I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I found out about this Vorkosigan novella, but it wouldn’t have been this. And I mean that in the best possible way.

This is, if anything, a sequel to A Civil Campaign, though as ever this is independent enough to not need to have read anything else. That said, it deals most directly with an outgrowth of the ‘butter bug’ project from there. It also stars and is from Ekaterin’s point of view, which we’ve seen a couple of other times (Komar and Diplomatic Immunity), but is nice to see again. It is also the first good look at the backcountry of Vorkosigan lands since “The Mountains of Mourning”, and the first real look at the irradiated wilderness that was once the city of Vorkosigan Vashnoi (mentioned several times, most notably when Miles pawned off a good chunk to raise cash from someone who didn’t think to check the radiation graphs first in The Warrior’s Apprentice).

Past the tie-ins, this is a usual compact, dense novella from Bujold. Also, the mood is fairly somber, as many of the latest Vorkosigan stories have been. This is not the high-energy adventure of younger Miles, but the quiet reflective pieces that have generally gone with Ekaterin. Things begin fairly simply with a visit to a field test of a way to decontaminate the area. This naturally is the opening thread of the main plot, when scientific mystery starts turning into a more regular mystery, and then leads into a knot of unexpected problems.

A pretty healthy chunk of this novella is the climatic scene, which keeps climbing to new heights of drama before starting towards a resolution. As usual where Vorkosigans are involved, solutions are a mix of the conventional and unconventional, and a bit of emotional catharsis and philosophizing.