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Lois McMaster Bujold – Ethan of Athos

January 18, 2011

142. Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Vorkosigan Saga, Book 7
(although it can easily be read as a stand-alone)

Read my review of book:
1. Falling Free*
2. Shards of Honor*
3. Barrayar
4. The Warrior’s Apprentice*
(stars indicate stand-alones/starting points)

Read By: Grover Gardner
Length: 6h 55m (256 pages)

Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery

Started: 06 November 2010
Finished: 11 November 2010

Where did it come from? From the publishers.
Why do I have it? Hi, Bujoldian fangirl!

Talking to girls for
the first time: hard no matter
how old a boy is.

Summary: Athos is one of the most isolated planets in the galactic community, which is exactly how the inhabitants like it. It’s a planet entirely of men, where contact with off-planet sources is strictly limited, and each next generation is conceived in vitro and incubated in uterine replicators. This system has worked for hundreds of years, but now Athos is facing a serious problem: their carefully cultured lines of ovarian tissue, the same cell lines that have provided half of the genetic material of every Athosian for centuries, are failing.

Dr. Ethan Urquhart is the head of one of Athos’s District Reproduction Centers, and he is well aware of the grave prospects for his planet’s future. When a very expensive order of ovarian tissue from off-world turns out to be useless, Ethan is chosen for a vital but unprecedented mission: to go off-world himself, find some replacement cell cultures, and personally safeguard them on their way back to Athos.

Ethan only gets as far as the transfer hub of Kline Station before things start to go wrong. The enormous space station is overwhelming enough for someone who has never before seen, let alone been forced to interact with, women. But Ethan has bigger problems on his plate as he swiftly becomes tangled in a plot that involves spies, military operatives, subterfuge, murder, and a fugitive carrying something that could change the fate of the human race forever.

Review: I’m afraid my reviews of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, and of the Vorkosigan Saga in particular, are in danger of becoming repetitive. My opinion of almost all of her books boils down to: Love her! Read them! And Ethan of Athos is no exception. Bujold’s got an uncanny ability to create multidimensional, flawed, and loveable characters in a very short space. Even though Ethan is almost painfully naïve throughout the book, it’s hard not to sympathize with him and cheer for him right from the beginning.

Bujold’s also got a deft hand with dialogue; the characters have just the right amount of snarky wit to keep things lively without losing the rhythms of how real people talk. The same sense of humor is present throughout the book — I’m still giggling about one of the parts with the newts — but it’s well-blended with the action, the politics, and the emotional pathos that make up the rest of the story. The whole thing moves along quickly, telling a complete story in a lean seven hours of audiobook — no unnecessary or wasted scenes here.

Ethan of Athos also showcases how good Bujold can be at introducing more serious topics in her fiction, without having the story become entirely about The Issues. In this case, the story on the surface is essentially a spy thriller, but there are deeper layers dealing with sexism, the rights of the individual vs. the society, and homophobia. The sexism angle is the most obvious; after all, Athos is a society founded for the express purpose of protecting men from the evil, corrupting influence of women. Watching Ethan deal with the contrast between his indoctrinated beliefs and the reality of meeting actual women was fascinating, and I appreciated that Bujold left him not-quite-converted and still grappling with his prejudices at the end of the book, rather than taking the easier but less-realistic path of a complete epiphany.

I also found it fascinating that while Ethan is dealing with his own sexism, he also has to deal with others’ homophobia against Athosians (who are, after all, actually trying to recruit their children to bolster their planet’s flagging genetic diversity). There’s a very interesting interplay between various characters’ perceptions, prejudices, upbringings, and experiences that hums away beneath the surface, raising questions and making the reader think without competing with the narrative flow of the story.

As per usual, Grover Gardner does a wonderful job with the narration. His voice blends seamlessly into those of the characters, making it easy for listeners to lose themselves in the story. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Ethan of Athos is set in the Vorkosigan universe, but only mentions Miles in passing. Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Mercenary Fleet is a major character in this book, but she’s introduced well enough that it could easily be read independently of (or as an introduction to) the larger series.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: The e-book can be downloaded for free from Baen CDs (It’s part of Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem).

Other Reviews: Janicu’s Book Blog
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The birth was progressing normally.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 7:46 pm

    You described the sexism and homophobia ideas really well in this review! Yes, that’s it exactly. The way Bujold explored those themes by Ethan’s life on his home planet compared to his experiences off of it was really well done.

    Thanks for linking to my review by the way. :)

    • January 20, 2011 9:03 am

      Janicu – I was really struck by the idea of a planet where homosexuality was not only accepted, but expected, since unless you were asexual, there was literally no other way to be. It adds an interesting twist to the nature/nurture debate, eh?

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