8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Title: Cetaganda

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Baen
Publication Date: October 1996
Paperback: 302 Pages

The fifth installment of the Hugo-award winning adventures of Miles Vorkosigan.

In this novel Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda, the long-standing enemy of Barrayar, to represent their Barrayar at the funeral of the mother of the Cetagandan emperor. From the moment they arrive they are swept into a complex and little understood political game between elements of the Cetagandan ruling class.

Stand alone or series: Book 5 in the Vorkosigan Saga

How did I get this book: Bought (thank you, Baen ebook model, I love you with all my heart)

Why did I read this book: I love Miles Vorkosigan. I really, truly do. He’s a hilarious, heartfelt character that never fails to impress – and I am ashamed to admit how pitifully, poorly-read I am in this series. With Smugglivus each year, Ana and I get some breathing room – we can finally take the time to read older titles that we’ve had languishing on our TBRs for years, and finally (FINALLY!) I had time to get back to the incorrigible Miles and his misadventures. I started reading Cetaganda nearly 2 years ago (GASP I KNOW!!!!) and kept getting pulled away by other obligations. This December, I put my foot down. My goal? To get through at least 2 more Vorkosigan books by 2013.


Miles Naismith Vorkosigan has come a long way since his miserable attempt to qualify for the Barrayaran Military Service Academy – since then he’s created a commanding (if solely based on smoke and mirrors) mercenary fleet, saved the Barrayaran Emperor, and thwarted a full-out war. Officially serving out a position as Imperial Security Courier, the brilliant (if physically less-appealing) Miles and his cousin the handsome (if decidedly less-brilliant) Ivan Vorpatril are sent on a diplomatic envoy to Cetaganda to attend the state funeral of the late Celestial Empress. Trouble starts immediately, however, when Miles and Ivan’s ship is boarded by a Ba (the genetically engineered, genderless servants of the Haut class of Cetagandan women), who leaves behind a strange object. When that same intruder, known as the Ba Lura, is found dead shortly later – an apparent “suicide” – the plot thickens. Apparently, Ba Lura was the most senior and trusted of the late Empress’s servitors, and the object left behind on Miles’ ship is a unique key; a Cetagandan artifact of paramount importance. Someone is trying to frame Barrayar for stealing the key, and it is up to the brilliant Miles to figure out which Cetagandan lord is playing at war and thwart his efforts before Barrayar is drawn into the mix. (OK, there’s also the added motivation of Miles trying to look impressive in front of a beautiful Haut lady, too.)

Miles Vorkosigan remains one of my favorite characters in all of science fiction (heck, probably in all of fiction) – and Cetaganda only solidifies this elevated position. Miles may seem like he has the world going for him – he’s the only son of a wealthy and admired military father and mother – but in-utero was the victim of a poison gas attack, which resulted in physical disabilities for Miles (namely, his stunted height at under 5′ tall and his extremely brittle bones), even more glaring because of the importance that Barrayar places on physical prowess. In the first books of the series, Miles is frequently referred to by his fellow Barrayans as a mutant because of his appearance which deeply affects the way Miles perceives of himself (even if this is subconscious) and his urge to prove everyone wrong with his superior intellect. In Cetaganda, the internal desire that Miles has to please and to become a proper hero has never been more glaring. In this world, where beauty is a genetically-engineered given, where the Haut females are so breathtakingly gorgeous and elevated that they mask themselves from any lower lifeforms behind their protective bubbles, Miles is utterly out of place. And for the first time in the series, it becomes clear that Miles’ decisions are eminently self-serving – he needs to prove himself a hero, to impress the beautiful Haut Rian on the one hand, but also to show that he can do it all alone. This added depth to Miles’ character is remarkable, and in my opinion makes Cetaganda all the more memorable.

I should also make sure to say – this somewhat uglier side of Miles’ personality does not come at the expense of the entertainment value of the book. Because people. Miles is hilarious. As per usual, there were many parts of Cetaganda that caused me to laugh out loud because of Miles’ (or should I say, Lois McMaster Bujold’s) superior wit. Ivan Vorpatril also is inching his way up in my heart as a favorite character because he is so single-minded (but charming in the extreme, of course) in his pursuit of a good time. His particular conflict in Cetaganda – the victim of a practical joke instigated by Cetagandan ghem lord Yorobev – is hilarious, as he earns a reputation as a tireless, lady-pleasing giver in bed.

And I have yet to say anything of the story itself! I loved the world of Cetaganda with its varied, stringent rules and rigid social hierarchy of Ba, Ghem and Haut. The power struggle within the Cetagandan empire, with the Haut women atop the social structure (if completely behind the scenes) is fascinating, and the preoccupation with genetic perfection – no matter how far it takes them from human – is also beautifully conceived. What paled in comparison, however, was the mystery of the Ba Lura’s murder and the identity of the Cetagandan rabblerouser. While the progression of the mystery is well done and well written per Bujold’s normal high standard, the storyline wasn’t as captivating as The Warrior’s Apprentice or The Vor Game. Of course, your mileage may vary – as a lighter standalone adventure, Cetaganda certainly feels like the kind of book I would read over and over again.

