A Civil Campaign is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It follows on after the novel Komarr and before the novella Winterfair Gifts and the novel Diplomatic Immunity. In A Civil Campaign we get to see the lead up to Emperor Gregor’s wedding from the points of view of several characters, who all have their own agendas.
Katharine: Hi, my name’s Katharine, and I think I love Ivan.
Tsana: Didn’t you already? This doesn’t sound like news…
Katharine: Confirmation, Tsana. Confirmation!
Tsana: Well OK. And Ivan had a particularly amusing storyline in this book. From being deputised by his mother to run endless errands for Gregor’s wedding, to being forcibly recruited to help a new count fight for his countship…
Katharine: and then the whole thing with a past romance reappearing on the horizon. But we’ll talk much more about that later. So basically not much time has passed since the end of Komarr, and all characters we know and love are returning (if they ever left Barrayar) for the big event of the century - the royal wedding. This includes Mark and their parents… and with him, Mark brings some bugs.
Tsana: Those bugs were really the stand-out memory I had from my first read of this book. I still just snicker if anyone says “butterbug”, although mainly it’s me saying it and then sniggering to myself.
Katharine: I was about to ask how often it comes up in random conversation. It totally made me think of a more crunchy (and winged) version of a witchetty grub. Have you tried them? (For any international readers, they are a, well, grub, native to Australia and part of that ‘bush tucker’ thing you may hear Aussies talk of sometimes.)
Tsana: I have not. It’s also a bit different because witchetty grubs are for eating but butterbugs aren’t exactly. But I think we’re approaching spoiler territory. Wouldn’t want to ruin any jokes for people that haven’t read the books.
Katharine: This is true. The other important part of where we find our characters is that Miles has employed Ekaterin to landscape a bit of the Vorkosigan property into a public garden, so that they have an excuse to spend time together during her mourning period, now they’re back on Barrayar and the Komarr investigation is over.
Tsana: Which means we get to see a lot of interactions between them. But, much like we saw at the end of Komarr (since this doesn’t start very much later), Ekaterin has no desire to get married. For his part, Miles only really knows how to run military-type operations, which doesn’t translate quite so well to wooing.
Katharine: Though to be fair, I don’t know many people who are good at wooing. And there aren’t many others in the series either. In fact one of the running themes throughout this book are the love lives of several characters - Gregor and Duv’s success (or at least, getting there) and the dramas, shall we call them, for Ivan, Mark and Miles. Basically everyone should be as chill as Aral.
Tsana: Aral had the good fortune to be vomited on by the right woman at the right time — his first marriage (which we actually learn more about in this book) was much less successful. So I don’t know that we can really count him as a good romantic role model.
Katharine: That’s also very true. Drat, despite the good talk about his first marriage I had already basically forgotten all about it. Should we throw up the spoiler shields now?
Tsana: Shields up!
~~~ Spoilers now! All the spoilers! So many spoilers! ~~~
Tsana: Yep. We already knew that Aral’s first wife killed herself — and he had gotten married quite young — but it comes up again in A Civil Campaign when Aral is telling Miles about how everyone assumed he did it and an incident with a duel.
Katharine: Aral admits that he - thanks to the social conditioning Barrayar is famous for - had some pretty spectacular rages that give pretty good supporting evidence to the rumours. His wife had been unfaithful, they had some pretty huge screaming matches over it (or so I interpret from the words ‘grotesque blowup’) and Aral admits that he is at least partially responsible for the words he used in accordance to her committing suicide.
What do you think about the comments of Aral’s father, possibly being involved? Miles himself says ‘that does seem faintly and horribly possible’.
Tsana: Given what we know of Piotr, it definitely seems possible. The man was said to have mellowed in his old age, I think. The same old age when Cordelia had to put a guard on Miles’s uterine replicator, lest his grandfather’s assassin sneak in. Killing a disgraced (for infidelity) daughter in law, or urging her to do it herself, doesn’t seem like a stretch.
Katharine: So very messed up. I did like the advice the adults gave throughout the novel (I say, even though the ‘kids’ are in their 30s now). Cordelia to Mark and then Kareen’s parents, Aral to Miles, Ekaterin’s aunt to her… it was all pretty respectful.
Tsana: I was very amused that Miles at one point teased Mark for not asking Cordelia’s advice when he himself had (at that point) failed to ask for Aral’s advice about the rumours concerning Tien. Silly Miles. Mind you, a lot of what Miles does in this book — in relation to Ekaterin, anyway — can be described as “silly”.
There are two Miles-centric plotlines in this book: the courting of Ekaterin, and political stuff involving the council of the counts. The politics, at least, he handles well. Mind you! The part where he calls his campaigning with and the vote of the Council of the Counts as “democracy” made me laugh.
Katharine: As part of his ‘courting’ without Ekaterin being aware despite the fact Miles was telling absolutely everyone (so embarrassing), he throws a dinner where he invites her aunt and uncle, Ivan (and a friend), Mark and the Koudelka family (the wife used to be Cordelia’s bodyguard, the father used to be Aral’s secretary (and was wounded in the events of Shards of Honor), and the girls are now running around in various parts of the plot - one, Kareen, has been with Mark for the past year on Beta Colony), a weird fellow called Enrique who Mark brought back from Beta, annnd… who else was in attendance?
