Discussion Post: Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold


Cryoburn is the latest novel we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project and the second last in our chronological read-through. This novel follows Miles, accompanied by Roic, on Imperial Auditor business, and takes place after Flowers for Vashnoi and before Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

You can read Tsana’s review of Cryoburn here, and Katharine’s review here.

Katharine: Welp it’s going to be incredibly hard to discuss the book properly after an ending like that, but I’ll try anyway… Miles is off to Kibou-daini in his role as Imperial Auditor to do what he does best – investigate something strange by shaking things up and seeing what falls out.

Tsana: When we first encounter him, he is drugged and hallucinating and, having escaped his kidnappers, is wandering around in underground catacombs full of cryogenically frozen people/corpses. Which is super creepy, but a staple of life on Kibou-daini.

Katharine: Once he manages to get to the surface he runs into a very kind lizard-person who sneaks him into his home to rest and recuperate. Which is lucky, as Miles’ hallucinations could lead him pretty much anywhere, but in the morning he is safe, and the lizard-person is an 11 year old boy called Jin, who likes to adopt pets. And Miles is quite pet-like when he’s not hyperactively solving cases.

Tsana: It’s also fortunate that Miles is good with children because, once sober, he quickly asuages Jin’s fears around adults taking over and treats Jin respectfully rather than condescendingly like many adults apparently do. Which is an interesting insight into Miles’s personality in a few ways, I thought. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss “good with children” because, well, Miles has kids now so he’s had the practice. But on the other hand, I think he’s pretty much always been good with children, we just haven’t had as much chance to see that in other books. The first example that jumps to mind is in Komarr when he first meets Niki (now his stepson) and is perfectly happy bonding with him about jumpships (before he has any ulterior motives to befriend the kid).

Katharine: Spoiler shields up so I can say a thing!

*klaxon klaxon klaxon*

Katharine: I’m jumping ahead a little but other than giving Miles a safe place to stay, Jin then also takes a note to the consulate which helps get Miles out of his initial trouble… only then getting himself nabbed by police, turned over to child protection and returned to his aunt. Which is exactly where he doesn’t want to be.

So Miles gets himself to the consulate and finds out what’s happened to Jin, and rather than let himself believe that Jin really is better with his aunt (as adults are trained to think), he’s instead determined to help Jin. The consulate (not really knowing the type of person Miles is yet) say that they can’t be involved with Jin at all.

My ramble aside (to get readers up to speed with the plot) is that Miles thinks of the law and ramifications afterwards. He just wants what’s best for Jin, and he has an uncanny read on the kid after such a short amount of time in his company. Because he cares, and he’s watching, and if Jin doesn’t want to be near his aunt – even if it’s for reasons that Jin needs to settle in his own head – Miles wants Jin to feel supported and listened to. And that’s what’s great about him.

Tsana: It’s such a contrast seeing Miles interact with Jin, and later his younger sister Mina, and seeing the other adults treat them as, well, children. Miles explains to the consulate that he knows how to talk to Mina because of his own little girl, but to me that seems more like a legitimising excuse. Anyway, Miles is also well aware that not all adults have their young charges’ best interests at heart and since Jin helped him, of course Miles should help Jin. Not that Jin and Mina’s aunt and uncle turn out to be horrible people.

Katharine: I did like that Jin’s problems with them was just regular kid stuff – and you got to feel for the aunt and uncle too – losing Jin and Mina’s mum in such a public way, and suddenly having four kids rather than two to bring up.

Tsana: I mean slightly irregular kids stuff since the source of their disputes was his little menagerie, but yeah, nothing like actual abuse. (Although locking him up after he was delivered back to them is questionable.)

Katharine: But understandable (about the menagerie) as their home would be tiny – also if we accept that the allergies were a real thing and not just his cousin being a brat. But back to the plot. Where Jin has been staying is in an abandoned building that has cryo facilities and offices. Jin is one of the youngest hideaways but they all let him have his pets up on the roof and keep an eye out for him. Miles, using his charisma that doesn’t seem to get anyone offside, and with Jin vouching for him, manages to get a few people there willing to listen to him as well. Did you want to explain what roles they all used to play before?

