By Lois McMaster Bujold
Audiobook Narrated by Grover Gardner
First published 1991
From Goodreads: On opposing sides, Captain Cordelia Naismith and Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan marry and live in aristocratic splendor on his home planet Barrayar. Cordelia agrees with the dying old emperor that the Empire would be better if Aral would serve, but he knows secrets she does not.
Can we start with that Goodreads summary, and how terrible it is? I mean, what are Cordelia and Aral on the opposite sides of? A table? A Monopoly game? Or… Ah, yes. They are on opposite sides of the room, and decided to get married anyway.
One would think that the summary of a Hugo and Locus Award winning novel would have a little more effort put into it, but what can you do?
Let’s re-summarize then.
“Following the disastrous ending of the Escobar War and Captain Cordelia Naismith’s decision to defect to Barrayar in order to marry Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, peace seems to have broken out across the military-minded world of Barrayar. After enduring months of conflict and war, Cordelia and Aral are looking forward to a quiet life at the Vorkosigan family’s country estate. But a life away from the Byzantine politics of Barrayar is not in their future, for the emperor is dying and his only heir is his five year-old grandson, Gregor. With a regency looming and the possibility of chaos and domestic strife on the horizon, the emperor chooses Aral Vorkosigan to act as regent for Gregor.
Though his transition into the regency seems to go smoothly, Aral knows that resentment and discord are bubbling under the surface. After a series of failed assassination attempts– including one that threatens the lives of Cordelia and their unborn son– an enemy takes up arms against the Vorkosigan regency and threatens to destroy everything Aral and Cordelia have been working to build together.”
There. Isn’t that better? The “Aral knows a secret that Cordelia does not” sounds like it comes from an elementary school playground, not from an award-winning author. I mean, it’s technically true. There is a lot that Aral knows that Cordelia does not, and vice versa. But part of the point of the first part of the story is to accustom the reader to Barrayaran society, which is both familiar and alien to us.
Our point of view character is Cordelia once more, self-exiled from her logical, science- and technologically-minded homeworld of Beta Colony. Thanks to the previous book, Shards of Honor, we’re familiar with her way of looking at the world, so the feudal system of Barrayar– heavily militarized, class conscious, with strict customs, a clear delineation of gender roles, and a nearly religious zeal for honor. These are all ideas that readers are familiar with, either from history class or from fantasy novels, but in the context of science fiction and filtered through the viewpoint of a woman of science like Cordelia, these old concepts start to feel strange and even backwards.
But the story is not entirely devoted to Cordelia’s sociological observations. There is plenty of action to be had, namely in an assassination attempt that nearly results in the death of Cordelia’s unborn son and an uprising that puts the regent and his political faction on their heels and desperately trying to keep from being captured and executed. And through all of the events, Cordelia is a badass.
Grand events aside, I think it’s clear that The Vorkosigan Saga was written by a woman. Though surrounded by military men who have been trained for combat since their teens, Cordelia’s courage is no less than theirs, and she often dares to do far more than the men. Cordelia is a woman who takes action, rather than reacting to events. Many earlier male science fiction and fantasy were content to let their female characters stand by not act, leaving that up to male characters. A lot has changed since then, but in the 1980s and 1990s, when the initial Vorkosigan books were being published, it must have seemed like a radical notion– that women can be capable soldiers.
This is not to say that Cordelia is only a soldier. Sure, she will fight at the last resort but she uses her brain to solve the majority of her problems, not a weapon. Through the majority of Barrayar Cordelia is pregnant with her first child, and she often meditates on the changes her body and mind are undergoing (definitely not something that shows up in other science fiction novels). This perspective is enlightening and often critical to Cordelia’s thought process as she tries to figure out what to do.
When looking back at works from twenty, thirty, or more years ago, it’s easy for young eyes to say, ‘That trope is everywhere. Why didn’t they do something new?’, or ‘Why isn’t there more diversity in this?’, it’s important to remember that diversity in character or perspective hasn’t always been a thing that writers were aiming for. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I was growing up, and what I remember of them included a lot of tall, brawny white men doing great deeds. Barrayar, with its female hero who was as comfortable leading a covert operation as she was meditating about motherhood must have seemed strange when it was published in 1991. Had it been a contemporary novel about a woman soldier, it might not have been published at all. Fortunately, it is a science fiction novel– a genre where authors are free to take up odd ideas about possible futures and run with them.