Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cordelia'a Honor
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publication: Baen (September 1, 1999) 

Publisher's Note: Cordelia's Honor is comprised of two parts: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Together they form a continuous story following the life of Cordelia Vorkosigan nee Naismith from the day she met her then-enemy Lord Aral Vorkosigan through the boyhood of her son Miles. Barrayar won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year.

After reading the most recent in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, I decided to do a major re-read and read all the books again in order of their internal chronology. For me the starting place is Shards of Honor - when Cordelia Naismith meets Aral Vorkosigan on a newly discovered planet. Cordelia was exploring newly discovered wormhole jumps for her planet Beta Colony. Aral was setting up a base for a jumping off point for an invasion of Escobar.

The story is essentially told in three parts. In the first part Aral, Cordelia and wounded Dubauer must travel across the planet with almost no supplies. Cordelia's landing party has been attacked by the Barrayarans. Most escaped the planet. Aral was the near victim of a mutiny by a faction of his troops. Cordelia gives her word to go along without causing trouble so long as she is able to take Dubauer with her to get him medical attention. Aral needs to reconnect with his loyal troops to regain command of his ship. Along the way they learn to respect each other and fall in love.
Vorkosigan grinned like a boy over his shoulder at her, and jogged after his prize.

"Oh," she murmured, stunned herself by the effect of the grin. It lit his face like the sun for that brief instant. Oh, do that again, she thought; then shook off the thought. Duty. Stick to duty.
They do retake the ship but Cordelia realizes that the Barrayarans plan an invasion of Escobar - an ally of her home planet. Aral proposes marriage but this isn't an easy choice because of their conflicting planetary loyalties. Cordelia is rescued by her crew. But before she leaves, she ends the mutiny and leaves Vorkosigan in control.

In part 2, Cordelia is co-opted by the Betan military to smuggle weapons to Escobar around the Barrayaran blockade. She is captured by the Barrayarans and finds herself in the hands of one of Aral's enemies who is determined to rape and torture her partly for his own pleasure and partly to hurt Aral. She is rescued by Aral and learns a number of secrets about Barrayaran internal politics. Her smuggling having been successful, Barrayar loses the war and Cordelia finds herself in a POW camp with a head stuffed full of Barrayaran secrets and totally in love with one of the enemy. As part of prisoner exchange, she is sent back to Beta Colony where the therapists who are trying to ease the trauma of her capture get entirely the wrong idea. They think that she has been suborned and is now a Barrayaran agent rather than a woman in love.

In part 3 having fled Beta Colony Cordelia reconnects with Aral on Barrayar. He has resigned his post because of the actions his emperor required him to take during the Escobaran war. She finds him at home attempting "death by alcohol". They marry and both need some time of honorable retirement to heal. However, Barrayar is not finished with Aral. The Emperor is dying and needs him to hold the Regency until his grandson Gregor becomes an adult. 
Allow me to put it in a capsule. What the Recency requires is a man of impeccable rank, no more than middle-aged, with a strong military background. He should be popular with his officers and men, well-known to the public, and above all respected by the General Staff. Ruthless enough to hold near-absolute power in this madhouse for a sixteen years, and honest enough to hand over that power at the end of those sixteen years to a boy who will no doubt be an idiot - I was, at that age, and as I recall, so were you - and, oh yes, happily married. Reduces the temptation of becoming bedroom Emperor via the Princess. In short, yourself.
It is at this point that Cordelia learns that Aral is not just any soldier. The emperor tells her that Aral is one of five men who have better right "by blood and law" to be emperor than he does. Aral does not want to be emperor to the very bottom of his soul. He does, however, serve the emperor and Barrayar and takes the job.


This story is about Cordelia's adjustment to Barrayar. Aral is the new Regent for Gregor Vorbara aged 5 and the assassination attempts begin. Ezar's death has created some instability. Barrayar's external enemies were hoping for an opportunity to conquer the planet. Aral's internal enemies think the wrong man was chosen Regent. 

