Be warned, this post contains spoilers for Mira's Last Dance, and everything else written by Lois McMaster Bujold.
This post did not turn out the way I thought it would. I have been wanting, for a few weeks, to burble about Lois McMaster Bujold's latest novella, Mira's Last Dance, the Penric series in general, and LMB's ouvre as a whole. I was all set to talk about how LMB writes male protagonists interested in women, but that the women they are interested in are not Love Interests but rather fully-realized characters with their own motivations and how awesome that is. Shortly before I could take some time to sit down and write it, Lindsay Ellis came out with a review of Beauty and the Beast and why it is not about Stockholm Syndrome but does have a bunch of other problems. At 14 minutes in, Ellis starts a thought that culminates in this quote:
"Thrown into circumstances which they must then survive" sure sounds like it describes a lot of LMB's love interests. (Note, this is female characters who are not the primary protagonist and are the subject of romantic interest by the male protagonist; Cordelia Vorkosigan, Royina Ista, and Fern Bluefield aren't included.) But does the first part apply? Let's take a look.
Love Interests or "Love Interests," And does that Preclude Agency?
I'm going to start with Miles Vorkosigan's love interests, because for me the Vorkosiverse is the baseline of LMB's writing.
Miles' first love interest, Elena, is definitely born into circumstances which do not endow her with much agency. The daughter of a deeply disturbed father who views the degree of her success at the societally prescribed female role as the measure of his redemption from his past sins, she is also the foster daughter of Cordelia Vorkosigan who views Barrayaran society with a mix of anthropological indulgence and Betan horror. The social messaging surrounding her says that the only worthwhile vocation is to be a soldier, but bars her from enlisting by sex. Barrayar is, to Elena, a situation to be endured.
Miles creates the Dendarii Mercenaries for a whole host of reasons, but in the processes uses them to gift Elena with her childhood aspiration of becoming a soldier. But Elena does not then turn around and fall into his arms. She takes the opportunity he offers her, but refuses to be beholden to him for it. Instead, she marries someone even lower on the Barrayaran social ladder than she, a deserter; someone who has been completely excommunicated by Barrayaran society. Marrying Baz is a complete repudiation of her father's expectations of her, but also of the narrative's expectations of her as a Love Interest.
Later on, in Memory, Elena quits the Dendarii as well.
"All my childhood, all my youth, Barrayar pounded into me that being a soldier was the only job that counted. The most important thing there was, or ever could be. And that I could never be important, because I could never be a soldier. Well, I've proved Barrayar wrong. I've been a soldier and a damned good one...And now I've come to wonder what else Barrayar was wrong about. Like, what's really important."
Elena was certainly born into circumstances she needed to survive, but when she was offered an out, she took it. And after some time, she also re-evaluated her life goals and changed direction. This doesn't sound to me like a character lacking in agency.
But Elena was never actually Miles' lover. Let's take a look at some others.
Quinn is the one on this list who fits neither clause of Ellis' statement. She is not put in circumstances she is forced to survive more than any other mercenary. She chooses to be a mercenary, chooses to become Miles' lover, and when he leaves the mercenaries, she refuses to go with him. She wants Miles on her terms or she won't have him. While her motivation is never delved into much, she clearly loves her job and wants to do it to the best of her abilities. She will not sacrifice her career or herself for a boyfriend. Quinn has as complete agency as anyone can who chooses to live in a society with rules and in relation to others.
Taura is in many ways Quinn's polar opposite on this scale in that she gets to choose almost nothing. Bred as an experimental genetically-engineered super-soldier, she grows up as a prisoner. When she meets Miles, he is on a mission to retrieve her creator and kill her, or rather, recover the tissue samples her creator had stored in her and dispose of the evidence. Miles offers her the chance to leave the Dendarii at Escobar after her rescue, but considering that would leave her in a strange society, knowing no one, with no coping tools, it's not surprising she refuses. She is bred to be a super-soldier, after all, and she does grow into her role in the Dendarii. Later she sets out to live life as fully as she can and seems to succeed. Based on characterizations, if she decided later that she wanted to give up mercenary life and take up woodworking, or anything else equally disparate from being a soldier, I believe Miles would have supported her fully. But the fact of the matter is that of his love interests, she seems to be the least independent, to have her choices most constrained by circumstances. I don't think this necessarily makes her a less realized character, but in light of general trends of the narrative arcs of female characters, it's kind of troubling.
Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson
In many ways, Ekaterin is the embodiment of the kind of female story arc Ellis named in the quote up top. We first meet her trapped in marriage with an emotionally abusive man, held to it by her son, her social conditioning, and her family's expectations. It is the quintessential circumstance a woman is forced to survive in the Western narrative. When her husband is killed, the range of possibilities available to her opens up somewhat, but when she returns to Barrayar in A Civil Campaign, her family promptly tries to marry her off again, being unable to conceive of her in any role other than wife and mother.
