Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold


Is it my fault because it was my first foray into the Vorkosigan series? Maybe I should have read a few of the earlier novels to get a taste of McMaster Bujold’s world. I weighed that option considerably, and chose to go ahead with this book for two reasons. First, I was in a hurry. Hugo voting takes place next month, which is a deadline I set for myself to have read all the nominees for best novel. Two, I wanted to see what it was like to jump in the middle of a series. It was an experiment.

But the book wasn’t that great, and I don’t think it had anything to do with my jumping in the middle.


Ivan Vorpatril, the least bright of the Vor clan, works a safe and simple bureaucratic job on the planet of Komarr. That is, until is sketchy buddy Byerly gets him wrapped up in the affairs of two exotic, and attractive, illegal aliens. Could this be Ivan’s chance to finally live up to his family’s legacy, and possibly find love?

Things I liked:
1.  The protagonists are likable enough. Unambitious heroes are kind of appealing, although they can get boring if they are not surrounded by enough struggle, which is the failure of this novel. The lead character, Ivan Vorkosigan, is the “idiot” of the Vorpatril series, and this is the first novel that centers on his life. At first, he kind of reminded me of Jez from Peep Show, which helped me to like him more. His romance with Tej is cute, but could have been more compelling if the author had taken more risks with her characters.
2. I got enough of a taste of the Vorkosigan world that I might want to try another book one day. The promising reviews of other novels in this series make me think I just ran into a dud. Some of the outlying characters in this story happen to be main characters in other stories, and their personalities promise more depth. This particular novel hints at enough of their struggles to interest me.

Things I didn’t like:
1. The novel is full of lazy writing. Bujold completely ignores that old writing adage, “Show me, don’t tell me”? Every bit of planning, deceit, and intrigue is revealed in dialogue. Long, boring dialogue. It includes lots of scenes of people sitting in living rooms, or dining rooms, or studies, and talking about things that are going on. Only Dostoevsky can get away with that. Hardly any revelations occur through action and surprise. I can’t believe this book is nominated for awards.
2. The plot is clumsy and contrived. The entire plot for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is contrived. Nothing about this book feels organic. It is as if the author started with the ending (which I think she probably did, because it appears she is now just inserting new books into the middle of her acclaimed series), and plotted things backwards to justify the ending.
3.  The stakes are never high enough to matter. Why is the big heist such a secret if nobody cares in the end. Besides, there is an unsaid understanding that anyone who knows anything is going to tell everyone else. Any scheme bungle is greeted with a fist shaking and a “Why you… grumble, grumble, grumble,” but nothing more. There is no convincing danger for any of the characters.

Perhaps Ms. McMaster Bujold’s techniques are another way to develop the unambitious natures of her two protagonists. I can give her that, but it’s a little too meta if that’s her excuse for the forced and artificial plot that makes up Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. I’m not done with the Vorkosigan world just yet, though. All of those 4-star reviews make me think this book is the product of a strong series, so I’ll be trying one of the earlier, Hugo-winning novels in the near future.

8 thoughts on “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. […] & Leiber. I’m on the tail end of Asimov’s Foundation series right now. February: I promised to give McMaster-Bujold a second chance, so I’ll devote this month to filling in some of those gaps. Spring: I expect to finish up […]


  2. […] think it’s the top runner for the Hugo out of the three I’ve read so far. Next up, is Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (The Vorkosigan Saga) by another Hugo veteran, Lois McMaster […]


  3. I read her for the first time a few years ago and started at the beginning with the two novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, that feature Miles Vorkosigan’s mother. I enjoyed them both, they were fairly heavy on the romance and I found it interesting to read. I also found the main character, Cordelia Naismith, an interesting one because she was written as someone who was a “strong female” (I’m getting to hate that description) but one who was unabashedly romantic. I don’t often find authors who can write a female character who isn’t entirely sitting around waiting for some man to rescue them but can also be very strongly desirous of a somewhat traditional romantic partnership with a man. I found it refreshing. I also really liked her prequel novel, set 200 years before this series, Falling Free.

    But mid-year I read a couple more of her books and found them to be annoying, largely because I felt like she was channeling some of the spirit of Heinlein’s later books in her need to have a strong emphasis on a wide-variety of sexual practices of the characters. Instead of having these characters exist to be forward thinking socially, I felt like she just had them in there just to be titillating. I’m sure its just my personal nit-pick, and her many fans would tear me apart for it, but at this point I think I’m probably done with my foray into the Vorkosigan universe.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’m with you on the “strong female character” cliche. I have read a few more Bujolds since this review and although I am not yet done with the Vorkosigan universe, I think it’s unlikely Bujold will ever be a favorite author of mine. I’m pretty sure this review and my other Bujold reviews have lost me a few readers.

      I’m just not really into space opera for the sake of space opera. I usually want to read fiction that does something more than just move characters from one conflict to another.

      This is yet another review that is in gross need of a rewrite… my goal for 2015 is to address these early, superficial reviews (back when I had no idea what I was doing 🙂


      • We all evolve as we do these…or at least some of us do, lol. I’m not sure I’ve grown much in my reviewing over the last several years. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m somewhat settled with my voice. Of course, I don’t consider what I do a review so much anyway. I’ve tried over the years to concentrate on sharing my “experience” with a book more than a true review. I enjoy reading reviews, especially from folks who seem to grasp what a true review should do, without spoiling the experience like some of the professionals do, but I rarely have that focus on mine.

        My own personal opinion, these earlier ones don’t need a rewrite unless you feel you have something that is important to you personally to share about the book that you didn’t do the first time around. There are too many books out there to read and write reviews on, right? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. psikeyhackr says:

    I started reading the Bujold series back in the 80s. The Ivan character has been the but of derision for much of the series. But actually the character never seemed to be written as dumb a Bujold’s dialog from other characters portray him.

    So I do not doubt that I like the book more than it deserves from a purely literary analysis. Also the sinking of Cockroach Central is a much more funny event in the light of its history through the series.

    What is ignored by so called “science” fiction fans is the SCIENCE. The science issue in this book is untested biological technology being used in the field for the first time. It is made quite funny in this story but compare it to thalidomide babies and think about how funny it is.

    Reviewers of Bujold’s works do the same thing with the story Komarr which can easily be compared to Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. A major reason to encourage the reading of science fiction is THE SCIENCE.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ugh, I hate this review. It was one of my first ones. QUIT READING THE OLD REVIEWS.

      I’ve read a few more Bujolds since then. This series feels like kid lit to me. I always feel like I’m too old to be reading it, but if I had kids, I would encourage them to read her books.

      Isn’t “Cold Equations” the story that everyone makes fun of because the problems are so arbitrary? I’ve never read it, but I keep seeing it referenced in places like it’s some kind of a joke– Coode Street Podcast most recently, I think.

      I prefer SF because it’s a prime outlet for really cool, interesting ideas, science and beyond. Didacticism in any form is a cruelty not to be inflicted on any reader… I think that’s in the Geneva Convention somewhere. (I’m looking at you, Clement.)

      Not that I think Bujold is didactic; I’ve just outgrown this kind of connect-the-dots, move-the-characters-around type of fiction. I could read a few paragraphs of summary and get the same mental outcome.


  5. […] mainstream genre, where the characters do the explaining to each other, a la Larry Niven or Lois McMaster Bujold, or sometimes, PKD. But when Niven and Bujold do it, it’s because they seriously couldn’t think […]


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