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Book Review (and a half): The Mountains of Mourning & The Vor Game

Title: “The Mountains of Mourning” and The Vor Game

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold

Genre: Science Fiction

Stand Alone or Series: Second and third installments to the Miles Vorkosigan saga

Summary: (from amazon.com)


Twenty year old Ensign Miles Vorkosigan plays detective in a murder case, and tests the balance of power as a member of the Barrayaran nobility. [Publisher’s Note: The Mountains of Mourning was originally published as a stand-alone novella in the May 1989 issue of Analog. It was then included as the first of three novellas that make up the novel Borders of Infinity (October 1989). For the novel, Ms. Bujold added a short “framing story” that tied the three novellas together by setting up each one as a flashback that Miles experiences while recovering from bone-replacement surgery.]


The Prince and the Mercenary. Together, they can get into a lot of trouble. Trouble only the combined forces of the Free Dendarii Mercenaries can get them out of. At least, that’s what they’re hoping for….

In this latest adventure with the galaxy’s craftiest mercenary leader, Miles starts out by so shaking up the High Command on his home planet of Barrayar that he is sent to the other side of the galaxy–where who should he run into but his old pals the Free Dendarii Mercenaries. And a good thing too, because it turns out that Miles’ childhood chum, that’s Emperor Gregor to you, has been the victim of foul play, and only Miles–with a little Dendarii muscle–can save him. This is very important to Miles; because if Gregor dies, the only person who could become the new emperor is Miles himself–and that he regards as a fate worse than death.



A novella, previous published in Analog magazine, “The Mountains of Mourning” fits in the Miles Vorkosigan chronology after his stint as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries in Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles, freshly graduated from the Service Academy, has proven himself as worthy of a spot in the Barrayar service, and uphold the Vor title. Back with his mother and father at Vorkosigan Surleau (their country estate), Miles stumbles upon a persistent, distraught woman at the estate gates. The woman refuses to move until she has been heard by Count Vorkosigan, as is her right as the daughter of a serviceman. Miles, more so out of the amusing prospect it would be to send her up to interrupt his father’s breakfast rather than out of pity, orders that she be heard. As is her right, after all.

Miles’ little joke, however, backfires when his father summons him to join the breakfast conversation. Count Vorkosigan asks the hill woman if sending his son, Lord Miles Vorkosigan, as his Voice to her village of Silvy Vale will be sufficient for her. Readily, with a fierce look upon her tired face, Harra accepts. Miles is mystified.

Harra explains her case–it is an infanticide. Harra’s daughter was born with a harelip, or as the villagers call it, the ‘cats mouth’. Harra knew that there was help to be got for her little one, a seven days walk away to the nearest hospital, but after picking berries one afternoon, she returned home to find her baby lying dead in her crib. The Vor know that infanticide in back country areas, with local magistrates and close family ties, is still prevalent. Finally, with a case reported, Aral is ready to take a stand–and who better to send than his own son, whom the prejudiced Barrayans snidely refer to as a mutant (for the record, Miles is NOT a mutant, his deformity is to his skeletal structure as a result of a poison gas attack on his mother when she was pregnant; thus Miles’ DNA is perfectly fine and the “mutant” buck stops with him). Thus, Miles sets off for Silvy Vale, to discover the truth of Harra’s daughter, and to see that justice is served.

This novella is short, and the murder mystery is simple–but that’s not the point. The moral message of this story, the importance of the subject to Miles is poignant, and expressed wonderfully with his characteristic wit and insight.

This is a wonderful segue into the next full novel…


Finished with the Academy, graduation parties behind him, and having dealt with the serious situation at Silvy Vale, Miles waits anxiously for his first assignment. With his sights set on ship duty (like his father before him, and his grandfather, and so on), Miles is completely taken aback when he is assigned to meteorological expert on Kyril Island. At Camp Permafrost, as affectionately referred to by the grubs. It also happens to be base camp for the Infantry–and given Miles’ brittle, slight physique, something seems wrong with this assignment. When Miles asks for answers, he is told that while he is exceptionally bright, and displays wonderful leadership tactics with other bright men, he has a slight subordination problem. In short, he argues too much. His assignment to Kyril Island is meant to be difficult, for Miles to work on his argumentative nature, and also to show that as a “mutant”, Miles can serve in the Infantry (even if it is a specifically technical position as Meteorology Officer).

Of course, Miles being Miles, his stint at Camp Permafrost stirs up an obscene amount of trouble–after a bad start to a relationship with General Stanis Metzov, Base Commander, Miles finds himself in a character defining situation: to sit back and allow the unacceptable to happen, or to put himself on the chopping block. Miles being Miles, he chooses the latter, and ends up being arrested, sent home, and charged with mutinous activities. But nothing keeps a good Vor down–and when the opportunity presents itself for Miles to play his old role as Dendarii Mercenary leader, Admiral Naismith, Miles can hardly refuse.

Meanwhile, Barrayan Emperor Gregor Vorbarra (one of Miles’ old playmates), depressed with his role in life (and drunk, it should be noted), runs away from home to try and strike it out on his own. When Miles chances upon Gregor in a holding cell (before Miles himself is once again sent home to Barrayar in disrepute), Miles makes a drastic change in his plans. His new priority: get the Emperor home.

Things are never quite that simple though, as Gregor is snatched up by a beautiful and deranged woman mercenary commander (who has a genius nefarious scheme to turn planets against each other in her own selfish plots). All in all, just another day in the life of Young Miles Vorkosigan.

