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Lois McMaster Bujold – Brothers in Arms

Title: Brothers in Arms
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Narrator: Michael Hanson
Year: 1989

Brothers in Arms is the story about how Miles Vorkosigan (the main character in many of McMaster Bujold’s books) runs into trouble trying to be two persons at the same time, one the admiral of a freelancing fleet of mercenaries and the other a lord of Barrayar. To cover the potentially dangerous revelation of the fact that the two are one and the same person, he invents an explanation of the existence of a clone. The only problem is that the fabrication turns out to be true, and with a clone in the centre of a plot to overturn the government of Barrayar, the novel gathers momentum.

Having previously read three books by the author (The Vor Game, Barrayar and Paladin of Souls), I think Brothers in Arms is the weakest link in the chain so far. It is written before The Vor Game, but takes place after the events of that most impressive novel. The strength of the books about Miles is his character and the often ingenious plots, combined with fast-paced and witty action. Sadly, Brothers in Arms simply does not reach the same level as The Vor Game. Some of the brilliance glimpsed in the latter novel can still be sensed, but not at all in the same abundance.

I still think the novel is worthwhile, though, since the author is competent and is skilled enough to compose a thrilling story. However, in order for a thrilling story to be enough, it has to be almost perfect and that is not the case here. Striving to clear all Hugo Award winners, I will go on reading Mirror Dance, which is a sequel to Brothers in Arms and earned the 1995 award. Hopefully, there is a reason as to why the former received the Hugo, whereas the latter did not.

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  1. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    Sequel is perhaps going a bit too far, and MD definitely can be read on its own, but I stand by my statement that it benifits from being previously familiar with some elements (Mark, foremostly). Whether you agree with that judgement, I guess we’ll soon find out.

    I agree that MD lies perhaps around the middling mark of the series (as far as pure excitement goes, I probably rate Warrior’s Apprentice the highest). Mirror Dance, I quite like, and it is somewhat different in type, if not entirely.

    To you personally, I most highly recommend The Borders of Infinity (the collection of Miles shortstories, not necessarily the eponymous specific shortstory), which is highly excellent, and also shows quite a different face.

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  2. Snigel’s avatar

    I have not yet come very far with Mirror Dance, but it seems to me that you judgment was correct insofar as it would have been confusing to read without having read the Brothers in Arms, since Mark at least seems to be in focus rather often (without spoiling something, I have just got to the point were Mark is definitely in focus for the first time for very obvious reasons).

    Speaking of short stories, I ought to read more. If it were not for the problem of books being out of print, I would gladly have “read all Hugo Award winning short stories. I think short stories is where science fiction excels and the few collections I have read have been worthwhile (The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 and 2. I realise that I have read and a couple more than these, but I do not seem to have reviewed them. Difficult to get hold of, though.

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  3. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    Correction “I agree that MD”

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  4. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    … gah. And there goes a

    Correction: “I agree that MD”; typo, should of course refer to BiA (the book being reviewed.)

    I, too, should probably read more shortstories than I currently do; it’s the duel problem of finding out about them and finding them.

    With shortstory anthologies with different authors, one takes the “will my time be wasted?” gambled with each separate story, rather than just once for a novel (a collection from a single author, of course, is less of a risk.), whereas finding and finding out about separate stories is possibly significant effort spent on a very brief reading pleasure…

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  5. Olle Linge’s avatar

    You should try Harlan Elisson. Perhaps his stories are too freaked out for your taste, but he is a true genius when it comes to language and writing revolutionising fiction. I have only reviewed two of his short stories and both can be found in the links provided to the Hugo Winner anthologies. He has won a multitude of Nebula and Hugo Awards for his short stories, by the way, so there are obviously others who appreciate his works apart from myself.

    Keep me updated if you find something of interest. I have a lot of other things to read, but when I get the time to read more short stories, I will return to this discussion and notify you.

