Memory: Why Bujold is secretly revolutionary

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMemory by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsMemory by Lois McMaster Bujold

My copy of Memory looks like it was reread several dozen times and then shoved in the bottom of a backpack and schlepped a few hundred thousand miles (it was). It’s my favorite book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA, which is a series made up of some of my favorite books. But it isn’t high literature or uber-intellectual science fiction or the kind of book that people call “genre bending.” The plot is pure, fast-paced, crime-solving fun, like the rest of the series. It’s just a cheap paperback.

But it moved me, and continues to move me. This review is my attempt to understand how and why. After some thought and another rereading, I’ve come to suspect that it’s a book built on tiny, imperfectly perfect human interactions. The meat of Memory isn’t in the plasma arcs or crime-solving; it’s in Miles’ rambling, sarcastic inner voices, the stilted and wrought conversations with his father, and the rocky finding of self at the late age of thirty.

For those who are new to Bujold, and might dismiss Memory out of hand for the mystery-space-opera aspects — or its atrocious back-cover summary — I advise you firmly to march nine books backwards in the series and begin at the beginning with Shards of Honor. However, in brief: Miles is a physical wreck. Miles is a genius. Miles is also obsessively competitive, hyperactive, conceited, and unstoppable. He is a moving target. In Memory, the double life that absorbed most of his excess energy is abruptly cut off, and he’s sent home to mope. Then his old boss (a beloved character named Simon Illyan) falls catastrophically ill, and an exciting whodunit ensues. During the process, Miles renegotiates his own identity and grows the hell up.

That process of growing up is probably why Memory wins out against other volumes in the Saga. Other books have more adventurous and inventive aspects, and certainly much more on the line than the main character’s retired boss. But, by the end of Memory, Miles himself has fundamentally changed in a way that informs the rest of the series. It’s the rare coming-of-age novel which doesn’t act as though all your coming-of-age happens at eighteen, whereupon you’ve Found Yourself and become an Adult (for example, every book ever). It’s weirdly comforting to read as a teenager.Memory (Vorkosigan Saga) Kindle Edition by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)

As it turns out, it’s impossible for me to write about any of the Vorkosigan books without writing about my Mom. She gave the books to me when I was fourteen or fifteen, neck-deep in epic fantasy and turned off by back covers that mentioned cryorevival, space, or military ranks. Then I read Cordelia’s Honor, and every other book Lois McMaster Bujold ever wrote, and then I reread them all.

Over time, Miles and his world have become a strange and permanent part of the way my Mom and I speak to each other. It is a rare book in any genre that can infiltrate the special language between a mother and daughter, but the VORKOSIGAN SAGA slunk into our private emotional territory and established a permanent base. Even tiny combinations of words have become significant to us: “alarmingly fey,” “biological empire,” “forward momentum.” When I called home during grad school to tearfully hyperventilate about a rejected article, Mom said, “Vertigo at apogee, dear?” If for no other reason, read Bujold for her ability to reduce vast emotional tangles into neatly-packaged phrases.

And this, I think, is the core of Memory: Its emotion. Its humor. Its humanity. The real magic happens in the scene when Miles realizes the difference between the desire to win and the refusal to surrender. It’s when his lovable but moronic cousin offers him sage advice and Miles says, “Out of the mouths of… Ivans.” It’s in the wrenching moment that Miles refuses a bribe which would give him back his entire double-life as a brilliant and devious admiral riding the high seas of space. “What stopped you?” the Emperor asks him, and he answers, “Some prices are just too high, no matter how much you may want the prize. The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.” “Oh,” says the Emperor.

I’ve chosen to see Memory and the Vorkosigan books as genre-bending in a subtler and rarer way. There are no aliens, but only many kinds of humans. There are no world-ending technologies, but only a slow evolution of technologies that generationally change cultures and planets. There are no hyperbolically totalitarian governments to topple, but just a few medium-corrupt aristocracies somehow limping along from crisis to crisis. It’s science fiction where human relationships are vastly more important than gadgetry or gimmicks. It might not be the kind of revolution that wins Serious Literary Notice (although Bujold wins Hugos with astonishing regularity), but it’s the kind of revolution that sneaks into a teenager’s brain and rides along with her for the rest of her life.

