Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1991
Series: Book 3 (by internal chronology) of the Vorkosigan Saga
Awards Won:  Hugo Award, Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

“Cordelia Naismith left her home in egalitarian, scientifically-advanced Beta Colony to marry the retired military Barrayaran Aral Vorkosigan.  Unfortunately, their peaceful honeymoon period is short-lived. When the dying Emperor appoints Aral as the Imperial Regent over the Child-Emperor Gregor, they are plunged back into the deadly center of Barrayaran politics.

Cordelia, pregnant with their first child, will have to learn to cope with the ‘barbaric’ and complicated high society of Barrayar.  She and Aral must deal with political and physical threats, both from possible foreign opportunists and even more dangerous local enemies, who are not pleased with Aral’s use of his power as Regent.  Aral, Cordelia, and their loyal friends will have their hands full just trying to keep the violent society of Barrayar from eating them all alive.” ~Allie

This is my 4th Vorkosigan novel, 3rd in the internal chronology.  Barrayar follows right after the events of Shards of Honor, so I would recommend reading Shards of Honor first.  I still think Cordelia’s story (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, now also published as an omnibus called Cordelia’s Honor) is a good place to start reading the saga.  I’m looking forward to reading the first novel to feature the famous Miles Vorkosigan, The Warrior’s Apprentice.  

This is also the second half of the July selection for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club (now hosted by Calico Reaction).  I’m a little ridiculously behind on that, but I’m planning to catch up with the August and September books this month.

My Thoughts:

Barrayar is a very different kind of story than Shards of Honor.  Instead of space battles, the focus is on Cordelia’s culture shock, various personal relationships, and Barrayaran politics.  It starts out a little slow, dealing mostly with Cordelia’s interactions with the lords and ladies of Barrayar, Aral’s struggle to be a good Regent, and the personal and social issues of minor characters.  In this daily-life section of the book, I enjoyed learning more about Barrayaran society and the many minor characters, some of who were also present in Shards of Honor.  

Though the story may drag a little bit in the beginning, it definitely picks up a lot of speed by the end.  Barrayaran politics are volatile and violent and they cause plenty of action and excitement in the latter part of the book. Even with this slowly building pace, the story in Barrayar seemed much more focused than Shards of Honor.  Rather than skipping from one situation to another, everything that happens in Barrayar ties in to the overarching plot of the novel.  While it seemed a little meandering in the beginning, everything really came together for a breathtaking finale.

There were a couple of specific things in Barrayar that bothered me a little.  The novel opens with Cordelia staring into a mirror and describing herself.  She then proceeds to physically describe the other major characters in relation to herself.  I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with including physical descriptions in a novel, but I feel like the mirror trick is typically associated with inexperienced authors.  It started the novel on a contrived note, but Bujold’s writing definitely rises far above that point. 

The other main problem I had, which I touched very briefly on in the review for Shards of Honor, is Cordelia’s infallibility.  It sometimes seemed like the universe would bend over backward to make her every decision become the correct one.  Also, no matter how much trauma she went through, I don’t think she’d ever reach a point where she lost her ability to handle the situation.  I’m not saying she’s an annoyingly perfect character, as she does have a fairly well-rounded personality.  I think it’s just because she’s an action hero(ine), and those types of characters have a tendency to succeed no matter the odds and endure through any hardship.  It definitely makes for a fun adventure, but it causes the resolution of some situations to feel pretty unrealistic.  

One of my favorite parts of the novel was the focus on the development of minor charactersThere’s a subplot involving female bodyguard Droushnakovi and the male secretary Koudelka, crippled in Shards of Honor.  I enjoyed learning more about Sergeant Bothari, a conflicted character also featured in the previous book.  We also meet a large cast of powerful Barrayarans, who will probably be important characters in the books to come.  I thought it was a little odd, however, that there seemed to be very little focus on the relationship between Cordelia and Aral.  Concerning the speed with which they rushed to marriage in the previous novel, I expected to see them coming out of the ‘honeymoon phase’ in Barrayar.  However, their relationship seems to be taken as given, and they spend a large part of the novel apart.  Altogether, though, the cast of characters is shaping up to be one whose adventures I will happily follow through the rest of the series!

My Rating: 4/5

Barrayar is my favorite Vorkosigan novel to date, though I would recommend reading Shards of Honor first.  Barrayar is a planet-bound story, instead of a space-faring one, and the early focus is on politics, culture shock, and personal troubles instead of galactic war.  While it starts out with a seemingly aimless, everyday life quality, it builds to a very fast-paced, action-packed finish. I enjoyed the amount of character building packed in this novel, particularly for the many minor characters.  My main complaints have to do with the characters of Aral and Cordelia.  I was surprised at the lack of any conflict within their relationship, and I was a little irritated by the unstoppable action hero aspect of Cordelia’s character. Overall, I feel like the cast of the Vorkosigan Saga is starting to really come together, and I’m looking forward to reading The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first novel (by internal chronology) to feature Miles!    


  1. I read the combined stories in "Cordelia's Honor" and was immediately smitten with Bujold's writing - and the Vorkosigan Universe. Barrayar is, along with Komarr and A Civil Campaign, also my favorite from this Universe. In fact, I actually find the whole series astonishingly brilliant and is to date still my favorite "space opera" sequence. Although, saying that, the later "romantic" approach and style Bujold espouse can be a tat ... err ... boring - there are an odd few sequences that seems a little "millsandboonish". Nonetheless, the whole series is full of incredible ideas, and posses very serious questions about the human nature. "Physicallity" is a major theme throughout the series, considering Miles' "mutantancy" and it is both riveting and delightful to read how he often overcomes this. I remember from my reading Barrayar that the same scene with Cordelia in front of the mirror didn't appeal to me, but looking back - after reading more in the series - it does have its place in the overall narrative. Perhaps Bujold could have unwind this a little differently, with more showing rather than the obvious telling. I quite the like action hero aspect (maybe a drawback being male myself) for it does set up the unforgiving, militaristic culture (and superficiality of it) of Barrayar quite well.

    I'm really happy that you are enjoying the journey into the Vorkosigan Universe. I've also read it according to the internal timeline, This does make better sense as you maintain a certain continuity. And the characterisation throughout builds on this.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I sometimes wonder if there's going to be a lot in these first few reviews that I'll change my mind about, after I really see how everything fits together in the Saga's overall narrative. Cordelia's action hero status does make for some really exciting adventures, but I guess I am a little partial to main characters who fail spectacularly. I still very much like her as a main character, though I'm also looking forward to young Miles taking the helm in the next book. I'm really glad I decided to read this series--it's turning out to be a lot of fun!