Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

Barrayar
In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Advertisements

Barryar, Lois McMaster Bujold

BarrayarBarryar, Lois McMaster Bujold (1991)
Review by Martin Wisse

Barrayar was actually the first ever Bujold story I ever read and I hated it. That’s because it was the last part of its serialisation in Analog that I read and I had no idea of what was going. Coming back to it now, after having read all the Miles Vorkosigan books at least once, I enjoyed it much more. Like any prequel Barrayar depends for some of its impact on the reader’s knowledge of the main series. If you don’t know who Miles Vorkosigan is and why he is the incredibly determined little mutant runt that he is when we first met him in The Warrior’s Apprentice, the details of how he got to be that way won’t matter all that much.

Chronologically, Barrayar takes place almost immediately after Shards of Honor and is the second and so far last novel to star Cordelia Vorkosigan/Ransom. Cordelia and Aral are settling in to newly married live on Barrayar, with Cordelia pregnant with Miles. Then the old emperor dies and Aral becomes regent to his young grandson and he and Cordelia are soon plunged into the dangerous, still very medieval politics of the Barrayaran court and nobility. How dangerous Cordelia only realises when they’re the victims of an assassination attempt, with poison gas grenades thrown into their house.

They survive, but the antidote Cordelia has to take to counteract the poison gas has a very bad side effect, acting as a teratogenic agent on the fetus she is carrying, posing a real risk to its bone development. Normally there would be nothing for it but to abort the fetus or risk a stillbirth, but Cordelia is not the type of woman to just give up. On a more civilised planet, where medical science was more advanced, there would be chance for the baby, as it could be put into an uterine replicator and treated outside the womb. But Barrayar doesn’t have any of them, or does it?

There are after all still the uterine replicators which housed the children born of the rape of female prisoners of war taken in Barrayar’s last war, which had been forgotten about after they served their purposes. Cordelia manages to track them down, get Miles installed in one and get a bone strengthening programme going on. It takes all her strength but she gets her way and everything looks to be on the up and then the civil war breaks out.

And Miles is behind enemy lines, in the capital, trapped with the rebels. So Cordelia decides to go and get him to safety. Which is sort of where I came in the first time I read this, in the last third of the story. No wonder I was confused.

In retrospect, Barrayar is a turning point in the Vorkosigan series. The novels before it had been cleverly written, more intelligent than they needed to be, light science fiction adventure stories. With Barrayar the series took a leap in quality and became more serious and slightly darker, setting the tone for later entries like Mirror Dance and Memory.

Barrayar is also another reminder of how subtle Bujold can be in showing the effects of her science fictional technology. There isn’t any of the technogeekery or infodumping of some authors I could mention, but at the same time the plot is very much driven by a classic piece of science fiction kit, the artificial womb or uterine replicator. Here it is more of a macguffin of course, something for the protagonist to chase, but over the course of the series we slowly see the impact the introduction of uterine replicators has on Barrayaran society. And here is where it started.

Barrayar is not the best of the Vorkosigan series, but it is the best of the early part of the series. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the earlier published novels yet.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.