~Alix E. Harrow

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsIn Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold turns the VORKOSIGAN SAGA from space opera to planetary politics.

Miles Vorkosigan has always been a risk-taker. Usually the person he puts at risk is himself, but in Memory, Miles’s choice injures a crew member. Miles compounds the problem by procrastinating and then outright lying in his report. Even hundreds of years in the future, the cover-up is often worse than the original act, and the consequences for Miles are serious. He must give up the mercenary fleet and the alter ego “Admiral Naismith.”

Miles, though, is too valuable an instrument to leave on the shelf, and Emperor Gregor soon makes him an Imperial Auditor. At first this sounds punishingly tedious to Miles, but Gregor points out that an Auditor is an Imperial inquiry agent, and the unique traits that make Miles so, well, Miles-like are exactly what Gregor needs.

Early in the Vor Saga, Bujold gave herself a huge canvas and filled it with an extended ensemble of characters. From Cordelia and Aral, Miles and Mark, to their very Vor cousin, to family retainers, to Gregor and the royal court, she has left herself plenty to work with, and deploys these interesting people with skill, humor and panache. 

~Marion DeedsMemory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures) Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsMiles Vorkosigan is used to having difficulties with his physical body — he makes up for this by being smarter than almost everyone around him. But in Memory, for the first time Miles is dealing with mental handicaps, too. So is his boss, Simon Illyan. This story is painful as we watch these two brilliant men have to give up the parts of themselves that they think define them. In fact, this happens for other characters, too. It takes a little while to get going, but in the end there’s a lot of change for everyone in Memory. This is one of the best VORKOSIGAN stories.

I’m listening to the audio versions which are wonderful.

~Kat Hooper

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsMemory is the 8th volume in the Vorkosigan Saga (if you exclude the stand-alone novels Ethan of Athos and Falling Free), and represents an important transitional phase between Miles Vorkosigan’s free-wheeling alter-ego as Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries, and Lord Miles Vorkosigan, son of Count Aral Vorkosigan and a key member of Emperor Gregor’s inner circle of Barrayaran leaders. Therefore, this is definitely the wrong place to start reading the series — you’ll not understand any of the background or experiences of Miles that have led up to this point. Therefore, of all the Miles Vorkosigan books, I felt this one was the least self-contained in the series, but a crucial transition point for Miles’ character as he hits middle age and a sudden fork in his career and life path.

The story opens with an action-packed rescue mission by the Dendarii mercenaries led by Miles, but quickly goes disastrously wrong. As a result of this debacle and Miles’ attempt to cover it up to ImpSec and Simon Illyan, he suddenly finds himself cut off from both the Dendarii and the Barryaran military, and in a mid-life crisis as his two key identities, which are so well developed they have taken on a life of their own. So what happens to a person when both are snatched away without warning?

Miles returns to House Vorkosigan, now empty of everything but memories, and tries to readjust to the stifling role of as a Vor lordling, but without the outlet of his Admiral Naismith identity or his pride as a military officer, the trapping of aristocracy are little solace. He visits the setting of the story “Mountains of Mourning,” and does a lot of introspection and reflection on who he really is, and what gives his life purpose. This is another reason not to start with this book — it would be like starting the third season of a long-running drama series.

Of course just ruminations and mid-life crisis do not a SF adventure make, so Miles does soon encounter some very eccentric behavior by long-time ImpSec chief Simon Illyan, and as these start to escalate he realizes something very sinister is happening inside the organization, and when he himself is framed for it, he needs to go back into Miles Vorkosigan hyperactive mind mode and use his wits to exonerate himself and track down the real culprit. So the book’s pace and mystery are more like Cetaganda than the space opera military adventures of the earlier books.

It’s a natural progression for Miles to start to grow out of his swash-buckling mercenary 20s, and as Bujold has devoted so much care into fleshing out all the characters in this series, this book can devote itself to the inner struggle of Miles to come to grips with the inevitable life changes he and some of his close companions must go through, just like any of us. And she handles the story very well, as his inner monologues and thoughts are entirely realistic and consistent with all he has gone through before. Memory also sets the stage for a new phase of Miles’ life, and it takes great confidence for an author to take a successful series and refuse to repeat the same formula over and over again, but instead force the main character to make changes he would rather not undergo, and still keep readers engaged in his story. Along with Mirror Dance, it’s one of the most thoughtful and introspective of the Miles stories, and thought it may not be as exciting as earlier stories, it is done very well indeed.

