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(Retro) Review: A Civil Campaign

I knew I had to write this review the moment I finished the book. Obviously, it is nowhere near current. In fact, as of this year, A Civil Campaign can drink legally in the United States. But it is just so incredibly unique in its place in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ouvre, and I enjoyed it so much, that I had to share.

Some housekeeping. While I won’t spoil the specific plots of previous novels, chronologically this is the 12th book in the Vorkosigan Saga. I cannot talk about it without referring to character developments that are likely to spoil some significant moments in the series. But with that said, if you are even remotely interested in reading this review, you are obviously up to speed.

Okay. Here goes.

A Civil Campaign is an impossible book. It shouldn’t exist, and if it were written by a lesser writer, it wouldn’t work. However, it is also possibly the best installment in the entire series. Bujold describes it as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners”. It centers around an upcoming wedding, intertwining several characters’ wacky romances and a number of political sub-plots, also of the wink-wink variety.

The reason why this does not crash and burn, when placed within a military space opera context, is simple. We care. Lois McMaster Bujold has built these complex characters and their relationships within story after story that focused on adventure and mortal danger. Now, she gets to have them relax (well, not really) and just have fun.

(But not Ivan. Never Ivan. Fuck Ivan in particular.)

(…Poor Ivan)

And if we’ve made it this far, we want to see this. Sure, we know how Miles interacts with his psychotic clone brother Mark when the stakes are life and death. But who doesn’t want to know what their relationship is like when living under the same roof, and dealing with an infestation of genetically engineered bugs that produce butter? Or their perspective on each other’s absurdist love life?

Add to that a Vor lord who finds out that he is part Cetagandan Ghem. Then a Vor lady who goes to Beta Colony for a sex change operation, so she could inherit her dead brother’s countship. Now we have political stakes as the Council of Counts must vote on these, and the picture is complete.

Yet, at the same time, A Civil Campaign is a mature work that does not skip character building. The budding romance between Miles and Ekaterin is a glorious portrait of a hyperactive neurotic and a world-weary intellectual, both of whom have trouble realizing that they are really on the same page. Mistakes are made. Some of them hilarious. Some — meaningful. All of them gorgeously written.

A Civil Campaign also features a lot of parenting. We’ve known Aral, Cordelia, and the Koudelkas since before Miles was born. Now we get to see them dealing with the next generation becoming adults in their own right. The result is a mixture of fascination and exasperation. Hilariously, and thanks to Ekaterin’s son Nikki, even Emperor Gregor gets to do a bit of parenting. Which really completes some kind of circle of life that I am not even sure how to describe.

All in all, A Civil Campaign is a flawless work of fiction. It relies on the reader’s love of its world, and the characters whose relationships are interwoven throughout it. And the reader, if they know what’s good for them, does not let Bujold down. At least this reader didn’t. This book is literal therapy, and I cannot recommend it enough, if you’ve read the previous novels and some-crazy-how stopped yourself before delving into this one.

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