Suffice it to say, I loved Cetaganda. Good thing I have Ethan of Athos lined up on my ereader next… (although it appears this next book is Miles-less?! Fellow Vorkosigan fans, any insight you can give me?!)

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Ebook available (in omnibus edition Miles, Mystery & Mayhem) from Baen Ebooks


  • Nancy
    December 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I liked Ethan of Athos, but … but well, if you are truly going to read two more Vorgosigan books before 2013, you should spend your time getting to know Miles’ mother. You want SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR. I promise you will not be sorry.

  • Maureen E
    December 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Does this mean you have the joys of A Civil Campaign to come? Because if so, how lovely!

    As I recall, ETHAN is mostly Miles-less, but he does pop up at the end, or is at least mentioned? But he’s definitely side-lined.

  • Li
    December 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Okay, firstly – yay for CETAGANDA 🙂 It’s one of my favourite Vorkosigan books, though I agree re its fluffier nature. I love Miles and Ivan really starts to come into his own here.

    Secondly, like Nancy, I suggest you skip ETHAN… It doesn’t really fit into the Vorkosigan series and doesn’t add much to the later books (it’s one of her earlier books, IIRC, and it shows), suggest you go on to the next and come back to ETHAN at the end.

    Finally, Baen is changing their ebook model (I just posted about it briefly) – basically, buy this week if you want their ebooks at current prices…

  • Kathy Martin
    December 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I agree that Ethan of Athos is a side-book. Elli Quinn does appear and some of the repercussions of the story show up in later Miles books. Which Vorkosigan books have you read? Are you trying to read them in any sort of order?

    I just read the latest – Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – and loved it. It was another lighter book but this one featured Ivan who is now all grown up.

    If you haven’t read Komarr and A Civil Campaingn, I vote for those as your next two reads. They go together and should be read in order.

    Happy reading! You make me want to re-read the series but I am determined to read books from my TBR mountain for the rest of the year.

  • Liz
    December 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    I cannot even express my love for all things Vorkosigan. It’s one of those few series where I like all of the books in it. I would probably count Cetaganda as one of the weakest entries in the series and I still love it.

    As others have already mentioned, Ethan of Athos is sort of a side story — it is the only book in the series starring someone who isn’t a member of the family. If you’re limited to 2 Vorkosigans and want to skip this one and come back later you won’t be missing much.

    I usually recommend reading them all in publication order. They are written so that you can dive in anywhere, but I think if you read them in order you get a much better feel for the character growth. I don’t know which ones you’ve read yet, but coming off of Cetaganda I would say Brothers in Arms would be the next place to go with Miles. If you started the series with Warrior Apprentice you might want to go back and read Shards of Honor and Barrayar because Aral and Cordelia will rock your world. Seriously, Miles comes by his awesomeness honestly.

    Am I the only one who feels like Bujold writes these books in pairs? Because it seems like a lot of them work best together(Shards of Honor and Barrayar, Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, A Civil Campaign and Komarr).

  • mary anne
    December 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    I like Ethan of Athos, but it is not really a Miles book. I read it when I want me a taste of Bujold, but don’t necessarily want to dive into the whole series again. Chronologically, you should probably go with Brothers in Arms and then Mirror Dance – both excellent. Of course, before you read those, you ought to grab the 2 novellas that occur somewhere in the middle of that timeline, Borders of Infinity and Labyrinth – they are both important to the ongoing series and help make sense of both of those books – plus they are truly awesome stories. And The Mountains of Mourning is another Miles novella that plays into his character development.

    I read an essay or speech where Bujold said she felt like Memory was the novel where the series sort of came to a crux, and then carried on in an entirely new (but Milesian) direction. So you should read Memory before you move on to Komarr and then A Civil Campaign, which is a treat of the highest order. And since that will leave you pining for just a little more, you can read the novella Winterfair Gifts. And then maybe take a break before you dive into Diplomatic Immunity (my least favorite of the series – but still very good) and Cryoburn. And then the most recent – the Ivan story.

    Of course, as someone said above, it all started with Cordelia (and Aral). Shards of Honor and Barrayar are wonderful. Not necessary to read them before you read the Miles stories, but they are not to be missed. Think you can achieve the whole list by New Years?

  • Nora
    December 11, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Love this review! I am also a big Miles/Bujold fan. It’s very interesting to read the other comments and learn how everyone has a different idea about the order that the books should be read in.

