While being a space-faring empire, Barrayar still harbors deep-rooted prejudices and superstitions, including those against "mutants." When a Dendarii hill-woman comes before Aral Vorkosigan seeking justice for the murder of her infant baby who has been killed because of her physical defects, the Barrayaran Lord sends his son Miles to a remote mountain village to discover the truth and carry out Imperial justice and at the same time attack these long-held barbaric beliefs. And who better than Miles Vorkosigan, who has himself struggled with these prejudices all his life because of his own physical deformities.
This is probably the Miles story that deals most directly with the ableism we know Miles has faced since before he was born (well, you know it if you've read the earlier Vorkosigan books, anyway). We have already seen some of Miles personal physical limitations in The Warrior's Apprentice but the ableism from random strangers was more of a side thing. And by the time Mountains of Mourning starts, Miles's grandfather is a few years gone, although his shadow still very much hangs over Miles.
This story is partly a murder mystery and partly an exploration of just how backwards parts of Barrayar are. Miles sets out to fairly solve the murder and hopes to bring a little bit more of the present to the small community he visits. The infanticide of a baby with a cleft pallet — a trivial condition to fix in any hospital on Barrayar — is seen as tragic by Miles and the baby's mother, but a matter of course for the murderer and many other members of the community. Miles not only has to bring justice, but also show what justice even looks like in this situation.
Like all of Bujold, this was a good read, although not an especially happy one. The insight into what life is really like for the Barrayaran poor (or at least the poor in the Vorkosigan region, made worse by a Cetagandan nuclear blast) provides an interesting contrast to all the spacefaring and war which dominate a lot of the other books in the series. Being a novella, Mountains of Mourning is also not a very long read. I recommend it to fans of Miles and the Vorkosigan universe. Although it's possible to read the novella without having read any of the other books (there's nothing much which depends too heavily on prior knowledge), I expect it would be a little less interesting out of context.
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: 1989 in Analog
Series: Vorkosigan universe, falling between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game
Format read: ePub
Source: Free from Baen several years ago