Miles is about to be a father? Huh. That fills me with nearly as much trepidation and delight as it does Miles himself. So naturally, there are lots of hidden strains of what being a parent means, and being able to have children, scattered through this book. They're subtle, as Bujold is great at not hitting you over the head with her themes, but they're definitely there.
Of course, while the babies brew in the uterine replicator back home, Miles and Ekaterin are finishing off a belated honeymoon. (Bujold is very clear in all these books how great a technology she thinks uterine replicators would be, and she makes a persuasive argument. Not that I wouldn't try it the other way if I had the opportunity, but still....) And of course a call comes in from Gregor for his Imperial Auditor to go check out a little squabble at a space station involving Barrayarans. And he has to finish the whole matter up before the babies are due to be decanted.
That's the sort of dilemma that could get a parent in a lot of trouble. There are still stories about how my father went to get a grilled cheese sandwich, and then labour was so quick from start to finish that my sister was born before he got back.
It's a station run by quaddies, who were the centre of a previous book, a genetic engineering experiment for people who would live in freefall all their lives, with four arms instead of two arms and two legs. It's lovely to see them back. Of course, given the way that some Barrayaran's haven't moved past mutant = bad, this was a situation ripe for trouble. And that's part of it, sure.
But, of course, there's more going on beneath the surface. Isn't there always? Miles is reunited with Bel Thorne, his former officer in the Dendarii, who has moved onto the station and shacked up with a quaddie musician named Nicol whom we've previously met. That gives Miles an additional personal stake in the matter as someone starts taking potshots. But are they meant for Miles? Bel? Or someone else entirely? Loyalties, especially those hidden or long dormant, and the reciprocal nature of loyalty, which Miles has always understood to a fault, are in the central spotlight here.
There are also some interesting bits here about clashes in culture. We're so used to Miles in space that it's easy to forget how hidebound Barrayar still is. Miles may be half-Betan, but his fellow Barrayarans still harbour prejudice that flares, in an ugly fashion, to kick off this diplomatic incident. Thus driving a good man out of the service, although Miles tries to argue him out of it, that if those who are more progressive give up the fight because the other side is ugly, nothing will ever change.
This one is mostly a murder mystery, one of those without a corpse, and uncertainty whether or not a murder has taken place at all. The Barrayarans presume the quaddies are guilty, the quaddies are aghast at the suggestion, and shit starts to hit the fan, while Miles tries to hold everything together.
Did I mention that there are troubling reports coming in from the Cetagandan Empire? While Miles is off at this minor diplomatic kerfluffle, a major one is brewing. Are they related? Is Bujold a good storyteller?
But hey, I'm not going to tell you anything more. I just want to say again how much I've loved this series, and I'm sorry to be catching up entirely. I won't have many more to look forward to until more are published. Thanks again to Nele for the wonderful care package that has brought me so much reading joy this year!