I don’t even know where to begin with The Vor Game! I immensely enjoyed Warrior’s Apprentice, which introduces readers to Miles Vorkosigan, but The Vor Game manages to raise the already impossibly high stakes of the first novel–and top it all off with excellent characterizations, and most especially, a beautifully dizzying plot. You want action? Space intrigue? Political subtlety and maneuvering? Incredible wit and laugh out loud humor? Self discovery and pathos? The Vor Game has it all.

I loved that this novel gave me more of a feel for the Emperor Gregor–another young man, just like Miles, but tragically disillusioned, in comparison to Miles’ fanatical need to prove himself. Also, with the return of the Dendarii Mercenaries, we catch up with older characters–Elena, Captain Tung, the annoying Oser, etc. Different than Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game broadens its scope in terms of setting–from the palatial estates on Barrayar, to the frigid dullness of Kyril, Betan cities, Dendarii spaceships, and full scale intergalactic war. The Vor Game is a non-stop adventure–I DARE you to start this book and try to put it down mid story. I certainly couldn’t (I lost some precious sleep time because of Miles here–I suspect this is the beginning of a serious pattern)!

Notable Quotes/Parts: Oh so many wonderful Miles-isms! Here’s a collection of a few favorites:

Miles could see the balcony, drenched in late-afternoon sunlight the color of warm honey. The Vorbarr Sultana skyline rose like a fairy-tale city, swimming in the summer haze beyond. Scarlet flowers swarmed over the railing, so red in the level light they almost hurt his eyes. Miles felt like drooling into his shirt pocket, or bursting into tears. “Nice flowers,” he choked.

“Yeah, m’girlfriend brought ’em.”

“Girlfriend?” Ah yes, human beings had come in two sexes, once upon a time. One smelled much better than the other. Much.

Even more happily, Miles was completely displaced as the most famous idiot on the island (an unwelcome notoriety earned by the scat-cat sinking) by a group of grubs who managed one night to set their barracks on fire while lighting fart-flares. Miles’s strategic suggestion at the officers’ fire-safety meeting next day that they tackle the problem with a logistical assault on the enemy’s fuel supply, i.e., eliminate red-bean stew from the menu, was shot down with one icy glower from General Metzov.

…Miles had seen it complete in Metzov’s eyes sixty seconds earlier. It reminded him of that definition of his father’s. A weapon is a device for making your enemy change his mind. The mind was the first and final battleground, the stuff in between was just noise.

Additional Thoughts: Great news for fans who have not read the novella, “The Mountains of Mourning”–this is actually available for free online courtesy of Baen’s online library. Also, many of Ms. Bujold’s formerly released standalone novels of the Vorkosigan saga are now available in anthology format. Warrior’s Apprentice, “The Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game are all available in the Baen anthology Young Miles (available at most bookstores, and for a nice price at Amazon). So…dig in and give it a try already!

Verdict: I enjoyed the color that “The Mountains of Mourning” lent to Miles, and I absolutely loved everything about The Vor Game (it was kind of like a more grown up, far more intense Warrior’s Apprentice). An interesting aside–The Vor Game was the recipient of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1991 (the year after Dan Simmons’ Hyperion took the prize)!


“The Mountains of Mourning” – 7 Very Good
The Vor Game – 9 Damn Near Perfection

Reading Next: Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead

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  • Shannon C.
    June 4, 2008 at 9:00 am

    I’ve been reading y’all for a while now without commenting because I suck like that.

    I love Miles Vorkosigan. Each book gets better and better. I can’t wait to read what you make of Brothers in Arms or Mirror Dance, which are my favorites and, conveniently enough, the last Miles books I’ve read.

  • Thea
    June 4, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Hey Shannon, welcome! Glad that Miles was able to get you to de-lurk 🙂 I’m about 1/3 into Cetaganda right now and loving it–so far each book keeps getting better, and I’m glad to hear this trend continues with the later books! Although, I’m in danger of having my head explode from fangirl obsession by the time I get to the Miles Errant antho (and then beyond!).

  • li
    June 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Oh, there were days when I had to survive on three hours of sleep because I just *had* to finish a Miles book, so I can completely identify.

    I love Gregor. There is actually a slash m/m fanfic floating around, with Miles & Gregor as the h/h pairing. And it is a rather good AU as well – the authors capture LMB’s style very well!

    Cetaganda is one of the Miles books I re-read the most, probably because it is one of the “lighter” and funnier ones, IMO. Oh yeah, and I love Ivan too.

  • Thea
    June 4, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Li, I am definitely straying into no-sleep territory with Miles…and dammit, I have to force myself to alternate other books in the rotation, lest I rush through these too quickly!

    A Gregor Miles fic? I can totally picture this relationship, hah! Ivan is wonderful, silly and oblivious (at least thus far!) but so much fun to read.

    I can’t believe it has taken me so long to find this series–thank you again Li for your rec! 🙂

  • Girl Detective
    June 7, 2008 at 7:19 am

    I loved loved loved this series when I read it about 10 years ago, and it was even a reason I moved to MN, since I figured if authors like Bujold and Gaiman were here it had to be cool. But the books have sat on my shelf since then, and I have utterly no desire to re-read them. I don’t know if I tired of the character over the series, or if my experiences of seeing Bujold in person discouraged me (She is, perhaps understandably, quite satisfied with herself as a writer–not a lot of humility, I found), or if I just hated her book Curse of Chalion so much (though it is interesting to read in conjunction with Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy, which lists many of the fantasy cliches). So I’m kind of a dissenting voice–loved it then, but not so much now.

  • Destrie
    January 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    It’s good to see soenmoe thinking it through.

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