While she has more options in A Civil Campaign, she still feels herself to be in very straightened circumstances. Miles, having apparently learned nothing since his effort to give Elena a military career, attempts to give Ekaterin a career in gardening, or at least a jump start on one, as a ploy to keep her close to him. His plot comes apart, he asks her to marry him at entirely the wrong time, and Ekaterin feels backed into quitting both the garden project and her association with him lest she lose her independence. This is one of the points where Ekaterin's agency becomes apparent: her rejection of her other suitors up until this point could have been a plot device to have her end up with Miles, but here she shows that it's an intrinsic character trait. But honestly, while it's agency, it's really minimal agency. She has said no to Miles, but she has not had any chance to say yes to herself yet.
Ekaterin does eventually choose Miles after her family forbids her from interacting with him. Ekaterin herself lampshades the reverse psychology involved by comparing it to how her son carried on about toys. And ultimately she chooses him not because she feels backed into a corner by her family but because she decides that Miles can aid her in her self-actualization, now that he has been talked out of trying to do it for her. Still, the lack of exploration of other options for Ekaterin in the narrative - aside from her insistence that she is going to remain single, which is brushed off by all the other characters - is troubling. We do see her stand up to Miles in later books, but "I can stand up to my husband" is not much of a life goal.
Ivan's love interest: Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua
Like Ekaterin, half of the story of Tej and Ivan's romance is from Tej's point of view. And the main character arc of the story is hers: how will she reconcile the demands her family places on her with her own inclinations? Ivan's arc, realizing that he loves Tej and enjoys being married to her, then trying to get her to stay with him, is not nearly as interesting.
Tej almost seems like an answer to the profusion of Strong Female Characters TM* that we have in the genre. Tej's family wants her to be a Strong Female Character TM (for their purposes, of course), and she wants none of it. Her self-actualization involves sitting on a beach drinking fruity alcohol and reading. Her character arc highlights the difference between action and agency. And marrying Ivan is not the way she fulfills herself; the way she does that is by refusing to go back to Jackson's Whole with her family. If anything, Ivan is the reward she gets for standing up for herself.
So ultimately, Tej is not a standard Love Interest with no motivations of her own, nor is she a woman who lacks agency and must merely endure. She surely has to endure at the beginning of the story, but it is the same sort of endurance any hero might have to undergo whose character arc is started by the murder of their family; the difference is that LMB doesn't give short shrift to the emotional toll and the exhaustion such a tragedy would evoke.
Not Pictured Here
I'm going to skip Rowan Durona, who is only briefly present in the narrative of Mirror Dance, Beatriz from The Curse of Chalion, because she very nearly is a standard Love Interest off the assembly line, and Ijada from The Hallowed Hunt, because I didn't actually like that book all that much. Which brings me finally back around to the character who inspired this post in the first place.
Nikys Arisaydia Khatai
When we are first introduced to Nikys, she has definitely been thrown into circumstances she must survive. Her husband, chosen for her by her brother, has died after a long, lingering illness. Now a ward of her brother's, she endures his imprisonment on false charges and his refusal to take advantage of her attempt to rescue him. And then she must endure the flight to save her brother's life, to a destination not of her choosing.
At the end of Penric's Mission, it seems like she will end up together with Penric. At the end of Mira's Last Dance, it seems like she has declined, but Penric is staying to pursue her. But while she exercises a choice not to follow Penric back to Adria, it seems like a choice made from a place of fairly profound powerlessness. She is, ultimately, being asked to choose between following her brother or following Penric, with no option to follow herself.
No, Nikys is not a standard Love Interest in that she is a fully realized character with her own desires and motivation, but of all the women listed here, she seems to be the one most lacking in agency. Nikys seems to fit Ellis' description of women's narratives.
My Fave is Problematic. Now what?
There really ought to be a "My Fave is Problematic Dance." Whenever I realize something uncomfortable about something I love, I am taken with a desire to run away, and frequently I do put down the book, or pause the movie/tv show, and take a lap around the room before coming back. It would be a lot easier if there were a short dance I could do that would also communicate to anyone watching why I suddenly have shpilkes (Yiddish for "nervous, restless energy").
But after I would do that dance, I would come back to the thing, whatever it was, that I put down, because it is okay to like problematic things. Sometimes the good aspects outweigh the problematic ones enough that it doesn't stop you from enjoying something. And that's okay! Just don't pretend like the problematic parts aren't there. And maybe also seek out some works that are not problematic in that way (though they may be problematic in others).
Speaking of different ways to be problematic, a word about the criteria used in this post. When Lindsay Ellis referred to the troubling trend of women's narratives involving less agency and more survival, it was not a blanket condemnation of survival narratives. Survival narratives, where characters are thrown into untenable, uncomfortable, or even lethal situations they must then endure can be fascinating! For people suffering oppression in particular, such narratives can be empowering because they recognize the truth of their experiences and the strength it takes to persist in such circumstances. Problems arise when those are the only narratives told about certain classes of people.
I adore Lois McMaster Bujold, and she is generally quite good about not writing Love Interests TM who are woman-shaped props in the narrative there for the male hero to win. But it would be nice to see her write some more narratives where women aren't merely enduring. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was a lovely break from this pattern. More, please! (Also more non-white, non-straight, non-cis protags, too, while we're at it. A Bel book, maybe?)