Lord Auditor Miles Naismith Vorkosigan is enjoying a belated Galactic cruise/honeymoon with his wife, Ekaterin. Almost two years have passed since his shambolic but ultimately successful courtship (hilariously recounted in Bujold's last Vorkosigan book, A Civil Campaign, reviewed elsewhere on this site), and husband and wife are looking forward to their imminent return to the Barrayaran Empire where their first children are waiting, almost ready to crack out of the artificial wombs they've been quietly gestating in.
At this inopportune moment a crash-priority message comes in. Emperor Gregor wants Miles to sort out a diplomatic snafu with one of their trade fleets in a nearby stellar system. In fact, he's heading for Quaddiespace, the planetless system settled by the genetically engineered Quaddies (four arms, no legs, zero-g adapted) some two hundred years earlier, and the subject of another prior book of Bujold's, Falling Free. Reluctant, but obedient, Miles and Ekaterin alter their itinerary and set off.
The mess that's dumped into Miles' lap is a thoroughly opaque mixture of missing intelligence officers, racial prejudice, militaristic overreaction, and peculiar (very peculiar) clues. No sooner does he get one part of the problem sorted out then something else happens to throw the situation off-balance. Cracking the outer shell of the mystery soon reveals that there's something a lot stranger and more sinister lurking underneath, and a hell of a lot more dangerous.
Miles has to juggle about sixteen different factors, factions, personalities and problems before he resolves things, and he doesn't quite manage it without dropping some of the balls...
Well then, does this all amount to a good book? Yes, it does, because even second-rate work by Bujold is much more worth reading than a lot of other authors' first-rate material. It doesn't, however, come anywhere close to meeting the very high mark she set in A Civil Campaign.
Some bright blurb writer at Baen came up with the subtitle 'A Comedy of Terrors' for the jacket cover, but that's something of an insult to Shakespeare. Bujold can do brilliant farce, and there are glimmers of wit playing through Diplomatic Immunity, but no more than a few giggles worth, and no big belly laughs.
Then again, the plot, essentially, is old territory for Bujold. It bears comparison with the last but one Vorkosigan novel, Komarr: Miles confronts one apparent disaster, only to find it conceals another, winkles all the hidden elements out from their shells, and fast-talks/fast-thinks his way through the final confrontation...
However, Diplomatic Immunity feels more artificial than Komarr. The underlying mystery in Komarr was a long-standing conspiracy by a group of disaffected Komarrans who resented their Barrayaran conquerors (and who can blame them?) and that theme, that element of Komarran resentment, ran through the book from beginning to end.
Diplomatic Immunity is different. The underlying mystery here isn't completely unforeshadowed, but it certainly comes out of left field. When you finally understand just what's been responsible for all the mayhem you find yourself blinking and thinking, "oh... how very... arbitrary..." It's become apparent that Bujold's humour works best with novels set on Barrayar itself, where she can deploy the full cast of established characters and competing agendas to best effect (as in A Civil Campaign, and also Memory). Bujold wanted, perhaps, another fifty or a hundred pages to fill this book out, to develop new characters enough to let ironic possibilities emerge, to give a bit more breathing room to its puzzles, perhaps to send stronger signals about the connections with older elements in the intriguing Vorkosigan universe.
One always enjoys a story by Bujold, but some one enjoys more, and some less. This is a 'less'.
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© Simeon Shoul 7 September 2002