Page count: 422 in the hardback edition
Time taken: four hours
Ivan Vorpatril is working in one of the domed cities on Komarr when an old frenemy asks for his help. As the help in question is picking up a beautiful woman, Ivan agrees with very little hesitation, a decision he quickly comes to regret. Tej is a refugee from Jackson’s Whole, fleeing the destruction of her House with her only surviving companion Rish. Pursued across the wormhole Nexus, several planets still to go from her eventual destination, she finds herself on the planet Komarr working a dead-end job, trying to scrape together enough money to make it to Escobar and avoid the assassins still on her trail. Ivan quickly proves himself a solution to her problems, but is she the solution to his?
This book is the latest in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, taking place a couple of years after Diplomatic Immunity and before Cryoburn. Ivan has been a character voice before, in A Civil Campaign, but never the main character, and this book shows him at his most complex to date. He has always previously been the foil to either his cousin Miles or the brilliant Byerly Vorrutyer, so it’s a welcome change to see him stretching himself and actually being the hero he has clearly always wanted to be.
I'm not sure how good this book would be for a first-time reader. Bujold does a good job with exposition of previous stories, but not all of the details are given, and it’s definitely a book with a lot of in-jokes. On the other hand, taken at face value it’s still a much better romance than a lot of the other romances I've read recently, with complex and realistically flawed characters, a fast-paced and engaging plot, and a liberal sprinkling of dry humour. Bujold always fades to black whenever her characters are doing anything more than kissing, but she still fits in plenty of dirty jokes.
As far as the science fiction elements of the book go, they’re pretty light on the field, no more complicated than the average fantasy novel which references faraway places and a couple of esoteric weapons. Bujold mainly concerns herself with genetic engineering, solutions of biological conundrums, and the occasional piece of large-scale engineering. This, in my considered opinion, has given her an unfair reputation as a genre-SF writer rather than a “proper” SF writer, in a combination of scientific snobbery and common-or-garden sexism. Biology has always been seen as the science that women do, the easy one, and engineering doesn't count as a real science either, as there’s not enough theory and too much practical application.
Despite this attitude, Bujold consistently tops the bestseller lists when a new book comes out and she has won numerous prestigious awards, so you always know you’re in safe hands. I highly recommend this book: it’s lighter and fluffier than a lot of her works, but a welcome one nonetheless.
4.5 stars: A fun read, good romance, great chemistry.