Tsana: More to the point, what the building itself is. Because it’s not just an abandoned cryo facility. When the company that owned it went bankrupt, some of the employees stayed on and now they’re illegally running a cryo-freezing co-operative for poor people. The brilliant catch being that it’s illegal for anyone who takes it over or shuts them down to just let all the frozen people/corpses die, thanks to a loophole in the law. The place has already been running a lot longer than the original founders of the co-op dared hope, mostly thanks to inertia. Exactly what will happen to them in the future is more a matter of hope than concrete planning.

Katharine: And it’s this place that we keep coming back to even as Miles sets up in the consulate – I do like how we get to see Miles’ thought pattern when he’s not entirely sure about what is happening, or what their plan will be… just that it’s all a bit something something and he’s just trying to keep all his balls in the air as long as possible.

Tsana: Right? Especially since the main plot he’s sent to uncover is kind of confusing. Usually I have no trouble following the schemes in these books, but I admit that this time I had to really think about it and I’m not sure I’ve even managed to remember the details correctly, just the gist.

Katharine: I just kind of went with it – some of the plots kind of leave me a little behind the 8-ball (which is why I always ask you to explain them!) but as everything usually changes anyway when everything either goes horribly wrong or Miles’ reveals something different, I don’t let it worry me. Just in time for the last book!

Tsana: Well the last book doesn’t have Miles uncovering any schemes since it’s about Cordelia, mainly. But you gotta admit, stealing Komarran planetary voting shares through bureaucracy is pretty technical, even for a Miles book. Good thing Gregor has him to send into these messes. And how hilarious was it that the reason they caught wind of the scheme was because the culprits didn’t realise that Empress Laisa’s great aunt was the head of a trading corporation and an influential rich lady, so they pitched two different deals to her, raising her suspicion.

Katharine: See I missed all of that part. I just thought she had suspicions through good business sense.

One part I didn’t really need in the book were the visits to the WhiteChrys. They didn’t feel like they added much overly to it all, though I guess it’s something Miles had to attend rather than anyone else at his beck and call.

Tsana: Well WhiteChrys were the ones scheming to steal the Komarran planetary voting shares and the reason Miles was sent to Kibou-daini in the first place. The other scheme he uncovers, surrounding Jin’s mother and involving the creepily Egyptian themed company, regarding the crummy cryo-solution is accidental. But also kind of more interesting, I agree.

Katharine: It just kind of seemed to slow things down a little – especially when they didn’t rise to the bait the last time. And the woman throwing herself at Miles – just seemed a bit unnecessary. But then I did like seeing more of the traditional Japanese elements so yay.

Tsana: I agree there too. Miles playing the part of a corrupt official to bait people was amusing, but not quite as enjoyable as similar ploys have been in the past. Overall, this is certainly not the best Vorkosigan universe book… but I don’t think it’s the worst either. What do you reckon?

Katharine: I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would, but then again, as you know I had quite a bit of anxiety about it. I keep expecting to see Miles die because of his health complaints and so on, and I knew… well, we’ll talk about that in a second. And I’m not usually that interested in books with a kid as a secondary main character, but Bujold wrote Jin well.

Should we talk about… well, you know.

Tsana: The ending that was like a punch in the guts?

Katharine: So we find out by Miles being addressed as the Count. And then we see Mark watch Miles’ reaction. Then Miles snapping at Roic, and at his mother… but what really got me was Ivan watching Miles, at the funeral, where they all expect Miles’ to go totally off script from the very proper and right script about their father. As he always does. But Miles looks at his children, and he behaves.

Tsana: The drabbles in the epilogue were a very poignant way of conveying everyone’s reactions to Aral’s death.