Anyway, the dinner was a disaster, and filled me with such a feeling of (I researched this, knowing either Japanese or German would come through for me) - fremdschämen - that I couldn’t bring myself to read on for a day or so. It helped that you assured me that there were no further gaffes and I was safe.
Tsana: See, the first time I read this book, the dinner left me in stitches and I remembered it as the hysterical highlight of the whole novel. Perhaps I overhyped it in my mind because when it came to the reread it just left me feeling a little bit sad. Sad for Miles and Simon and Ekaterin. Mind you, that’s only about the social awkwardness and was possibly a function of my mood while I was reading. The butterbug thing was still pretty funny. Armsman Pym’s horror at the little Vorkosigan-uniformed bugs remained unchanged.
Katharine: Pym’s sass is one of the more excellent parts of a pretty dang good book. I worry however, that Miles considers his reactions highly based on Ekaterin - he may seem to be annoyed or ready to snap, but he’ll sneak a glance and act instead in a way that he hopes Ekaterin will be more receptive to, knowing that her past includes a husband who was given to a temper. He ‘swallows his gibbering opinion of various things, blinds, takes a deep breath, and smiles’... This kind of makes it seem as though he’s a bit… I’m not sure; at times it didn’t sit entirely well.
I did really appreciate that he did care hugely for not upsetting Simon during this scene which I thought was very kind.
Tsana: But I don’t see that trying not to shout etc can really be a negative thing? As you say, he’s trying to not seem like her crappy, abusive husband, which I think counts more as Miles trying to be a better person than Miles trying to be manipulative. On the other hand, he knows that secretly courting Ekaterin (where it’s a secret only to her) is wrong, he just gets carried away with his schemes, as per usual. I think that part’s a bit more manipulative than doing his best not to shout in her presence is.
Katharine: I hope so. At times it just felt he still is a bit snarky but doesn’t want to seem as much of a jerk like Tien was - because he truly isn’t. Aral at least walks him through just what he’s done by secretly courting Ekaterin, using Miles’ own life experiences to highlight key points. And I have to admit, the letter he then writes Ekaterin was pretty dang perfect.
Tsana: And luckily she thinks so too. And when rumours about Miles having killed Tien so that he could have a chance with Ekaterin start circulating around the capital, Miles deals with the impact on Ekaterin’s son Nikki well. Also amusingly since we, the readers, knew who Miles’s “friend who lost his father at a young age” was and Ekaterin didn’t have a clue that it was Gregor.
Katharine: That scene was so excellent. How did Gregor turn out so damn well?
Tsana: Cordelia, mainly. And Aral.
Katharine: Can we talk about Count Dono?
Tsana: Yes! Count Dono and Ivan’s storyline was possibly the most thought-provoking in the whole book, for all that we’ve been focussing on Mile so far. Do you want to give the background?
Katharine: So a while ago, Ivan being Ivan, had relations with an older woman, who would be about 40 by the time this book takes place - so ten-ish years older than them all? He’s still a bit smitten with the idea of her, and is looking forward to her return for the wedding.
However, (taken from the wikia) due to various plot points… such as:
‘Count Pierre died of a heart attack at age 50, a common Vorrutyer trait. Unfortunately, Pierre left no heir of his body, and chose no heir before he died. This meant that the District would go to his cousin Richars Vorrutyer. Richars was disliked by most, including Pierre, but loathed by Lady Donna, as Richars had attempted to rape her when she was twelve, and after she fought him off, drowned her puppy as retaliation.’
And of course, not many other families are a fan of his either.
And so, taking matters into her own hands, Lady Donna (as he was then known), takes a trip to Beta Colony, undergoes sex reassignment surgery, and returns to Barrayar as Lord Dono. This allows him to go into the running to be found the heir/Count Vorrutyer which is to be decided by a vote of the Barrayaran Counts.
Now. The first question is, of course, just how problematic this is. After all, Dono doesn’t do this initially for any other reason than to inherit, however… he also swears he’s not going to reverse the treatment afterwards, whether successful at the vote, or not.
Tsana: Well it’s certainly not really trans representation, but I’m not sure that automatically makes it problematic. When talking about his experiences as Lady Donna, we do get the strong impression that life was pretty crappy, as it is or can be for a lot of Vor ladies. It’s a strongly patriarchal society and, as an unsurprising consequence, being a woman can be a case of drawing the very short straw in life, even for a noblewoman. I think trading away your genitals and oppression for the other set, which come with a lot more power, is an understandably tempting option. I see it more like the women who dressed as men to go into the army or do other man-only things than necessarily an example of the trans experience.
Katharine: It would probably be interesting to get some perspective from a/some sensitivity reader/s as I’m not sure if it has anything too triggery… though it is from 1999, which, well - was it doing more for its time, back then? I’m entirely clueless on the subject, which is why I worry.
