Book Review: Cetaganda

Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold

As the fifth novel [1] in the chronology of the Miles Vorkosigan series of adventures, I was curious to see where this novel would go in developing the universe that Bujold has constructed, where previous novels contrasted an honor-obsessed culture with its more egalitarian neighbors. This novel decides to expand the universe a little bit by putting its hero, the hyperactive, intelligent, and melancholy romantic Miles and his heedless womanizing cousin Ivan who looks handsome but is not particularly bright in a situation where their strengths and weaknesses in light of an exotic and even hostile environment form a compelling drama for those who are inclined to appreciate what is at its core a detective story combined with a Gilbert & Sullivan mock opera drama like a farcical version of The Mikado.

The plot of this story is a classic whodunit, where a series of “chance” circumstances combine that do not seem like chance and where the hero decides to solve the mystery while keeping everyone else possible in the dark in cahoots with an elite and exotic foreign woman that ends up helping to preserve the unity of a neighboring and largely hostile empire in a way that reduces militarism and serves the best interests of multiple players in a very complicated picture. Obviously, in order to appreciate this particular novel, one has to appreciate diplomatic intrigue and the detective plot, as well as the alien and exotic culture.

There is a substantial level of enjoyment that one gains from this book if one appreciates Japanese culture. The author has obviously done her homework in turning Japanese culture and history into a coherent and slightly speculative fiction world where the Japanese love of Pompoko-like animals turns into a general tendency towards beings in the uncanny valley, in terms of an exotic and lascivious reputation [2], as well as a culture with a very complicated model of dual-class leadership, a cultured and highly feminine elite (the Kyoto emperors of history) with their catty fights over imperial heirs and their love of ritual poetry and insanely complicated ceremony and a highly militaristic subsidiary elite which is co-opted into the imperial class through marriages of princesses. The more one appreciates Japanese history and culture [3], the more one will appreciate the subtle hints and nuances of this work.

There will be some people who read a book like this and think that nothing happens except for paranoid hamster wheel spinning and others who can read this novel and appreciate the delicacies of cross-cultural interaction as well as the possibility for grudging but mutual respect as well as coordination between those who would normally be enemies in the face of common enemies. As a model for limited but meaningful cultural interaction as well as the growth of personal maturity, this novel is a worthwhile read. Count me among those who appreciate this novel’s attention to cultural detail and psychological factors in a tightly wrapped story told with a good deal of intrigue, a tale that manages to be a pleasant read but one that also provides rich relevance to our contemporary world, especially for those of us with a love of travel and interaction across boundaries of culture.

[1] See my reviews on the previous four novels:


[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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