Review: The Vor Game

by Tom Ingram

At the end of the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, two con-men played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, realize that another con has pulled an elaborate trick on them by posing as their mark and making off with fifty-thousand pounds and all of Steve Martin’s clothes. As they talk things over at Caine’s French villa, the conwoman returns with a crowd of rich investors and tells them a story about “Chips O’Toole”, the rich Australian landowner. Caine, after only a moment of bewildered hesitation, draws his face into a goofy smile and replies, “G’Day! How’s it going, sport?” It’s one of my favourite movie scenes ever.

Reading one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels is like that scene, over and over again. Miles is the son of Lord Vorkosigan, the Prime Minister and political powerhouse of the Barrayaran Empire. But due to injuries his mother sustained while pregnant, he was born deformed, with brittle bones, ill-fitting joints, and a tiny size. His full adult height is 4’9″. The Vor lords of Barrayar are supposed to be a military caste, which puts him at quite an obvious disadvantage.

His solution? Out-manoeuvre everybody. Slipping in and out of the custody of various people who want to kill him, he always manages to make things work out in his advantage through a combination of strategy, skilled improvisation, and sheer luck. No matter what happens, he always acts as if he meant it to happen. Even the few times he loses his cool and panics are calculated. He works through a number of pseudonyms, and tells wildly divergent stories about his motives depending on what is convenient at the moment.

In The Vor Game, after being sent to the Hegen Hub on a simple intelligence-gathering mission, Miles is separated from his handler and captured by the corrupt police. In detention, he meets his childhood friend Emperor Gregor of Barrayar who, as it turns out, ran away from his imperial guards and was arrested on foreign soil for vagrancy. They get shipped off to the partially-completed space station Miles was supposed to be evaluating, where they are used as slave-labour. However, it seems that wherever Miles lands, there’s someone waiting to arrest him and ship him off somewhere else.

As he is ferried across the system, variously as a prisoner, fugitive, ally, or commander, he poses as an electrician, a criminal arms dealer, a mercenary Admiral, and even, when it suits him, himself. No matter what happens, he is always ready to slip breathlessly into whatever role will give him the advantage. And he never directly attacks anyone–he only succeeds by telling the right lies to the right people.

Perhaps the only flaw of this book is that it becomes so twisted that it’s occasionally hard to keep track of who wants to kill who and why. This is amplified by the fact that it’s the fourth book in the series, so I don’t have any of the necessary background. Still, I think this confusion is probably an inevitable part of the genre, and it’s not a hard thing to deal with.

The Vor Game has political intrigue on par with David Weber or Tom Clancy, but with a humorous twist. The riveting page-turner plot is written in an unobtrusively sardonic style and set in a nicely fleshed-out sci-fi world. It’s not hard to see why Bujold is one of the giants of recent science fiction. My recommendation: give Miles a try. Start at the beginning. I know I’m looking forward to reading more of him.

You can find The Vor Game online at McNally Robinson