And you know, for a long time — in terms of my own reading experiences of these books — Cryoburn was chronologically the last book in the series. And I think this was a very final and harsh ending for it. I’m so glad that there’s another book now, set a few years later, when we can see the other characters getting on with their Lives. Aral was a very important figure in Miles’s life, in Gregor’s life and in the history of the Barrayaran Empire. But he was human and he had already had a brush with death a few books back. For all of Miles’s health problems, I think it felt kind of inevitable that Miles would outlive Aral.

But was your anxiety with reading Cryoburn because you knew Aral was going to die? Or what made you worry that Miles would die in this one? (Which would be a bit much for Cordelia — both her husband and son dying in the same book.)

Katharine: I don’t think I remembered Aral would die (like, I know he was gone before the next book but it could have happened in a retrospect type of thing) and nothing really made me think Miles would die other than health issues and that the series was nearly ending. Just… general anxiety about ‘oh no I don’t want this to end’ and caring about the characters too damn much.

I think I just generally expect the worse so I’m either prepared for it, or pleasantly surprised.

Tsana: Well, it is certainly sad that we only have one book to go. Hopefully Bujold will write more stories about Miles and other characters in this world. Flowers for Vashnoi was an excellent surprise, for example. I wouldn’t say no more more Ekaterin stories. Or stories about Miles’s kids. Or stories about young Miles at the Imperial Military Academy, which I still feel was tragically skipped past.

Katharine: Stories about all the kids would be great – I liked the mention of Gregor’s kids being scarily intelligent; I’d love to see that.

Another issue with all the books is it just collects characters I want to see more of. I want to see Lisa and Vorlynkin living together and Jin getting horse riding lessons or something.

Tsana: Yes, I want to see Miles inviting them to visit next time the consulate gets posted to Barrayar (or has a holiday or whatever). It seemed really sad that unlike so many other people Miles had collected, these kids didn’t get the full material benefit of his patronage.

Speaking of people Miles collected, what did you think of the mentions of Sergeant Taura and her final days? That’s another aspect that made it feel like a last book; tying up various loose ends.

Katharine: Another thing that was interesting is we see Roic wanting to ignore Taura’s wishes and ‘save’ her, even though it’s not what she wanted. And Miles’ supports Taura’s choice… only to turn around and ask his mother why she didn’t override Aral’s wishes.

Tsana: Well. Taura’s life was very different from Aral’s. But also, obviously, sentiment.

Katharine: It’s just so sad to think of him sitting there, all alone, for two hours.

Tsana: But at least he was relaxed and in a place he loved. Really, given everything that happened to Aral in his life, it’s a win to die peacefully and not in battle or from an assassin.

Katharine: And at least he got a few years off to relax and not be working. He certainly earned that.

Do we have anything else to say on this one?

Tsana: Just that I don’t think being Viceroy of an entire planet really counts as not working. But at least no one was trying to assassinate him over it. ;-p

Katharine: La la la he was relaxing I’m not listening!

How sad it is to work your entire life and not get the chance to just, I don’t know, potter around and tease the grandkids.

Tsana: He was doing something he believed in. I don’t think that’s so bad.

Katharine: Oh, absolutely. And the best person for the job. I had a boss like that – Vic Czernezkyj, and it just kind of hits me right in the guts. He finally retired at 70 and was dead within a month – he and his wife were supposed to go on a road trip around Australia. Just – he, and Aral, never really got to rest and not be responsible for anything, you know?

Tsana: I’m sure Cordelia helped him have little breaks every so often. We know he got the chance to have a few holidays at least. But yes.

Anyway, in the next book we get to see how Cordelia’s life goes on without him. And then… we’ll have run out of book! The horror! 😱

Katharine: Nope! La la la not listeeeening!

… I’m very glad I still have some books left in her Five Gods series.

Tsana: I haven’t read any of those, just a few of the Penric novellas. I like Penric and Desdemona but not nearly as much as Miles and friends. Oh well.

I think we’re done now?

Join us in about a month for the concluding discussion in the Vorkosigan Saga Project. We will be reading and discussing the last book chronologically: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

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