Book Review: Ethan Of Athos

Ethan Of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I waited a long time to read this particular novel, especially because its social message is one I am not friendly to. Truth be told, this novel is a bit heavy-handed (and immoral) in its political and cultural message, which is especially unfortunate because the planet Athos takes its name from the Greek Monastery (and quasi-state) of Mount Athos, an inaccessible hillside principality that bans all women from its area. The fact that a planet would be so rigorously religious in its organization and so blind to an obvious sin suggests that the author does not believe in any sort of effective long-term and widespread sublimation of sexual lust, from which would follow her implicit belief that in the absence of women any sizeable culture of men must be deviant in that respect. It is striking, if somewhat peripheral, that the absence of women would lead automatically to the degradation of men, for one of the more intriguing aspects of this particular novel is the way in which its hero, the prim but not entirely virtuous Dr. Ethan Urqhardt, combines a resourcefulness to do what is necessary with a nurturing and empathetic nature capable of acting with understanding towards a clone whom he considers his brother and with a woman, albeit an unconventional one, in Elli.

Compared to other novels in the Vorkosiverse, this one suffers a bit in comparison for a few reasons. For one, Elli Quinn is not nearly so appealing in the absence of Miles. For another, Ethan is a bit bland as a hero when compared even to Leo Graf or Cousin Ivan (although he is perhaps closed to Cousin Ivan, minus the true comic incompetence). The action in this novel mostly takes place on Kline Station, one of the more confined locations in the series where, as in Diplomatic Immunity [1] there are rogue Cetagandans and a genetic mystery to solve. The action hinges on an uneasy alliance between a mysterious telepath, an overly diffident doctor from a planet of only men in dire shortage of female genetic material for breeding, and Elli Quinn on a secret mission that involves both of them. Naturally, despite initial suspicions both end up discovering a great deal of mutual interest and developing a good working respect for each other.

Despite the presence of elements that are personally offensive, and needlessly provocative, the novel does manage to provide an interesting story and some intriguing character portraits. It presents the possibility that sufficiently reasonable people from any background can overcome their own prejudices in the face of a common recognition of humanity and unite to overcome common threats. It provides an understanding of the many possible paths a society could take if technology allows for culture to overcome the limitations of biology, even in a limited fashion, and it presents the gender and social politics of Bujold in a particularly forceful way. Small wonder that the book remains one of her more obscure ones, even if it won awards for its perspective, if not for its excellence as a novel.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/book-review-diplomatic-immunity/

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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6 Responses to Book Review: Ethan Of Athos

  1. capnhollis says:

    I haven’t read the book, just your note above. However, seems to me the author intended to show that no matter the make-up of a society there will always be individual and group differentiation…sociology’s theory of demography I suppose. Suffice it to say the writer hoped to agitate, to push one’s personal moral.

    I probably won’t get around to reading the novel as I’m not a big fiction fan…read either literary fiction or extreme cheesy fiction. I know…I’m weird that way…

    • There is no need to apologize for not being a fiction fan. Virtually all of the novels I read, including the Vorkosigan series of which this is a part, come at the urging of friends whose taste I respect.

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