~Stuart Starosta

Forced to abandon his undercover role as leader of the Dendarii Mercenaries, Miles Vorkosigan persuades Emperor Gregor to appoint him Imperial Auditor so he can penetrate Barrayar’s intelligence and security operations (ImpSec). Simon Illyan, head of ImpSec and Miles’ former boss, is failing physically and mentally, and Miles sets out to find out why — and who, if anyone, is behind Illyan’s rapid decline. Library Journal calls Miles “one of the genre’s most enterprising and engaging heroes”. A Hugo and Nebula Award finalist.

Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan Falling Free, The Borders of Infinity, Brothers in ArmsShards of HonorBarrayar by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Warrior's Apprentice 30th Anniversary Edition (Vorkosigan Saga) Paperback – Deluxe Edition, May 3, 2016 by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)The Vor Game (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster BujoldScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil CampaignLois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor 2. Barrayar 3. The Warrior's Apprentice 4. Ethan of AthosBorders of Infinity (Vorkosigan Saga) Paperback – January 3, 2017 by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan Falling Free, The Borders of Infinity, Brothers in ArmsScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaignfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil CampaignScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil CampaignScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaignfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsScience fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaign, CryoburnThe Flowers of Vashnoi: Vorkosigan Saga Kindle Edition by Lois McMaster Bujold  (Author)


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ALIX E. HARROW, who retired from our blog in 2014, is a part-time historian with a full-time desk job, a lot of opinions, and excessive library fines. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons,, Apex, and other venues. She won a Hugo Award for her fiction in 2019. Alix and her husband live in Kentucky under the cheerful tyranny of their kids and pets. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter. Some of her favorite authors include Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Susanna Clarke.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    What a great review. I always love reading about the story behind people’s experiences with a particular book.

  2. I think this was my favorite Vorkosigan book.

  3. Hélène /

    My favorite too. In The Warrior Apprentice (?), Miles broke his legs falling from a wall when he tried entering the army school. In Memory, he’s facing the wall again and he passes. For all the trials he endured in his adventures, I never felt him threatened to death (which is rather strange, as he did die!)but , in Memory, he is truly at stake (loosing his mind, loosing Naismith). That’s what makes this book precious to me.

  4. This is a great review! (almost makes me want to come out of my reviewer retirement)

    This series has been on my TBR list for a long time. I think you just convinced me that I need to move it up close to the front of the line. Thank you.

  5. You know, I wouldn’t give any single Vorkosigan book 5 stars, but I’d give the SERIES 5 stars. The sum is greater than the parts.

    (This sounds like a good Thoughtful Thursday topic.)

    I might say the same for The Dresden Files, too.

    • I definitely know what you mean. Like…I wouldn’t give all of the Harry Potter books five stars, but the whole thing as an experience, sure. And then there are series that are the other way around; I was reading one where I enjoyed each individual book but then would later realize it hadn’t advanced the plot much since the last one.

    • I think that those are the best series, Kat. Dependable enough to commit to. Because face it, a awful lot of the series are a life-time commitment now.

  6. Brad Hawley /

    You’ve made me want to read this book, but can I read the book as a stand-alone?

    I know that one convention of crime fiction series requires writers to engage new readers, even if there were 9 books before the current one. The same is true in comics. They both must include enough info to invite the new reader into the world (sometimes to the annoyance of regular readers of a crime series or comic). I get the feeling that this requirement is not as common in fantasy series? Am I correct? I just haven’t read enough SFF series to know.

    Sorry to ask this double-question, but I’m eager to read Memory if I’m not taking on a series, and I’m always interested in larger questions dealing with genre, conventions, and audience.

    I look forward to what any/all of you experts have to say on this matter: I continue to learn much from your reviews and comments on this site. Thank you.


