Barrayar

Barrayar / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1991.

Barrayar is the second of the main Vorkosigan series in internal chronology, but was the fifth published. Winner of the 1992 Hugo award, Barrayar is the direct sequel to Shards of honor. While the Vorkosigan books are largely self-contained and could (mostly) be read in any order, I’d recommend (and I think Bujold agrees with me on this point) reading Barrayar before Warrior’s apprentice, the second published book in the series, since Warrior’s apprentice necessarily gives away all of the major plot points of Barrayar and a significant amount of Barrayar’s emotional impact would end up getting diluted.

Brief plot description

(Spoilers for the end of Shards of honor and for the very beginning of Barrayar, but nothing major)

Barrayar features Cordelia Naismith, now married to Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honor and pregnant with her first child. After the death of the emperor, the Vorkosigan family finds themselves responsible for the late emperor’s son. Attempting to navigate her pregnancy, a new culture, and the increasingly volatile political situation, Cordelia find herself embroiled in a series of plots with potentially tragic consequences.

So how is it?

Barrayar works both as an exciting political science fiction thriller and a meditation on motherhood and the lengths to which mothers (and other family members, but the focus here is on mothers) will go to protect their children. Cordelia confronts a culture only recently emerging from decades of isolation that is aggressively patriarchal and actively hostile towards difference. Barrayar significantly improves on the universe established in Shards of honor, presenting a world struggling with attempting to modernize while retaining their cultural traditions. It would be easy to portray Barrayar as a feudal backwater or a proud nation of noble savages. It ends up being neither, a world and culture with its own strengths and weaknesses. Cordelia’s status as Betan outsider reinforces this perception, providing a cultural framework that is probably closer to the reader’s.

As mentioned above, Barrayar is significantly better than Shards of honor. The story is bigger, although the interstellar war of the earlier title has ended, and the cast of characters has broadened considerably. Its themes of love, family, and sacrifice are expertly interwoven with a gripping adventure story. The female characters all showcase different methods of coping and indeed, thriving within a society where women are virtually property. None of these themes end up coming across preachy, and it would be easy to read this book and enjoy it without even noticing the feminist aspect.

The minor characters are well fleshed out as well and are treated with compassion. From the struggling psycopath Bothari to the recently-disabled Koudelka, Bujold does an excellent job of presenting characters with disabilities both mental and physical struggling in a society where traditional eugenics practice still exert a powerful hold on the culture at large.

Strengths:

An exciting story with excellently handled twists and turns

Explores themes of family, disability, and self-sacrifice deftly and tactfully

A strong followup to Shards of honor that is sufficiently thematically distinct not to bore fans of the original

Introduces one of my favorite characters in all fiction

Weaknesses:

Plot twists, while handled well, are fairly predictable

Anyone who has read later novels in the series will know exactly how every conflict in this novel is resolved

The conflicts are resolved a little too neatly

Recommendation:

I recommend this book to the same audience as Shards of honor. Fans of space opera will find plenty to enjoy, and while the romance is definitely settled, readers who enjoy family sagas will find plenty to love here as well (as long as they aren’t actively averse to science fiction and/or political thrillers). I’d also recommend it to fans of feminist science fiction looking for a fun but not necessarily emotionally taxing read and any science fiction lover who is looking for a more diverse cast of characters than is usual for the space opera genre.

Everyone I have recommended Barrayar to I had previously recommended Shards of honor to as well. In fact, I’ve lent around Cordelia’s honor, the omnibus edition of the two books, so many times I’m not sure who has it now.

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