NOTE: this review is of an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of the book, purchased electronically. The hardcover should be released in early November, 2012.
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is the latest in the long-running series of books known informally as the 'Vorkosiverse' - a series of novels and novellas chronicling the life and times of the Vorkosigan family of planet Barrayar. Written by Lois McMaster Bujold, the series' start is a matter of some dispute, as the earliest novel chronologically doesn't really have any of the main characters in it. No matter; I'll leave it with the following - if you don't know who Miles Vorkosigan is, you probably shouldn't read this novel. Spoilers, you know. I'd recommend you go pick up a copy of The Warrior's Apprentice or better yet Shards of Honor and start with one of those two.
The Vorkosigan series really does center around Miles. It may start with his parents, but the majority of it is about him. Some early books in the 'verse center on other, peripheral characters, but they're exceptions (as you may have guessed, I'm waffling trying to figure out how to introduce this book to those who do know the 'verse without spoiling stuff). Okay, cards on the table. This book, as the title would make clear to you, is not about Miles/Lord Auditor Coz/That crazy git. Nope - we finally get a book about that-idiot-Ivan. And you know what? It's pretty good! (Remember, spoilers for the series follow but I'll try to avoid spoilers for this particular book).
I was ecstatic when Bujold announced that Cryoburn would be forthcoming, as I felt the hiatus the series had been on was getting uncomfortably long. However, I wasn't really a fan of that book. It was about Miles, sure - but most of the really twanging tension in Miles felt like it had been loosened by the end of Diplomatic Immunity. He had a wife, a stepson, and kids on the uterine replicator way. He was growing comfortably into his job as Imperial Auditor for Gregor. But in Cryoburn, which takes place deliberately mostly removed from any of our familiar supporting characters, and in fact far from Barrayar, it just felt a bit forced. Perhaps some of the book taking place from the POV of one of the other characters had something to do with it - it just felt wrong watching Miles from the outside. But in any case, I was not a fan. The ending of the book didn't help, but it wasn't the cause - I was already disgruntled by the time I reached that point.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. I can report, happily, that with this volume Bujold is back on form. It takes place chronologically before Cryoburn but after Diplomatic Immunity, as far as I can tell. Ivan Vorpatril is still a Captain in the Imperial Barrayaran Service, and is still working in Operations - as the book opens, he is on Komarr, with his boss Admiral Desplaines and their colleagues, doing flying audits and inspections. Practically the first thing that happens is that Byerly Vorrutyer knocks on Ivan's door and Ivan isn't quick enough to close it on him - and he gets Ivan Involved In Stuff. That's the setup.
I won't go more into the story. Go read the book. I will tell you that despite involving Komarr, Barrayar, Jackson's Whole, Cetaganda, and even Earth and Escobar, the plot of this book is decidedly smaller than that of some of the recent ones. Ivan gets entangled, and Ivan…has to get himself out.
The reason I liked this book more than Cryoburn, I think, is that the story isn't about a character we've watched for years and years. Cryoburn felt like Bujold trying her hardest to get Miles into the mud again, but it gets harder when you've aged him and civilized him and married him. She managed to get Miles and Ekaterin into the mud pretty deep in Diplomatic Immunity - so it feels forced when it's just Miles now and far from home, and the ostensible plot he had to foil wasn't all that dire.
There really isn't a 'dire plot' to foil here. Mostly, I think, Bujold is reveling in finally getting to flesh Ivan out. We all think we know a lot about him, but there's more to learn, trust me. And the best part is that while it was new to me, it wasn't actually surprising, because it all fit perfectly with what we did know of him. Sure, he's the central character in this one, but he really isn't like Miles. He has a different set of skills - management and political sense and a finely-honed instinct for staying not only out of trouble but off the radar - and so it's fun as heck to watch him end up so decidedly in trouble and on the radar despite his best efforts. What would motivate him to do so? Well, we learn that, too.
I recommend this latest volume in the Vorkosiverse highly. I'm not sure where Bujold can go from here - her characters are all getting decidedly settled and saddled with responsibility - but I know she can surprise me. Hell, maybe we'll finally get a book about Simon Illyan - who despite age, retirement and a softening midsection is still one of the Weasels Extreme.