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  6. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    Well, while, as you know, I don’t generally find pure idea/concept exploration enough to support a novel (I want emotional investment–though admittedly that’s a soft rule with plenty of exceptions), I’m more accepting of it in short form; a cool idea is enough to support a short story.

    (Similarly, while I generally call bullshit on “the ending ruined the book”—how does twenty minutes reading a letdown ending ruin the five hours spent enjoying the book up to that point, or vice versa, twenty minutes reading a brilliant twist ending make up for five hours spent wading through boredom?—it’s a different matter for a shortstory.)

    …why do I feel we have drifted off topic here? :-)

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  7. Olle Linge’s avatar

    I think the ending is rather important in that it determines the feeling I have when I put the book back on the shelf. A good ending is more memorable than a good middle section of a novel, if you ask me. For instance, Neal Stephenson is lousy at writing endings and I think Cryptonomicon would have been much better with a more satisfying end (this goes for The Diamond Age too).

    So even if I agree that the last twenty minutes will not spoil the book, I think the end is proportionately more important than the middle section. The beginning is perhaps of equal importance, since it describes the outline of the novel and the way in which it is written.

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  8. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    The beginning is important in that it determines whether the rest of the book actually gets read or not. :-)

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  9. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Alas, not for me! To go a little bit on topic again, I almost always read books because people whose taste I trust have recommended them, and thus a mediocre beginning is not enough to deter me. Sure, if I would pick books randomly, that would be the case, but I never do.

    I was determined to read Brothers in Arms because you said it would be good if I wanted to read Mirror Dance (which, incidentally, I finished five minutes ago), a novel I had heard many good things about. I also like the author and having received a Hugo, it probably has some sort of quality. So I would have finished the book regardless of how bad the beginning was, but I would probably have refrained from reading anything by the same author ever again if I was not satisfied.

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  10. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    For the record (and now we’re coming back around to being on topic again!), I do like the Vorkosigan books a whole lot, and that includes the weaker ones in the series. However, for me, part of that enjoyment obviously does spring from the fact that it is a series with a continuity, that characters grow and change in the long run, and so on and so forth—while individual stories still remain satisfying individual stories.

    So, what this means, is that while there are some that I would probably consider great in their own right (Warrior’s Apprentice, for instance), there are probably some that I would have a lower impression of if I were to judge them with the series feelgood bonus–which is hard for me to speak neutrally on, at least given that there are no outright bad books in the series–and then of course there are those that are great because of the evolution that led up to them (I count Memory and A Civil Campaign as the best books in the series, but it’s good because of the dramatic impact they have on the continuity of the series thus far and the lives of the characters).

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  11. Olle Linge’s avatar

    I agree with you and it is not the case that I hate series just because they are series. I too like development and continuity, but there is a big difference between a watery fantasy series and McMaster Bujolds semi-independent string of novels. And once I get lured into a series, I am often inclined to like them, but I seldom get that far, because the prospect of beginning with a huge series is seldom that alluring.

    About McMaster Bujold, I said to someone (I cannot quite recall who) that probably all the books by her are good, at least since she became an established author. She is very competent indeed and I have difficulties imagining a really bad book written by her. Sure, I might not like the theme or something, but reading competently written fiction is always rewarding in at least some degree. Anyhow, I am impressed by her writings so far, and even if I will not go on reading more by her straight away, I intend to do so later.

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  12. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    but there is a big difference between a watery fantasy series and McMaster Bujolds semi-independent string of novels.

    Quite. I also consider the latter type of series the perfect combination for me: Short individual novels means a quick, snappy pace and compact storytelling, while stringing them together still allows one to develop a lasting connection to the characters and setting.

    (Imagine a 2000-page nonstop epic with the same sort of pacing and constant plot twist barrage–you’d be mentally exhausted halfway through just trying to keep up with what’s what.)

    (Actually, that describes some of Gu Longs works pretty well–he keeps up the probably the highest rate of unexpected twists per page I’ve ever encountered even throughout loooong works–and while I enjoy them, the resulting stories do get quite unwieldy and hard to keep track of.)

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