The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold
This VORKOSIGAN SAGA novella is a blast from the past, accompanied by a large dose of radiation. After Lois McMaster Bujold apparently wrapped up this long-running series in 2016 with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, she returned once again to her immensely popular series with this brief novella, backtracking in the series timeline to just a few years after Miles Vorkosigan’s marriage to Ekaterin, when their oldest children, twins Sasha and Helen, are toddlers.
In The Flowers of Vashnoi (2018), told from Ekaterin’s point of view, she, Miles, and Enrique Borgos — a brilliant but odd scientist who we first met in A Civil Campaign — are beginning the process of trying to reclaim a large section of their land that was radiation-poisoned in the Cetagandan war eighty years ago. Enrique has bioengineered the infamous butterbugs from A Civil Campaign, creating a variant they call “radbugs” that eat irradiated soil, regurgitate concentrated heavy metals, and excrete clean, fertile soil. They’ve even engineered the 2½ inch long radbugs to have a flower-like yellow radiation symbol on their backs that glows more brightly as the bugs become increasingly radioactive through their diet, as a warning sign to those who handle the bugs. When the radbugs start disappearing, Ekaterin and Enrique investigate on their own and stumble into something wholly unexpected.
I wouldn’t recommend The Flowers of Vashnoi to anyone just beginning with the VORKOSIGAN SAGA series. As fantastic as the series is, this is definitely not the place to start with it. For one thing, this novella relies on familiarity with characters and events from several prior books. For another, its main character is Ekaterin rather than the more vividly-drawn and compelling Miles or his mother Cordelia. Ekaterin is quieter but firm-minded, thoughtful and compassionate. It’s fitting that this story is told from her point of view, which we don’t often see in the series. (Miles puts in appearances at the beginning and end of this story.)
The Flowers of Vashnoi is both a somber and a hopeful tale. There’s the tragedy of the lost city of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, where hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the Cetagandan bombing and its aftermath, and the still-blighted lands that slowly poison anyone who goes there.
We also get a glimpse of the old-school hardline Barrayaran attitude toward anyone who has a physical disability or mutation. At the same time, there’s an encouraging vision of what the future might hold, and characters who have the power and will to work toward a better world. It blends into an overall tone of cautious optimism, a dream of a world where flowers — both the vegetative and the human kinds of flowers — can, once again, blossom in Vashnoi.
The Flowers of Vashnoi is a side story in the VORKOSIGAN SAGA. It’s not important for the overall plot, but it’s a nice return to Miles’ world and I enjoyed learning more about Ekaterin’s work. I love the butterbugs.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version narrated by Grover Gardner who does a fabulous job as the voice of this series. The audiobook is 3 hours long.