Aside from all that, Dono is an excellent character - intelligent, witty, and doesn’t only want to inherit for the money, but wants to for the people. Cousin By, by contrast, is slightly confusing.
Should we discuss Count Vormuir, and his horde of daughters?
Tsana: That was an amusing minor side note. An enterprising count decides to solve the problem of population drain in his district by buying a lot of uterine replicators and making himself a lot of daughters. Gregor certainly doesn’t want to encourage that sort of thing, but since it involves new, unforeseen technology, it’s not technically illegal. He assigns the problem to Miles to solve.
Katharine: And with five men for every four women you can almost see where some people would be pleased with his actions. As we are, when Miles points out that he’ll be expected to foot the bill for each and every one of their dowries.
Which I kind of thought would be a given, but anyway…
Tsana: I think it was more that they set the dowries at a particular price. And, having just reread that section, the dowry thing applies particularly because the girls count as Count Vormuir’s acknowledged bastards. An important distinction that Ekaterin pointed out.
Katharine: What was he hoping to achieve in that act, anyway?
Tsana: Vormuir? He wanted to reverse the population drain in his district. I suppose he figured that if they were his daughters they weren’t able to legally leave, like normal liege people can. And possibly they’d lure future husbands into the district? I don’t think we get more details than that?
Katharine: Certainly interesting. Finally, Ivan - and the fact his job and rank in the service may not entirely be what it first appeared…
Tsana: Er…? You’re not thinking of Byerly, are you?
Katharine: Well it turns out that he’s secretly working for Ivan’s mother. I thought it was revealed that Ivan, too, was doing a little shadow work?
Tsana: No? I mean, Ivan is officially seconded to his mother for the wedding preparations, but Byerly was freelancing to help Lord Dono. What Miles works out is that Byerly is actually a spy rather than just a socialite layabout. I’m not sure what you’re referring to (other than Ivan getting horribly caught up in Dono’s matters, largely thanks to By).
Katharine: Drat. I totally misread several jabs then (about how Ivan knows things, or something. Ah, well. By was certainly an interesting character though I’d personally stay as far away as possible from his type. As ever, Ivan’s mother and Simon are excellent people.
Tsana: The only sneakiness Ivan is guilty of is trying not to look like a target for people wanting to overthrow Gregor. And, now, desperately trying to find a wife, since all his childhood friends are getting married. In this book his mother Alyss and her new partner Simon mostly stay at the edges of the story, since there are so many other people taking centre stage. We’ve barely talked about Mark, Kareen and the butterbugs, for example.
Katharine: Mark bugs me. GET IT? Aha, I’ll show myself out.
Tsana: *shakes head in pun disappointment*
Katharine: So Mark and Kareen have been away on Beta Colony as Mark seeks treatment for his many issues under the support and guidance of Cordelia’s mother, and Kareen attends university. This is where they meet Enrique who has broken some law somehow, and Mark has been making profits left, right, and centre.
Upon their return to Barrayar they’re stifled under the relentless social pressures. Kareen is banned from seeing Mark, despite the fact their latest business venture involves the production of Enrique’s bugs to mass production as they’re easy to breed and make a good food source… as long as you don’t have to look at them.
Tsana: Yes, Kareen’s contribution to their romantic relationship in this book is to have an identity crisis since she can’t reconcile the life she lead on Beta Colony with the socially conservative Barrayar. But at least their work with Enrique’s butterbugs are a distraction from those problems. Until her parents ban her from seeing Mark altogether. I was amused how one of her sisters ended up stepping in for her and helping with the admin. And, after the Vorkosigan bug incident, the group get Ekatarin to design them a pleasing bug that wouldn’t freak out/disgust people.
As for why the bugs are disgusting, other than just by virtue of being bugs? They process plant matter and extrude an edible and highly nutritious paste. People don’t like the idea of eating bug vomit, for some reason.
Katharine: Now it reminds me of that milk creature from The Last Jedi…
Tsana: Yeah… At least the bugbutter isn’t green unless you intentionally dye it?
Katharine: And thanks to Ekatarin’s eye for design, they do manage to come up with some pretty spectacular designs. And she also suggests they make it into ice-cream, which is a hit at the royal wedding (as a cost-saving measure, Gregor asks the houses of the district to supply the catering in the style of a merry fair. It’s a huge success.)
Tsana: I think the most impressive part of the Vorkosigan wedding stall is that they combine bugbutter and the Maple Mead made in Vorkosigan district, which is apparently horrible. To quote:
Ivan swallowed, and paused. "Maple mead? The most disgusting, gut-destroying, guerilla attack-beverage ever brewed by man?”
Mixed together, with some of Ma Kosti’s magic, the maple ambrosia is very popular at the wedding.
I also like the promised idea of making bugs that can process the native Barrayaran vegetation to help with terraforming the planet. I’m not sure that we end up hearing more about that, but I completely understand Miles’s enthusiasm for the idea.
Katharine: And now I want to go keep reading. Are we done?
Tsana: I think we are!
Next up is the novella “Winterfair Gifts”. Join us in a few weeks for our discussion of that story!
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