  • Thea
    December 11, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you so much, Vorkosigan fans! I have read the five books in their order (I think) to date (starting with Cordelia – though perhaps I should re-read since it has been *years* since I’ve read those two books and I never reviewed them – ending most recently with Cetaganda, but I’ve also read the novella Mountains of Mourning). I am going to put Ethan on the backburner since I just want more Miles – I am restraining myself from jumping too far ahead and moving on to Brothers in Arms (and also buying the two novellas, Borders of Infinity and Labyrinth to have close at hand).

  • Andrea
    December 12, 2012 at 2:58 am

    Ethan of Athos is worth reading for Elli, but if your main draw is Miles you can safely skip it.

    “Borders of Infinity” is one of my fave stories.

    I just finished from “Shards of Honour” to “Memory” in a straight glom re-read because I was in the mood for some chunky politi-science fiction and nothing captures me quite so much as Bujold’s universe. I originally read them in publication order, and so it was very interesting to read them in in-universe order.

  • Thea
    December 12, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Ok – revised reading plan (please let me know if this is wrong/bonkers!):

    1. Miles Errant (which includes: ‘Borders of Infinity,’ Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance)
    2. Memory (which I can’t seem to find in an anthology collection?)
    3. Miles in Love (which includes: Komarr, A Civil Campaign, ‘Winterfair Gifts’)

    I am very excited! @Li, thanks for the heads up on Baen changing its ebook model. I am loading up NOW!

    Thank you, everyone!

  • Vorkosigrrl
    December 12, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Hello! Another big Bujold fan here (I found your review because I have a google alert set up for her).

    I recommend Borders of Infinity as your next read. The best format (IMHO) is presented as a book of the same name, which includes three novellas: Mountains of Mourning, where a teenage Miles, on leave from the military academy, helps Aral with a murder mystery in the Dendarii Mountains; Labyrinth, where he has his first documented adventure on Jackson’s Whole, and which shows Miles firmly in command of the Dendarii Mercenaries; and Borders of Infinity, in which Miles is at his most brilliant, and which is my favorite Miles story.

    The three stories are linked together by a thin storyline involving Simon Illyan interrogating Miles as part of an investigation by the Council of Counts for possible misuse of Imperial funds — as Miles lays in the hospital, recuperating from an operation. I recommend getting the novellas in this format, even if you have to find a used version.

    I also recommend reading them in storyline order, as the characters change with each new story, and you can’t really see this if you go to the later stories now. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is great, but if you read it now, you won’t see the subtle changes in Ivan as the series progresses. The back of each book shows the storyline order.

    Happy reading!

  • Estara
    December 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Yes, there really should be no reason not to be able to read a book you really want to read first. Keep it fresh and enjoyable. LMB forever!

  • Li
    December 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    @Thea – I think that’s a good sequence! For some reason, Memory didn’t get included in any of the omnibuses. It is probably the one I re-read most often though.

    @Liz – now you point that out, yes there are pairings! I’ve actually always thought of Warrior’s Apprentice and Vor Game as one as I read them in the Young Miles omnibus.

  • Jocelyn
    December 12, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    I strongly endorse your reading order. Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance are two of my favorite books in the series, so I salute your decision not to jump ahead.

    I also just read the latest installment, and it was great to see more of Ivan, though

  • Liz
    December 12, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    @Thea – excellent plan!

    @Li – I love the omnibus editions because they make it so much easier to keep track of everything. The short stories would be really hard to track down otherwise. I know what you mean about thinking of Warrior’s Apprentice and Vor Game as one story. The first time I read the series I read Cordelia’s Honor and now it’s impossible for me to think of Shards of Honor and Barrayar as separate stories.

    You’re right about Memory being one of the few that doesn’t appear in an omnibus. I guess that’s because it doesn’t really fit with the pairing thing. I would call it the lynchpin of the series, at least in terms of Miles’ character. Of course, I might be slightly biased since it’s definitely my favorite entry in the series.

    This is one of the few series where I own both hard copies and ebook versions. Gotta love Baen!

  • Meghan
    December 14, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I have finally just read all of the Vorkosigan books up to the latest release, which I’ve bought – just finished Cryoburn a couple of weeks ago. Your reading order sounds great to me, Thea! I’ve loved these books and I can’t wait to reread them again. Now just to get Ana to start on them!

  • hapax
    December 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Just to give a variant opinion – I love love love ETHAN OF ATHOS, mainly because, well… I love Ethan of Athos (the character.)

    Miles is brilliant, Elli is daring, Ivan is charming, Aral is noble, and Cordelia is magnificent (not to mention my adoration for Taura and Ekaterin and a bunch of other characters you have yet to meet); but Ethan is, hands down, the NICEST person in the entire Nexus.

    And while Miles is present only in Elli’s thoughts, the events of EoA cast certain events in CETEGANDA in a whole new light (and vice versa).

    And yes, you might want to go back and re-read SHARDS / BARRAYAR before you plunge ahead with the rest of the series. Because you’ll want to refresh your memory about Aral and his deeds on Komarr… and Cordelia and a certain jump-pilot… not to mention the stories a particular couch can tell…

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