A Vorkosigan Saga Novel: Book 2
It’s taken me over two years to write up my thoughts on Barrayar, the second in the loosely-knit Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve actually read it twice in the interim, but for some reason never quite managed to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to keys). Picking up the story immediately after the end of Shards of Honour, it reintroduces us to our protagonists Cordelia and Lord Aral Vorkosigan as they adjust to newly-married life. The adjustment is greater for Cordelia, who is unused to the rituals and customs of aristocratic Vor life on the planet of Barrayar, and also unused to Barrayar itself. It seems far more archaic than her own home-world, and she finds it hard to believe that she’s given up Betan technology and egalitarianism for this old-fashioned hierarchical world under the rule of an Emperor. But she has done so for a good reason: her new husband, who is one of the most honourable, caring and upright men she has ever met. And Vorkosigan will need all those qualities for, as Barrayar opens, he is about to be made an offer he can’t refuse, which will place him and his entire household in the gravest danger.
The offer makes sense. The old Emperor is on his deathbed and needs someone reliable and wise to serve as Regent for his successor, his young grandson Gregor. Vorkosigan is the obvious choice, although it means coming out of retirement, stepping back into the piranha pit of Vor politics, and giving up his dreams of a peaceful life with Cordelia. However, honour has made its demand and Vorkosigan is too noble to refuse. For the watchful, wary Cordelia, it seems ridiculous that the reins of power have suddenly fallen into their hands; that governments can simply be willed or pretended into existence (‘Perhaps all governments were such consensus fictions, at their hearts,’ she muses – a sentiment with which Harari’s Sapiens would agree). But it turns out that Vorkosigan’s position as Regent will involve more than long, awkward formal receptions and paperwork. Something more dangerous comes into play: the resentment of his peers, and the first subtle shiftings of mutiny among the Vor lords who see opportunity in the succession of a mere child. In a world where surface politeness masks vast wells of ambition and ruthlessness, Cordelia is about to discover that even her beloved Vorkosigan has limits to the protection he can offer.
And Cordelia needs protection, not for herself, but for the Vorkosigan heir she’s recently realised that she’s carrying. Even the Vor lords might not set out to harm a pregnant woman, but it’s hard to imagine that they would grieve over any setback to Vorkosigan’s personal ambitions. With all her senses sharpened, Cordelia must find her way in a newly treacherous world, judging who she can trust and who – secretly – would love to see her disappear. Fortunately, she has a loyal core of friends on whom she – and the frequently absent Vorkosigan – can rely. Some of these are familiar faces: the brutish but deeply tormented Sergeant Bothari, who is clawing back his humanity under Vorkosigan’s gentle watch; or Lieutenant Koudelka, who is struggling to cope after reconstructive surgery to his nervous system (see Shards of Honour for the cause). But some are new faces, such as the delightful Droushnakovi, Cordelia’s no-nonsense, formidably capable bodyguard and also a welcome confidant. For this book will take Cordelia into some dark places, forcing her to reassess what it means to fight, to care, or even to bear a child, and teaching her new and terrifying forms of fear. But Cordelia, a strong former officer in her own right, forces herself through the darkness:
Pain… seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?
And there are glorious moments here. Bujold’s books appeal to me because they combine dramatic plots and moments of breathless action with quieter, more contemplative passages. There is time, even among the chaos and terror of the civil war, to think about life and its demands. Here, one of Cordelia’s key concerns – and, I would argue, the ‘point’ of the book, just as much as the war and intrigue – is the nature of motherhood. This is a theme that crops up again and again, showing us different approaches on Cordelia’s planet and on Barryar; showing us how different female characters react to motherhood in different ways – as aristocratic incubator, warrior, or self-sacrificing protector. The fierce protective instincts of motherhood are behind one of the most dramatic sequences in the book, and we see Cordelia facing up – wonderfully, triumphantly – to the need for mothers to love unconditionally, knowing that their children might not be quite what was expected. A Vor woman on Barrayar might well accept her duty as a brood-mare, turning out the next generation of aristocratic warriors, but I’m sure few of them rise to the full, fierce, defiant challenge of being a mother quite as well as Cordelia does. And let’s take a moment to applaud the fact that a sci-fi novel about turbulent civil war quite happily takes a (usually) heavily pregnant woman as its heroine, and gives her fantastic freedom, agency and dignity along the way. Fantastic stuff.
Several people have said to me that the Vorkosigan saga is essentially a set of Regency romances. I think this probably becomes more evident as we go on into the main body of the series, which revolves around Vorkosigan and Cordelia’s son Miles, to whom we’re introduced here. However, I have found traces of this in Shards of Honour and now, too, in Barrayar. I appreciate that this probably sounds deeply weird, because these novels are also, very definitely, sci-fi – but try, for a moment, replacing the interplanetary wars with, say, the Peninsular War, and you might get my drift. Besides, Barrayar doesn’t feature any interplanetary skulduggery and can easily be read as a tale of court rivalry and intrigue. The martial drama is a disturbance on the surface, but the deep foundation of these two books has been the romantic connection between Vorkosigan and Cordelia. Romance, I stress, which isn’t soppy, or limp, or gushing. On the contrary, it’s a deeply satisfying romance between two intelligent, mature, sensible people who – quite against their expectations – have found their soulmates. It’s a similar dynamic to that you find in some of Georgette Heyer’s novels (her heroines are virtually always down-to-earth, pragmatic and sensible women with a degree of intellectual if not financial independence). And, perhaps because I’m now approaching middle-age myself, it’s comforting to see two characters who are so much in love despite no longer being young and sprightly. Consider Cordelia who, after a rather critical assessment of herself, re-judges herself through her husband’s eyes (‘In those mirrors, I am altogether beautiful,’ Cordelia realized warmly. ‘Much more flattering than that one on the wall upstairs. I shall use them to see myself from now on’).
In Shards of Honour, I developed a predictable literary crush on Vorkosigan which continued here, though it didn’t have quite so much grist to its mill, because he spends a good deal of time ‘offstage’. I’m sad, though, to think that I probably won’t have much more time with him, as the later books shift their attention to his son Miles. On the other hand, people have also promised me that, once I’ve spent some time with Miles, he’ll overtake Vorkosigan as my new favourite. So we’ll see about that… Finding one’s way through this series can be a bit confusing, because there isn’t an entirely clear structure or sequence. However, based on Bujold’s own postscript in this book, I think the next one should probably be The Warrior’s Apprentice, followed by The Vor Game and then Brothers in Arms. Please do plunge in if you disagree with that and think I should change the order slightly! I know there’s also the prequel Falling Free, which might give me some further context for the world at large.
Last in the series – Shards of Honour
Next in the series – The Warrior’s Apprentice