A sub-cult of science fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga is one of the genre’s most popular. Combining the devices and motifs of space opera and fairy tale to examine soft science fiction themes, the reason it is beloved is obvious. Published 7th and occurring 7th in the internal chronology (as of mid-2013), The Mountains of Mourning is a novella describing events in Miles’ life as he exits the military academy and enters the real world of responsibility.
The story opens early one morning when Miles returns home after a morning’s exercise to find an adamant young woman at the gate seeking justice for the murder of someone very close. After presenting her to his parents, Miles sets off to pay his respects to dead relatives in honor of his successful completion of the Barrayan military academy. He is called back a short time later, however, and instructed to accompany the young woman back to her village to settle the injustice. Walking into a den of tradition and prejudices, discovering the murderer is only half of Miles’ problem: administering the punishment proves to be more troublesome.
Among the first third of the Vorkosigan stories published, The Mountains of Mourning is not the most well-written of Bujold’s career style-wise. That being said, the overall story reads smoothly with a nice spacing of events. Little left between the lines, it is easily digestible. That the novella operates via the basic mode of murder mystery/fairy tale also makes the story readily accessible—the science fiction elements in fact background for Miles’ investigation. A bit hoaky and simple, challenging sci-fi the novella is not.
Tackling a real world problem, namely infanticide, Bujold uses the novella to discuss an issue of social concern to 1% of her readership. The murder motivated by unfounded prejudice, one still finds similar attitudes alive in the real world, namely India and China, but not in places where 99% of her readers live. To go into further detail would perhaps spoil the story. Suffice to say Bujold presents a scenario that was common in Western societies eons ago and wraps it up in near fairy tale terms—even the novella’s title a plea for melodrama.
It is therein the problem with The Mountains of Mourning—and much of the Vorkosigan saga in general—rears its ugly head. Matters working themselves out in all too pat fashion, the only time Bujold challenges readers and herself is in the presentation of the problem. Otherwise, the murder investigation is done in Nancy Drew fashion, and the solution is, simply put, romanticism—real human behavior coming second. The tension resolved as hearts turn on an emotional dime, realism is tossed aside in favor of idealism and moral buttons the size of books. While the example set is in itself honorable, it does not translate to our world in any practical terms, more innocently optimistic than anything.
In the end, The Mountains of Mourning is a relatively early—both in published and chronological terms—offering in the Vorkosigan saga. Bujold presents Miles first steps into the world of managing justice and responsibility, all under the umbrella of social intolerance and infanticide. Everything about the story familiar to genre and non-genre readers alike, it is mainstream sci-fi, its theme the only fresh bone thrown to reader. Given the relative consistency (and therefore comfort) of the saga, the novella does not stand out for either good or bad reasons, and is sure to be appreciated by the aforementioned sub-cult.
A side note regarding whether or not this story can be attempted without having read other books in the Vorkosigan saga: yes, it is 100% possible. The story stands alone to the point it is unnecessary to the overarching saga. Bujold fills in enough background for Miles’ decisions and behavior to make full sense. Like a spur, the story can be taken as a good example of what most books in the series are like, while for those already familiar, it will be a little gem.