    • This is…a really interesting question. Here’s what I think about Memory in particular: I’ve talked to people who started here. It’s one of the more award-nominated of the series, and it’s nice and short, so. From what I gather, they could enjoy the mystery-fun and world-building parts of the book, but definitely didn’t get the depth of meaning and emotional history that the book builds on. It felt much lighter than it actually is. Jo Walton happens to think it’s the very worst place to start the series, and she might be right.

      Now, more generally–I’m biased towards linear must-be-read-in-order series. I’m usually not thrilled with series that are a bunch of super episodic books with main characters who do all the same stuff in different settings (Hard Boiled Detective and Femme Fatale Solve Crimes in Tibet!). I want them to build. I want complexity and serious plot-advancement, and I want everything that happened to these characters before to matter a LOT. So, Bujold suits me fine.

      P.S. You don’t necessarily have to start a generation back with Miles’ parents in Shards of Honor (totally worth it, btw). I think a lot of people happily start with The Warrior’s Apprentice, which only gives you…oh god, SIX books before Memory. If you skip the novellas. Or you could read three omnibus editions and hey! it doesn’t seem that crazy.

      • I agree that this is not a good place to start. The poignancy of the story depends on understanding what’s happened to them before and you can’t appreciate what Bujold does to her characters if you weren’t there to witness it. Brad, you won’t get out of it what we got out of it if you don’t read the previous books starting with Warrior’s Apprentice.

        • Brad Hawley /

          Thanks Alix and Kat: I’ll start with Warrior’s Apprentice!

          • Amazon quoted the author as saying I could start with W Apprentice, as you both mention. She then mentions only Vor, Brothers, and Mirror before Memory. Is this short path to Memory TOO short?

            From Amazon under Apprentice page:
            The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game

            After that: Brothers in Arms should be read before Mirror Dance, and both, ideally, before Memory.

  7. Your lovely review has made me wish I had discovered this series when I was much younger. I’ve tried to get others to read them too but so far I haven’t had any luck.

  8. I started Warrior’s Apprentice and am already hooked!

    Here’s a copy of the author’s discussion of writing stand alone novels within a series. She suggests that she tries to write stand alone, but like you all said, jumping straight to Memory means a reader will miss much:

    From the Author
    Author’s Note:

    The Vorkosigan Saga Reading Order Debate: The Chef Recommends

    Many pixels have been expended debating the ‘best’ order in which to read what have come to be known as the Vorkosigan Books, the Vorkosiverse, the Miles books, and other names, since I neglected to supply the series with a label myself. The debate now wrestles with some fourteen or so volumes and counting, and mainly revolves around publication order versus internal-chronological order. I favor internal chronological, with a few caveats.

    I have always resisted numbering my volumes; partly because, in the early days, I thought the books were distinct enough; latterly because if I ever decided to drop in a prequel somewhere (which in fact I did most lately with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance) it would upwhack the numbering system. Nevertheless, the books and stories do have a chronological order, if not a strict one.

    It was always my intention to write each book as a stand-alone so that the reader could theoretically jump in anywhere, yes, with that book that’s in your hand right now, don’t put it back on the shelf! While still somewhat true, as the series developed it acquired a number of sub-arcs, closely related tales that were richer for each other. I will list the sub-arcs, and then the books, and then the caveats.

    • RedEyedGhost /

      I read all of them in internal chronological order, and I thought it worked well. But I can see how The Warrior’s Apprentice would be a fine starting point. Just don’t wait too long before going back and reading Shards of Honor and Barrayar! Free Falling though, eh, read that after you’re done with the rest and in need of a fix.

  9. RedEyedGhost /

    I’ve only read through the series once, and I was actually a bit disappointed with Memory. I think my expectations were too high after seeing too many comments ranking it the best in the series. I do think it’s a great book, and expect that it will rise in my rankings whenever I get around to rereading them. A Civil Campaign ended up being my favorite.

  10. Maddalena /

    Thank you for this wonderful review: your words have put into perspective my feeling for this series, one that I’ve re-read twice already and that is always close to my heart.

    Memory is indeed the best book of the saga, the one where Bujold’s writing and world-building get close to perfection: what always intrigued me here, is that Miles – broken as he is – finds a way to get out of his own despair by helping someone else who has been broken as well. There is a very definite sense of poetic justice that I find quite appealing…

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