Top critical review
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Science fiction "lite" but a ripping adventure yarn
on November 19, 2005
Lois McMaster Bujold obviously has a great deal of respect and admiration in the science fiction community. She has won an unprecedented number of major awards (Hugos and Nebulas) for best novel, this book being one of the recipients of a Hugo. That this book is part of a series makes it all the sweeter for the publishers and readers alike. Other reviews have summarised the series order - certainly they are correct that if you haven't read "Warrior's Apprentice," you will find you are missing a significant chunk of the backstory. However, I have not read the previous novel and had no trouble following the storyline - one of the triumphs of Bujold is to make this story accessible to first-timers as well as satisfying (according to the other reviews) to series regulars.
The story focusses on Lord Miles of the ruling house of a small empire. As is historically the case for such family members, he seeks a commission in the military as a career. Unfortunately, as he is unused to following orders, he runs afoul of his first commanding officer. This starts a long and exciting adventure that takes Miles through three systems, suffering imprisonment, near execution, and other sundry dangers. Along the way, he uncovers a plot to.... well, that would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that it is of galactic importance and no one but Miles (along with his trusty sidekick, who happens to be the Emporer Himself) can save the day.
The book has humour, great action, and a suitably galactic scale. If some of the villians are 2-dimensional scenery-chewers, most of the main characters are well-developed and interesting. Bujold effortlessly conveys the historical, military, and social details of her universe organically, without needing recourse to dry exposition. It's easy to see why writers would admire her work - it's clean, clear, and easy to read.
However, from a science fiction perspective, I would have to term these works as science fiction lite. There just isn't the depth and interest of Herbert's Dune worlds or Brin's Earthclan (Uplift) worlds, for example. It's closer in feel to Star Trek or Star Wars - the fact that the adventure takes place in space is almost incidental, and pays only passing attention to the limitations of space-time. It's almost "retro," recapturing the fun and loosy-goosy scientific attitude of the original series Treks, or of Heinlein's breezier works (e.g. Glory Road or The Door Into Summer). This makes it, to me, curious indeed that the series has won three major awards (so far) from people that make science fiction writing their professional specialty. Perhaps with all the heavier, scientifically accurate fiction out there, they are happy to find such a fun book that would be readable by anyone of any age.
Oddly, for an award winner and because it is so readable, there are few people who have actually read these books. The number of reviews on this website, and the difficulty in finding these books (I have never seen one on a bookstore shelf), clearly points to a failure of the publisher to correctly market the book. Just look at the cover - it looks like a kid's book, suitable for a 12-year-old! It's a good thing we have Amazon to keep us supplied.