I went into Cryoburn blind. Bujold's novel is the latest installment in the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, a hero introduced over two decades ago in The Warrior's Apprentice (1986) and who has appeared in over a dozen other novels. And I'd never read any of them.
And I'll be honest--this made the novel frustrating for me to read at times, particularly the beginning. I cheated a bit and looked up Miles Vorkosigan on Wikipedia, and looked at his chronology in the back of the book, both of which helped me keep characters straight and have some idea of where Miles was coming from, but I still didn't have the same emotional investment in the characters that a long-time Vorkosigan saga fan would have. The hardcover version novel also came with a CD containing all the earlier works in the Vorkosigan saga, which I'm sure would be a huge bonus for many Bujold fans, but when I saw the CD, I was hoping for something more transmedial--something that blended genres and enhanced the medium of the novel with an interactive tour of the Vorkosigan universe, perhaps.
That said, Cryoburn is a fun mystery involving dead people coming back to life, kidnapping, and intergalactic financial shenanigans. Even without knowing his entire history, I found Miles to be an engaging protagonist who held my interest and felt believable as a human being. And the mystery at the heart of the novel was one where each new clue led to three more mysteries. "Mystery mitosis," as Miles calls it. In the telling of this mystery, Cryoburn does indeed stand well on its own, and delivers on the promise of adventure and cheating death that seems to be the hallmark of other Vorkosigan novels.
But the best parts of Cryoburn come in the second half of the novel, and are woven so subtly throughout the narrative that they could be easy to miss. And these are parts that make the narrative much darker, and if the reader is willing to let them simmer in the back of her mind, they have the ability to change the whole point of the novel. The mystery that Miles is investigating involves cryofreezing people, who pay to be stored and then revived at a later date when the technology (hopefully) exists to make them live longer. One of the frozen women that Miles encounters is beautiful, with long dark hair that is carefully brushed and arranged next to her head. Someone compares her to Snow White, and then Miles--who is only 4'9"--jokes that she has just one dwarf. While this reference to Snow White is brief, it serves to set up the fairy tale ending of "happily ever after" as the standard against which the stories of each of the main characters can be measured and found lacking.
But it is the ending of the novel that has the greatest potential to radically change the reader's thinking about what the novel is about. I won't say anything about what exactly happens, but the dramatic shift in narrative tone, point of view, and style in the "Aftermaths" section of the novel, when juxtaposed with the carefree feeling and focus on childhood found in the majority of the novel, creates a feeling of poignancy and loss that is unexpected and that lingers.
And it is in this lingering that Cryoburn truly stands on its own.