“I am afraid.” These are the first words of Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1992 HUGO Award winning classic, BARRAYAR, the second book of CORDELIA’S HONOR.
Capt. Cordelia Nesbit, former hero of the Betan Expeditionary Forces, and only one step ahead of the Betan psychiatrists, has retired (read as “got the he!! out of Dodge”) to the planet Barrayar and married Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan, also retired. She had expected a life of obscure peace in their retirement. What she gets is anything but!
Cordelia is a fish out of water, trapped along with Aral in a world of Byzantine politics, where failure means death and the descent of a planet into chaos, and even more likely, galactic war. Aral has been coerced into being Regent to Gregor, the five year old heir to the Empire, by the dying Emperor, Ezar Vorbarra. This is a man so ruthless, that in order to preserve a future for his planet, he has engineered the loss of a war to assassinate his own son, a real monster. In doing so, he also eliminates corrupt elements within his government... quite efficiently! Cordelia has a right to be afraid. After the first assassination attempt on Aral, she knows that they really are out to get him, and her. But, who are ‘THEY?’
Lois McMaster Bujold has said that her rule for finding plots for character-centered novels is to ask, “So what’s the worst possible thing that I can do to this guy? And then do it.” Aral is forced into a merciless position which he knows will probably destroy his honor, his marriage, and Cordelia. Cordelia has “had it” with the military. Her greatest desire and her greatest fear is motherhood. In the midst of all of this assassination driven intrigue, she discovers that she is pregnant. Not only do she an Aral have bull’s-eyes painted on their backs, but now their son, Miles, even before his birth, is targeted for death.
Life is full of ‘if onlys’ and ‘might have beens.’ Because of a foolish prank, Aral is forced, by law, to condemn a young nobleman to death. The young man’s brother, in revenge, strikes back at Aral, and Miles is the one injured. Cordelia, too, almost dies during the transfer of Miles’s fetus to a uterine replicator, which is their only hope for saving his life. Added to that, Aral’s father, Count Piotr, fearing that Miles will be a mutant, tries to kill him, which, understandably, causes a schism with Aral. Cordelia’s worst fears are realized. Barrayar does eat its children. But, for the time being, Miles is safe in his uterine replicator, being treated in the Imperial Military Hospital at the Capital.
Then there is Sgt. Bothari, who saved Cordelia’s life in SHARDS OF HONOR. Where Aral is Cordelia’s heart, in some ways, Bothari is the reflection of her darker side. It is their interaction which provides some of the most poignant, and also humorous, moments of BARRAYAR. I said in my review of SHARDS OF HONOR that he was “one of the most ugly, schizophrenic, psychopaths that I have ever loved.” Where the Betans wanted to rearrange Cordelia’s mind, “for her own good,” the Barrayarians have done just that to Sgt. Bothari. He remembers almost nothing of the war, only that he and Cordelia are somehow connected, and that he is a “monster.” Cordelia has to reassure him, that even though he has done terrible things, he has also made good choices. But, he can’t remember how he made those choices. He asks her to be his conscience, so that he knows that he is doing the right thing. I cried for a man so broken.
When treason does strike, and Emperor Gregor is brought to Aral by the dying Chief of Security, Aral and his father, Piotr, reunite to save everyone. Piotr is a wily old bastard, even if pigheaded. He takes Cordelia, Gregor, and Bothari deep into the mountains as Aral and his men scatter, laying false trails. For the men, it’s all a game of strategy. For Cordelia, it’s agony. Three weeks out of a cesarean section, she has her first horseback ride, lasting days. The torturous ride ends at an old guerilla cave system in the distant mountains. She and Bothari lay a trap for the pursuing traitors, who lose several hundred of them inside the mountain. This provides one of the unforgettable lines of the book, and proves how sick my sense of humor is, when Sgt. Bothari thinks about the cave and sighs, “If only I’d had a grenade to drop down that vent. Their search parties would still be shooting at each other this time next week.”
After Gregor is successfully hidden, Cordelia and Bothari reunite with Aral at Tanery Space Port. However, Miles is still behind enemy lines, and has been taken hostage by the false Emperor. When Aral, out of terror of losing her, refuses permission for a covert raid to rescue Miles, Cordelia takes maters into her own hands. It isn’t the first time that she has done so, and Aral should have remembered. She fears that Aral will never forgive her, but her son is in mortal danger. With the help of Bothari, her body guard, and Aral’s kidnapped chief of staff, Cordelia sets out to rescue her son. In the process, they save Aral’s cousin’s wife and baby, but are not able to save the cousin or Gregor’s mother. When Cordelia returns after a successful, albeit destructive mission, and presents Aral with a “Winterfair gift” in addition to his son, she informs her shocked audience, “I’m tired of your stupid war. End it.” Then she turns to Count Piotr with the punch line to beat all punch lines, “Don’t you ever... cross me again. And stay away from my son.” Cordelia has completed the transition from an essentially nonviolent person to a mother who will do whatever it takes to protect her family.
Stories are about change and how people deal with it. Barrayar is in conflict, the old line warrior class, the Vor, set against the new technoculture. Lois McMaster Bujold has said, “All great human deeds both consume and transform their doers.” That is true of Aral, Cordelia, and also Bothari. Aral dedicates everything that he is, including Cordelia and Miles, to the future wellbeing of his planet; yet, one never doubts his love for his family. The paradoxical thing about Cordelia is that even though she hates Barrayar and its warrior culture, she is Vor to the core when it comes to doing what she knows to be right. Bothari has been, and still is a psychopath; but, he's also a hero. And, even he gets his HEA in his daughter’s safety, and subsequent assignment as Miles’ bodyguard... a misfit guarding a misfit.
In CORDELIA’S HONOR there are moments of supreme poignancy interspersed with side splittingly gallows humor. The sincerest compliment that I can offer to Ms. Bujold is that I wish that I could write as well as she does.
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P.S. Thanks to KimberAn of Enduring Romance for highlighting my reviews on her blog. She has an enormous readership, and I thank her for the exposure.