Book Review: “Ivan, you Idiot”: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

4 Jun

Everyone knows and loves Miles Vorkosigan. The “little admiral”, who thanks to a chemical attack on his mother while she was pregnant suffers from a shortness of build, brittle bones, and an drive to prove himself against all comers. He is the heart and center of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe.

But what about Ivan? “Ivan, you Idiot”? The breezing through life cousin of Miles, who seems mostly engaged in trying to avoid the wrath of his mother, and any responsibility whatsoever? Wine, women, and having a good time as much as he can, without a care in the world or a thought in his brain. Is he really as stupid and shallow as Miles makes him out to be? Aral Vorkosigan, father of Miles,  once mused that Ivan couldn’t possibly be faking his stupidity — or is Ivan better at this than even Aral realized?  Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance gives us an entire novel to explore a story about Ivan and of Ivan, and a reconsideration of who and what he is, what he thinks he is, and what he wants to be.

At the start of the novel, Ivan is an aide to Admiral Desplains, Chief of Operations of the Barrayaran Imperial Service. Ivan manages Desplains’ plate, and his knowledge of politics and the Barrayaran military makes him actually good at his job when he actually works at it. The job has brought both the Admiral and Ivan to Komarr, a planet still simmering under resentment of Barrayaran control.  More tragically for Ivan, the 20-hour day underneath the terraforming domes doesn’t give him much time to sample the local social life, even more tragic since this is meant to be a short trip away from Barrayar. This deficiency in his social schedule, though, gets resolved fast when Byerly Vorrutyer, intelligence agent for Imperial Security, comes asking Ivan for help, one requiring Ivan’s ability to charm a lady who Byerly is concerned is in danger. It’s a rather simple mission, and a lady in distress? Byerly does know which buttons to press on Ivan.

When that lady, Tej, turns out to be a scion of a fallen and on-the-run House from Jackson’s Whole, with bounty hunters and kidnappers after her and her half-sister, Ivan’s simple chivalrous mission for Byerly turns out quickly to be much more complicated than he expected. Ivan’s solution to a rather sticky standoff is almost Miles-brilliant, except for the long-term consequences, especially once Ivan and Tej get back to Barrayar. And when certain relatives show up with a scheme and plans of their own,  more complications ensue.

The audiobook narration by Grover Gardner is top notch. Gardner has been the narrator of all of the Bujold Vorkosigan books and he is completely and utterly comfortable with the characters and their intonations. Gardner understands and groks Bujold’s world and its terminology. There is a strong level of comfort to listening to him narrate the novel, and it was an easy way to eat up many hours of driving. I regretted not having another Gardner-narrated Vorkosigan book on tap when I was finished in mid-trip, so useful it was in making a long drive pass the time.

It’s a rather refreshing change of pace not to have any point of view from Miles for a change. For a lot of readers, Miles IS the Vorkosigan saga, once the first novels with Aral and Cordelia give way to Miles as the main character. Miles is such a striking and overwhelming character that, even here, Miles’ appearance in the narrative is extremely brief and the novel doesn’t give us his point of view. I think this novel proves that, in some ways, Miles is much more of a sympathetic character when we are on the inside of him, than on the outside. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance lets us see Miles only from the outside, and it’s a rather different experience. It’s also interesting to see other characters from Ivan’s point of view. His view of The Emperor, his mother, former Intelligence head Simon Illyan, and others is distinctly different than Miles’ perspective.

The novel also gives us a perspective from Tej, the aforementioned “Damsel in distress”. A member of a fallen House from Jackson’s Whole, she has been brought so low as to be working as a clerk in a souvenir shop. She has her own issues with her family and what is expected of her, and this makes her a paralleling counterpart to Ivan himself. Like Ivan, she is both underappreciated and underestimated. Tej also is useful as a point of entry for readers unfamiliar with the series to get to know Barrayar and its characters. The mushy middle of the novel (and it is a bit mushy) is mostly a whirlwind guide to Barrayar and its characters, with a fair amount of infodumping and explanation. This is old hat for longtime readers of the series, I do wonder how effective the infodumping is for those who might enter the series for the first time, here. Certainly Tej is at first bewildered by complicated Vor family trees and weird feudal customs.

