A Civil Campaign
by Lois McMaster Bujold
I love some of Bujold's fantasy. Many of her SF novels (including this one) are dedicated to the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, and I've become disenchanted with them. In the afterword to Cordelia's Honor Bujold wrote (I've quoted this in another review, but I think it's important in context ...): "... accidentally discovering my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask 'So what's the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?' And then do it." Every Miles novel and story I've read has been like that: he suffers horribly throughout the book and at the end wins through. Importantly, he never, ever gets a break in the context of the book - no rest, no happiness, just pain. And that gets very old. But I decided to read this novel (glad I did) because it's an anomaly: Miles is back home on Barrayar, and hoping to win himself a wife. There are several political incidents, and a couple other romantic sub-plots. No battles, no deaths: Bujold was writing this in the style of a historical romance, and dedicated the book to "Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy." Miles has a rough time wooing the lady, but it's largely his fault and it's damn funny.
Bujold makes no mystery of the romance: we know who is meant for who from the moment they step onto the page. But she keeps things entertaining with political sub-plots and Miles's clone brother Mark's attempts to build a new business venture (which is both physically unattractive and makes a hell of a mess of their house). As usual, Bujold's plotting is lovely. It all made sense, but (with the already-mentioned exception of the romances) I never guessed where things were headed. It was a hugely entertaining read with a lot of comedy, and several moments where I was laughing so hard I had to put the book down. I treasure moments like that: they're rare, and the fact that she managed it several times in one book is an achievement.
As an example of the twists and comedy (although this will take some scene-setting to make sense ...): Mark is very much in love with Kareen, but Kareen's parents are old-school Barryaran and don't approve of Mark's origins or mental health issues. Mark and Miles's mother Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is famous/notorious for being able to solve political issues (and their sub-genre, romantic issues). She decides to champion Mark's cause and invites Kareen, Mark, and Kareen's parents for a visit. When Kareen enters the room, she sees a slightly shabby couch she recognizes from the attic where she used to play hide-and-seek with Miles years ago. This couch is somewhat out of place in Cordelia's well-kept house - and she insists that Kareen's parents sit on it. One of them mumbles "that's not fighting fair," and they sit rather reluctantly. From this, Kareen deduces that when her parents were young, in love, and considered "not suited for each other," they were caught fooling around on this couch. Despite the unsuitability of the match, they married and managed to build a happy and loving family. Nobody states any of this explicitly, we have only Kareen's speculation to go on - but it seems pretty clear that she's right. It's a clever move and screamingly funny in context, and Bujold pulls off several more of these wonderfully unexpected and funny moments throughout the book.