Cordelia is also pregnant with their first child - a son who is to be named Piotr Miles - and very frightened. What will she do if something happens to Aral? One of the assassination attempts misses Aral and Cordelia but the antidote to the poison damages Miles by causing his fetal bones to begin sloughing off. 
The baby was moving within her, flutters, kneading turns; evidently the teratogenic antidate was a very slow-acting poison. They were still granted a little time together, it seemed, and she loved him through her skin, her fingertips moving in a slow massage over her abdomen. Welcome, my son, to Barrayar, the abode of cannibals; this place didn't even wait the usual eighteen or twenty years to eat you. Ravenous planet.
Aral's father Count Vorkosigan is in favor of a quick abortion because Barrayar has a horror of mutations. Cordelia is very reluctant to write off her child. She finds scientists who are willing to try to repair Miles and has an operation to move him - placenta and all - into a Uterine Replicator where the scientists can make repairs. Count Vorkosigan makes an attempt to end the experiment and murder Miles.

Then one of Aral's internal enemies starts a palace revolt. The Princess is captured but Gregor is taken to Aral by one of his security people. War breaks out. Hostages are taken. The enemy Vordarian declares himself emperor. One of the hostages is Miles in his Uterine Replicator. Against Aral's wishes, Cordelia and some people she drafts plan a rescue mission.

Cordelia succeeds beyond her wildest dreams but not without losses. She rescues the Uterine Replicator but loses the Princess. Her actions cause the end of the revolt but the political consequences will linger for quite a while. She and Aral become guardians for Emperor Gregor and Miles is born.
Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history. Have a birth; have two. Have a name. Miles means "soldier," but don't let the power of suggestion overwhelm you. Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. Have a title, wealth, power, and all the hatred and envy they will draw. Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made, Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn't going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.
Cordelia demands that Aral make Barrayar a planet where Miles and Gregor can live and be safe. She wants Barrayar changed and determines to work for the change. 

These books are great space opera in a fascinating world. But more than that they are wonderful stories of intriguing people. Cordelia Naismith is a wonderful heroine being smart and brave. She has a core of honor that clearly guides her actions. Aral Vorkosigan is also a tremendous hero. He is a larger than life character whose own sense of honor guides his actions. Neither character is perfect but both strive for right action. 

The stories nicely contrast the two planets - Barrayar and Beta Colony. Barrayar is backward have just reconnected with the greater galaxy when the Cetagandans tried to conquer the planet. The ruling caste on Barrayar are the Vor. They are a miliataristic caste. Advancement on Barrayar is through the army and imperial service. The government is an empire with an emperor who holds their spoken oaths. On Barrayar, a man's word is supreme. Women, however, are not as highly valued. They cannot give oath or serve in the military. Beta Colony never had a time of isolation. It is socially and scientifically advanced. It is a democracy (though no one seems to have voted for the current president.) Men and women work at jobs based on ability and not gender. Betans pride themselves on being rational. Cordelia comes into conflict with Barrayar in a number of ways. Many are culture clashes where her Betan rationality comes into contact with Barrayaran "tradition". 

I do not know how many times I have read these books. Each time I read them I get swept into the story. This time, I highlighted sentences and paragraphs that I thought were especially compelling. There seemed to be something on every page. The language is wonderful. Each word seems to be perfectly chosen. The stories resonate for me. I begin reading them and totally lose contact with the real world around me. I can not recommend them highly enough.

It is perhaps a measure of my enthusiasm to mention that I proudly own all of these books in multiple editions. My LibraryThing tells me that I have 4 copies of Shards of Honor and four copies of Barrayar including on cassette and as ebooks. I also own the collections that include the stories including Cordelia's Honor.


  1. Cordelia is SO AMAZING!! It's been a while since I've read the whole series start to finish (confession: I've never read Ethan of Athos. Can we still be freinds?), although I have a couple that I read over and over again. Have you read her fantasy books?

  2. I might try Shards of Honor, but the second book/story sounds a bit too heavy for me.

  3. I enjoyed Cordelia's Honor enough to purchase four more Vorkosigan books, but I have yet to read them. I'm glad you have been enjoying re-reading them so much! I love returning to old favorites.

  4. Wow..I have to admit I have not heard of the author. But reading all the hype about it really intrigued me..Thanks for sharing!

  5. I must admit that this isn't normally the type of book that I would read, but I love reading reviews where people feel so passionately about the books. 4 copies?!?! Wow, you must love them a lot! Great review :)

  6. wow, I had never heard of this series before, it sounds so cool =)

    Thanks for the Review =)


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