While Captain Vorpatril's Alliance lacks the emotional punch of some of Bujold's other works, it is a lovely science fiction romance featuring none other than Miles' cousin Ivan. If you've read anything else by Bujold, you'll recall the gorgeous and clueless Ivan, and if you've yet to read Bujold, you'll get the picture soon enough. I never thought Ivan would get his own book and I swear, every time I saw his name on a page, I did a little happy dance.
Captain is a romance (and a heist novel, and a novel of political intrigue, and something of a farce about families – this qualifies as a crossover book) about two people who are viewed by their families as chronic underachievers. Actually, it's worse than that. Their families think they are achieving at their highest possible level, with the acknowledgment, frequently spoken out loud, that this level is much, much lower than everyone else's.
Ivan works for the secret service of Barrayar. Tej and her relative, Rish, are on the run for complicated and deadly reasons. Ivan is sent to covertly investigate them. Ivan doesn't stay covert for long, but he and Tej end up forging a delicate partnership based on three things – they each admire the other's intelligence and competence, they are attracted to each other, and they make each other laugh. They view each other, and value each other, without preconceptions, and they share similar ambitions (or lack of ambitions – they both want to be left out of their families' incessant political maneuverings).
One thing I like about this book is that, even though it includes space travel and a sidekick who is entirely blue and other science fiction elements, it feels real. Tej and Ivan are attracted to each other right away, but they aren't stricken with instant mad lust (instant mad lust is my biggest pet peeve, other than rapey heroes, in the romance world). For instance, Tej doesn't look at Ivan and get all swoony and suddenly know she must be with this man and none other. It's more like, “Wow, he is so cute, and he smells nice, too.” The biggest challenge they have a couple is balancing their obligations to friends, family, and country, and spending time together. Honestly, they could be any young couple with demanding extended families and jobs – theirs just happen to include interplanetary political intrigue and theft.
The weakness of the novel is that I never got terribly invested in Ivan and Tej's romance. Of course I wanted those two crazy kids to stay together, but I had trouble seeing how they went from attraction to this deep, life long love affair, even though I totally got the ingredients. They are so comfortable with each other in a way that they aren't with any one else. A lot of the book dealt with the intrigue and not the romance and that's ok for the book overall – it's a crossover, not a straight up romance – but it did weaken the romantic element.
I think this novel would work as a stand alone, although obviously the more of the other books you've read the richer this one will be. Certainly the end was satisfyingly conclusive. I have read several, but not all, of the prior books in the Saga and even though I had missed some books it wasn't difficult to follow the events of Captain. However, I found it impossible not to compare Captain to other Saga books when assigning a grade. It's a tricky book to grade and I danced around with the idea of giving it a B+ because of it's weaknesses in the romance department, and because it lacks the depth and the emotional punch of some of Bujold's other books. But since it put a big goofy smile on my face, I'm going with an A-.
A note regarding reading order: I am a rabid fan of A Civil Campaign ( A | BN | K | iB). If you want light romance, I'd suggest you start with that one and then read Captain. If you like those books at all, and I dare you not to, then try Shards of Honor ( A | BN | K | iB) and Barrayar ( A | BN | K | iB), which deal with the romance of Miles' parents and are deeply romantic but darker in tone (or boldly dive in by reading Shards and Barrayar before Captain since they are referenced a lot in Captain). (Note: Shards of Honor and Barrayar are available as an omnibus titled Cordelia's Honor.) By now you should have developed a deep adoration of Bujold and you'll want to read the entire series in chronological order. The books were not all published in chronological order but the chronological order is listed on Wikipedia as well as several other sites. Enjoy!