrote The Curse of Chalion, she created a fantasy universe, roughly equivalent to late medieval Spain, peopled (divined?) by 5 distinct gods. It's a marvelous construct in several ways; being entirely invented, it completely sidesteps a lot of the problem trying to map historical abrahamic faiths in fantasy; yet by making the gods co-operative (rather than the competitive model, based on ancient myths that are typically found in fantasy) and dependent in certain highly constrained ways upon free will, the stories become not only romances in the best old sense of the world—with brave warriors, romantic love, and sorcery-ridden demons, but again entirely character driven stories involving themes of love and redemption after soul destroying failure, rather than people either playing pawns to squabbling gods (or struggling to outwit same).

So far, she's written three books in this series, one each linked to the three younger gods. With this latest book— she's continued to write fantasy, but is giving gods a rest for awhile. I don't know

Perhaps that is what I truly appreciate about these books. The characters are heroic, the storylines grand adventures, yet everything flows so well, that, after finishing one of these books, you really do believe there are people out there who are that good.