I’ve come to think of Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels as being grouped into three tiers: The first tier are those so unbelievably good that they would take up a good chunk of my imaginary All-Time Greatest SF Novels list. The second tier is made up of some excellent novels which, for one reason or another, don’t quite raise themselves up to the status of All-Time classics. Then the third tier rounds up the rest of the novels, which are “merely” very, very good. (If Bujold has ever stooped to writing a mediocre book, I haven’t read it.)
For me, those tiers look something like this (in internal chronological order within each tier):
Shards of Honor
Borders of Infinity
A Civil Campaign
Brothers in Arms
The Warrior’s Apprentice
The Vor Game
You’ll notice that Diplomatic Immunity gets placed in the last tier. (In my opinion, it’s definitely better than The Vor Game and only slightly edged out by The Warrior’s Apprentice.) So it’s only “very good”, not “excellent” or “nigh to perfect”.
There are three major problems I had with Diplomatic Immunity:
First, the theme seems forced. In works like Shards of Honor, Barrayar, Memory, and even The Warrior’s Apprentice, Bujold distinguishes herself by crafting themes which are subtle, interwoven, and powerful. These lend a depth and resonance to her work which truly sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
In Diplomatic Immunity, on the other hand, I feel as if the theme (parenting and childbirth) is being used as a bludgeon. Literally everything in this book seems to tie directly back to this heavy-handed theme, and in at least one case Bujold has Miles go out of his way to have this spelled out to the reader. In the final analysis, something which is elegantly manipulated in Bujold’s other works is clumsily manhandled here.
Second, and in a somewhat similar vein, Bujold’s “plotting by convenience” (or authorial fiat), as I discussed in my reaction to The Vor Game a couple weeks ago, seems to crop up a tad too much here. Although, to be fair, I may just be overly-sensitized to it coming off The Vor Game.
The biggest problem, however, is that a significant chunk of the novel’s resolution takes place off-screen and is then summed up in an expository conversation. Admittedly, Miles is not present for that chunk of resolution. But his wife, Ekaterin, is, and Bujold has never shied away from multiple points of view before.
In fact, I think it can be argued that the book as a whole could have benefited significantly with the addition of Ekaterin’s point of view throughout. Not only would this have highlighted the theme from a different angle (for those who have read the book, consider the conversations between Ekaterin, Nicol, and Garnet Five), but it would also have allowed us to see Miles through new eyes. From a plot perspective, it would have also given us a complete picture of the investigation throughout, without the expository lumps which crop up consistently. Plus, I wouldn’t mind haved minded getting a peek at Ekaterin’s point of view just to get a peek at Ekaterin’s point of view. I’m not one to critique a book for not being written the way I would have done it, but I think Bujold raises the issue herself by moving the resolution off-screen the way that she does.
So, those are the problems. But, like I said, this is still a very good book. Bujold brings all of her familiar strengths to play: Memorable and endearing characterization. Clever plotting. A fine mixture of humor and drama. Smooth, well-executed prose.
In short, Diplomatic Immunity is a lot of fun to read. If it wasn’t by Bujold, there wouldn’t even be a pretext for complaint – and so I’m not going to fall into the trap of disliking something good, just because the author has also created something great.
Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: Baen Books
Cover Price: $7.99