Has it been eight years since Lois McMaster Bujold has visited the Miles Vorkosigan universe? Looking at my review of the last book, Diplomatic Immunity, it seems that it has. Fans have patiently waited as Bujold pursued other, more fantastical interests, always hoping that one day she would come back to the pint-sized cyclone of chaos. Cryoburn is like streaming water from a garden hose onto somebody who’s been on fire for years: a true relief. Has she lost her Miles touch? She hasn’t. In fact, this one is much better than the last Miles book, which was a good, but not great, send-off.
Seven years after the events of Diplomatic Immunity, Miles has a growing family back home on Barrayar. However, his position as Lord Auditor for the Emperor Gregor, galactic problem-solver for Barrayar’s interests, has brought him to Kibou-daini, a planet heavily invested in cryogenically freezing the dying. Ostensibly attending a convention on the planet, Miles hopes for a bribe attempt from one of Kibou-daini’s massive cryonics companies which may be making a move on Komarr, one of Barrayar’s planets. He gets more than he bargained for, however, as he stumbles upon another, far more sinister scheme. With the help of a young boy whose mother was taken away and frozen eighteen months ago, Miles must get to the bottom of what’s going on. Corruption, kidnapping, illegal freezing - Miles has to learn quickly and try to stay one step ahead of the scheme, or it will roll right over him.
Bujold slips into her Miles glove with ease, this light-hearted (yet fairly serious) adventure showcasing just how flexible her writing style is. Her ability to highlight serious topics while keeping the reader engaged is right up there with Pratchett’s, though their styles are much different. Bujold closely examines the details and controversies that might arise when cryonics are common, including things like the voting rights of the frozen and the logistics of when and how they are to be revived. It helps that Miles has been through the very same thing after taking a needle grenade blast to the chest, so he’s able to understand some of the intricacies that other laymen might not be able to.
Cryoburn is a return to form for Bujold as far as Miles goes. The previous book didn’t contain the gentle humor that the series has always been known for - it was pretty light, but it wasn’t humorous. This book definitely has the humor touch. The wry observations of Miles’ armsman, Roic, regarding the situations Miles is always getting himself into, or the dignified horror of the Vorlynkin, the head of the Barrayaran embassy, when he gets his first taste of how Miles does things, add to the general tone of the book.
Bujold manages to wring a lot of drama out of the story, too, despite the fact that Miles is never really in any danger, other than of his plans perhaps falling to pieces around him as he desperately tries to improvise. The young boy, Jin, is in a more danger; he ran away from his aunt and uncle’s house after his mother was taken away and frozen. He’s been living in a kind of commune of other unfortunates on Kibou-daini, along with his menagerie of animals.
Bujold’s world-building is once again top-notch (she’s had a lot of practice in that). The society on Kibou-daini is very interesting, with the extensive interest in cryonics and intricate political system of how those who have chosen to be frozen are still not disenfranchised. We see the underbelly of Kibou-daini, those who get by on their wits, but we also see how the cryonic conglomerates work. It’s all very neat.
But it’s the characters that make or break a Miles novel, and that’s where Bujold excels. Cryoburn is littered with interesting characters. Miles is his normal, almost-manic self. Roic is picture-perfect as both Miles’ servant and confidant. The Barrayaran embassy staff, the cryo-technician Raven who provides Miles with the cryonic expertise during his investigation - all are presented without a weak note. Bujold even throws in a couple of twists character-wise that will leave longtime fans giddy.
The only strike against Cryoburn is that a major event in the Miles universe is relegated to an aftermath section, literally begging for a follow-up that I hope Bujold will explore. And soon. It seems out of place in this novel, unless an immediate sequel is planned. Yes, one can make the case that it does follow the theme of the novel, but it still comes out of left field.
Long-thirsty Miles fans can finally take a much-needed drink. Miles is back. Can we clone Bujold to make sure that she never leaves him again?