I do wonder if Bujold intended Ivan always to be affecting his Obfuscating Stupidity. Is it a retcon on the part of the author? It’s not until A Civil Campaign, many books into the series, that readers ever got any point of view from Ivan, and a sense that no, he isn’t stupid after all. Is he as bright as Miles? By no means. But is he really “That Idiot, Ivan”? Was he always intended to play possum in this way? As a reader I can’t seem to decide. I do remember that early in the Miles books, Ivan is more than a bit of a cad, possibly even guilty of attempted sexual assault. For most of the Miles books, Ivan has suffered by comparison to Miles.

Certainly, Ivan has always meant to be that comparison and contrast to Miles. Miles has his physical defects thanks to the attack on his mother while pregnant, which has made him much of an outsider to mutation-averse and physical strength-respecting Barrayar. Ivan is, physically and outwardly, everything that Miles could and perhaps should have been, except for that attack. Ivan looks like High Vor and waltzes in and out of life in a way Miles never could. He’s the football team quarterback who goes from high school, to college, to plum jobs in his family’s company, without ever really trying hard or having to try hard. And yet for all that, Ivan’s lack of ambition and drive as compared to Miles is also a contrast. (Miles’ clone brother Mark is driven in different ways, and also a good comparison to Ivan).

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance gives us a look as to just why Ivan is so unambitious and shows a lack of drive, despite his advantages. There is a grand unified theory of how and why Ivan acts and thinks as he does. A Civil Campaign, the first novel to give Ivan a point of view, allows him to grow as a character beyond the “Ivan the Fool” characterization we had previously seen. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance does even better. Ivan, as seen fully in this novel, isn’t stupid after all. He’s still lazy and not ambitious. However, Ivan explains to the reader just why he is the way he is, and given his position as being high on the list of heirs to the Emperor, it makes a lot of sense. If Ivan showed half the ambition and drive of his cousin Miles, Ivan would be a big fat target for anyone intriguing to move Gregor off the throne and replace him with Ivan.

Miles, even higher in the line of succession, is someone no one would dream of supplanting Gregor, given his physical profile. Ivan? Ivan looks every inch the Barrayaran Emperor that Gregor does. Ivan clearly knows that, and doesn’t want to be a target of intrigue and machinations, or assassination attempts. Given Ivan’s jobs, he knows that obtaining the Emperor’s throne would also mean inheriting the Emperor’s workdesk. He’d rather not have the latter, thank you very much. And so, he cultivates his breezing-through-life outward appearance. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance lets him run up against the limitations of that approach, however, and gives Ivan a chance to grow a bit out of it, even as the novel finally illuminates  what he has been doing all along.

What I can’t decide if Bujold decided this was the way Ivan was before A Civil Campaign. Was this Bujold’s idea of Ivan Vorpatril all along? Is this a retcon late in the series? It may not in the end matter. Whether it’s a change in the character developed as Bujold wrote the novels, or it’s something she has come to (especially in the way of A Civil Campaign), Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance shows that Ivan is, for the most part, faking it. And I certainly appreciate and like Ivan more for it.



2 Responses to “Book Review: “Ivan, you Idiot”: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance”

  1. Juan Sanmiguel (@RainbowWar71) June 4, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

    Well this was the book the fans asked for. Bujold at her Guest of Honor speech at Worldcon said the fans wanted an Ivan novel. She was surprised about the request. She was not against the idea. This was in 2008 so it took a few years to give us the Ivan novel. I thought it was fun.

  2. psikeyhackr March 4, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

    What does this story have to say about science?

    Amiri blinked. “Wait. This stuff has never been tested?”

    Grandmama, “Outdoors, no. It has been tested extensively in Carlo’s Laboratory”.

    This raises the question of the adequacy of testing. In this case the failure makes for a hilarious story. How many readers know about “thalidomide” these days? But then we are doing an experiment on the entire planet with CO2. Our great grandchildren should have a good laugh.

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