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Saturday Shorts: “The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold

In addition to loving books – and you know I do – I also love me a good short story. Short stories, especially in science fiction and fantasy, seem to be where some of the most innovative, interesting stuff comes from. They’re also a great way to find out about new and upcoming authors, or to try out an author you’re not familiar with to see if you want to invest your time in their novels. Lucky for me, and for you, there are huge numbers of really excellent short stories being published for free online, and I’ve decided to run a weekly feature, Saturday Shorts, highlighting some of the short fiction I’ve found.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster BujoldFor my first Saturday Short, I’ll be highlighting Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Mountains of Mourning,” available from the Baen Free Library. I had a sudden desire to read some Miles last week, and since I had too many other books going to start a reread of the whole series, I turned to this novella.

If you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and would like to see what all the fuss is about (books in the series have won four Hugo awards), “The Mountains of Mourning” is a great place to start. Although the content of the plot is not very much like the rest of the series, in many ways this story represents the emotional core of the books.

Ensign Miles Vorkosigan has just graduated – improbably – from the Imperial Military Academy. Born with severe physical deformities in a world so scarred by nuclear attack that physical perfection is idolized and “mutie” is the worst insult that can be thrown at someone, young Miles was nonetheless determined to carry on his family’s tradition of military service to the empire, and prove to his judgmental (and deceased) grandfather that he could take his place as one of the Vor military caste. (Not to mention he has to stand up somehow to his father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most powerful and respected men on the planet.)

Miles is taking his home leave with his parents at their country estate before heading back to the city for his first assignment when a woman comes down from the impoverished hill country, demanding her legal right to present her case before the Count. Her husband has murdered her baby girl, she says, because the baby was a mutie. No one in her village will listen to her, but she has a right to take her grievance before her Count. She wants justice for little Raina. Count Vorkosigan agrees – and he sends Miles to be his representative, to determine what happened to baby Raina, and to mete out justice as necessary.

This is a story about justice and family, about tradition and modernity, about truth and perception. Mostly, it’s a story about responsibility, bearing it and choosing it and refusing to ignore it. Miles is a wonderful character, and more than that, a wonderful person, and this is a great way to get to know him.

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30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Four

Day 24 – Best quote from a novel
Aral Vorkosigan’s advice to Miles in A Civil Campaign. It’s a whole scene, not just a quote, but I think I can extract the essence of it with judicious ellipses.

“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. … There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That’s soul-destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating.”

Miles stared away for a minute into the middle distance. “So what you’re telling me boils down to the same thing Galeni said. I have to stand here and eat this, and smile.”

“No,” said his father, “you don’t have to smile. But if you’re really asking for advice from my accumulated experience, I’m saying, Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.”

There’s a lot to be said for that kind of attitude. For one thing, it allows you to tell the difference between embarrassment or shame that really matters and the kind that’s just uncomfortable. And it does so while acknowledging that the uncomfortable parts are not good — they’re just less not good than the other kind. I would like to be as wise as Aral Vorkosigan some day. Then again, I would hate to go through everything he did in order to get there…

(The joy of ebooks: I was able to search, copy & paste that in less than two minutes. Okay, they do have their benefits. But I’m buying the hardcovers, anyway.)

Borders of Infinity, Miles Errant, Memory, No Plot? No Problem!, The Leper of Saint Giles, Miles in Love

At last, the final list of books from 2010. And a happy new year to you all! May 2011 be an improvement in all ways.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Borders of Infinity
Three novellas in the Vorkosiverse, “Labyrinth,” “The Mountains of Mourning,” (both of which I read in their earlier omnibus volumes) and the titular “Borders of Infinity,” in which Miles really does start out with not so much as the clothes on his back and end up performing the most dramatic prison break in history. All with the frame story I always love, the “you’re running drastically over budget, what the hell” complaint. What, someone has to foot the bill for all these shenanigans.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant
MARK! Er, I may be very fond of the new character introduced in this set, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (with “Borders of Infinity” again). Basically, a crazy Komarran terrorist made a clone of Miles to use to assassinate his father. But remember, Miles is somewhat physically deformed due to a prenatal assassination attempt, so in order to make them interchangeable, Mark had to undergo a whole lot of fairly unnecessary surgery. While being lectured on all of Miles’s amazing achievements. Talk about sibling rivalry. Mirror Dance is basically the book in which Mark becomes a human being, and I love it deeply, as strange and traumatizing as it is. I may have read most of it at work simply because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for eight hours at a time. *shifty eyes*

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
Now this is a work of staggering genius. I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious — or maybe I’m just more paranoid than Miles — but I adored the character development in this book. It’s Simon Illyan’s book, really; he’s been lurking in the background since the beginning of the series, but here he becomes a person. A fragile, failing person in a lot of pain. The general consensus online is that the most tragic line in the book is, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” And I might have to agree.

Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
And then in the middle of all this I read the NaNoWriMo book. Yes, in December. It was checked out of the library all through November. I actually came out of this liking the whole concept of NaNoWriMo much more than I did by the end of November, when I’d barely scratched 35,000 words and had completely lost the thread of my novel. The book is very big on finishing something by the end of the month, where I had just set my goal as having the word count. I think next time I’ll shoot for actually finishing the story in a month, even if that means having to write whole chapters in two-sentence paragraphs. (After all, the original point of NaNo is to become a Novelist, so you can go to swanky parties and impress people by talking about your manuscript.)

Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles
It took me forever to get through this Cadfael, what with all the Miles books I also had to get through. This is one of the ones, too, where I’d seen the adaptation, which was very true to the book, so there were no real surprises. I enjoyed it, even though it was a little boring what with knowing everything that was going to happen. More Cadfael on request from the library as we speak.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love
Komarr and A Civil Campaign. I actually liked Komarr much better, possibly because I really like Ekaterin and enjoyed spending all that time in her PoV. One of the things that actually got me to read this series was the commenters at Making Light talking about how awful and awkward the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign is to read, so I was expecting it to be horrible, but I found I actually enjoyed it. I usually don’t like embarrassment comedy, but I apparently have an exception for when the person being embarrassed really, really deserves it. And hey, at least Miles learns from his mistakes. Eventually.

Cordelia’s Honor, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Young Miles, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor
This is actually two books as an omnibus, those being Shards of Honor and Barrayar. (I am reading in chronological order, yes.) Really, though, they don’t seem like separate books at all, and according to the afterward, they almost weren’t. I love Cordelia; she’s a wonderful character, strong in her own right without being military, willing to go to unbelievable lengths for things she really cares about (like the life of her unborn son), and completely divorced from the politics of the society in which she finds herself living. Also, I grew so attached to Kou in his brief appearance in Shards that I absolutely cheered out loud when he showed up again in Barrayar.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin J. O’Neal
Yes, I bought this when it came out and it took me this long to finish it. I got bogged down in the beat poetry section (which was pretty terrible, and I say this as someone who actually enjoyed large portions of On the Road). You know, sometimes Alan Moore is brilliant, and sometimes he’s insane, and I suspect that this book is just exactly the wrong combination of the two. It feels like it’s trying to be much more important than it is. And it’s much less fun than the first two.

Anyway, back to Miles —

Lois McMaster Bujold, Young Miles
Being an omnibus of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the short story “Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game. This is where we’re introduced to the main character of the series, Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan’s son Miles. (Elli Quinn says to Ethan in a later book, “Look for a big pile of trouble with a squiggly-minded little man on top.” That’s a remarkably good description of Miles.) Warrior’s Apprentice is, of course, named after the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it shows. It’s an insane amount of fun, one accident piling on top of another one, until Miles has accidentally acquired a mercenary navy. And then, in Vor, he acquires them all over again. And in the middle, in “Mountains of Mourning,” he’s back at home on his family’s land, working out the small (and yet simultaneously not-so-small) problems of a small hill village. I recommend the omnibus for this order as much as anything; it carries a wonderful impact.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem
Being a compendium of Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, and the short story “Labyrinth” (which I’m actually still reading as part of Borders of Infinity, shh). I adored Cetaganda for the old-fashioned sci-fi worldbuilding and the amazing political structure where women seem to have no power and yet also manage to control the empire, and also for Ivan. I’m becoming very fond of poor Ivan Vorpatril, prettier than Miles bot not as brilliant, and he knows it. Ethan is also spectacular for the worldbuilding, and I think the plot is stronger too, and boy is that laying some interesting ground for what’s going to happen in this universe in forty or fifty years. Athos is a planet without women — it’s clearly been founded on misogynistic principles, but it’s hard to call any of the men who live there misogynistic, because they have absolutely no experience with women whatsoever. I found it interesting that while the planet was founded in order to help men escape from the evils of women, in the wider universe it’s known (if it’s known at all) as Planet of the Gay, and Ethan gets beaten up over it.

One of the things I like about the Vorkosigan saga all together is it’s clearly very interested in the power and position of women in a society. There are no women at all on Athos, but there are donated ovarian cultures; on in the Cetagandan empire the highest-class women travel in opaque bubbles so they can never be seen, and are genetically engineered (by their own hands) for supreme beauty. On Barrayar women have very little power, but on Beta Colony they’re quite egalitarian (and Betan Cordelia is astounded when the Barrayan Emperor entrusts her with the education of his grandson and simultaneously tells her she’ll have no power; clearly she cannot believe that educating the future Emperor is a powerless position). Women serve in the Dendarii Mercenaries the same as men do (as well as one hermaphrodite). Miles has a tendency to want to be the Hero, rescuing the Damsel in Distress, but he’s very good at acknowledging when the Damsel no longer needs to be rescued. It’s not something I’m used to in science fiction, and I love it deeply.

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