Sunday, November 9, 2008

Review: CORDELIA’S HONOR, Part I – SHARDS OF HONOR


Recently, I reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s CORDELIA’S HONOR. It’s actually two books in one, SHARDS OF HONOR, and the 1992 HUGO Award Winner, BARRAYAR. It’s been some years since I first read it. I liked it then; and I like it now, more than ever.

Aside to the reader: In addition to the cover illustration of CORDELIA'S HONOR, above, which I do like, but which I don't feel fully reflects the characters, I have included, one of the original cover illustrations of SHARDS OF HONOR. I think that it clearly reflects the characters, and one of the episodes in the book. Neither hero nor heroine are young, gorgeous, or perfect; but they are wonderful.

If there were one word that I would use to describe CORDELIA’S HONOR, it would be complex. Don't mistake that for confusing. It's simply that the more you think about this book, the more you see. Ms. Bujold has created three diverse ecological systems, two distinct socio-political organizations, and a study of evil that is magnificent, and all too real. All of the events in the exceedingly strong plot lines serve to reveal aspects of the characters and their conflicts. Layers upon layers lead to lots of, ‘Oh ho! So that’s what is going on!’ These are subtle moments of discovery that delight the reader.

Commander Cordelia Naismith and Captain Aral Vorkosigan come from planets with antithetical cultures: his, reminiscent of a violent cross between Victorian England and Imperial Russia; and hers, a supposedly peaceful, advanced, constitutional, free, and politically correct society. They are first thrown together in SHARDS OF HONOR, on a hostile alien world, which quickly reveals their true natures. They are complex, flawed, and, above all, honorable. Each brings a starship load of life experiences with them, which, strangely enough, mirror one another. They have both had painful failures in their pasts; and I found their shy efforts at sharing their pasts to be particularly endearing. When Aral asks Cordelia to marry him by listing all of the terrible consequences to doing so, I lost my heart. Quick, woman, marry the man! Ah, but what can they do, when they are on opposite sides of a coming war, and they are both bound by duty and honor?

Nothing is as it first seems. As enemy combatants, Cordelia and Aral are both constrained to keep secrets from the other, in spite of their attraction. Everything rests upon their judgments of the other’s character; and contrary to all appearances, ultimately their survival depends upon character judgments. (As a special note, it is here that Ms Bujold introduces Sgt. Bothari, one of the most ugly, schizophrenic, psychopaths that I have ever loved.) I wanted to cheer for Cordelia as she reasoned out the terrible trap to his honor in which Aral is caught. And I wanted to cry for him. For Aral, there are no good choices. There are only bad and worse choices, each tearing his honor from him, bit by bit.

After the war is over, Cordelia returns home. She finds that her world, which she, has idealized as free and advanced, has its own dark side; and it almost destroys her. She possesses information which could devastate the political fabric of Aral’s planet, Barrayar; and the authorities of her planet, Beta, want to take her brain apart and reassemble it... for her own good, of course. I found this sham altruism to be terrifying! If she is not to suffer the Betan equivalent of a lobotomy, Cordelia must flee to Aral on Barrayar, a world which she fears as ‘eating its own children.’

When Cordelia arrives on Barrayar, she finds a world that is both better and worse than what she had expected. Compared to Beta, Barrayar is beautiful beyond belief, with natural resources that boggle her mind. Family, marriage, loyalty, and honor are deadly serious matters on Barrayar. However, because of her honor, Cordelia, now Lady Vorkosigan, cannot avoid becoming enmeshed in the Machiavellian intrigues of Barrayar’s dying Emperor, Ezar Vorbarra. For the future of Barrayar, she and Aral must take their place in Ezar’s plans. Ezar is only seen in the next to the last chapter of SHARDS OF HONOR; however it is his machinations which have set all events in motion... and dominate BARRAYAR. He is brilliant, honorable in his own way, and utterly ruthless, especially with himself. He is one of the most fascinating and terrifying characters of whom I have ever read. I would like to have known more of him.

The last chapter of SHARDS OF HONOR is very disturbing. Ms Bujold leaves Cordelia and Aral to their new life and uses this chapter, a seeming non-sequitur, to show the cost of the war started by Ezar Vorbarra, to the people of Beta, Escobar, and Barrayar. She does this through the device of one mother’s grief and awe-inspiring love. Every time that I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes. It was an immense gamble to end SHARDS OF HONOR on this note. It is both brilliant and devastating. I was left with both a question and a conclusion. Question: Is barbarism which is hidden by political correctness any less barbaric than that which is open for all to see? Conclusion: Only love offers any redemption in a broken universe.

Since CORDELIA’S HONOR covers so much, I will review BARRAYAR in a future post. Thanks for your patience.

Happy reading,

Frances
Writing Science Fiction Romance
Real Love in a Real Future

11 comments:

Kimber An said...

Wonderful!

Frances said...

Thanks, KimberAn. I am so glad that you like it.

Brantley said...

There's a line from that book that really haunts me:

"Any community’s arm of force—military, police, security—needs people who can do the necessary evil, and yet not be made evil by it. To do only the necessary, and no more. To constantly question the assumptions, to stop the slide into atrocity."

We need to think about that now. We may always need to think about it. But how few leaders do...

Frances said...

Hi Brantly! I lost all of our correspondence and you addy when my old computer slagged. *sniff* Thanks for stopping in. You bet on that quote! LMB's books simply have passages that are good to go back to again and again, just to think about. You are so right about few people thinking about the cost of protecting society. It's a sad toll for everyone concerned.

Laura Herbertson said...

I have almost the full set of Miles Vorkosigan books in my to-read pile...but I'm having trouble figuring out which book is the first in the series. Is it Shards of Honor?

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

I've loved that book ever since I picked it up in paperback when it first came out. I prefer the very first paperback cover from June 1986. If you scroll down here: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/b/lois-mcmaster-bujold/shards-of-honor.htm you will see all the covers, including that one. You did a good job of expressing how very special that book is. I look forward to your thoughts on Barrayar.

Frances said...

Laura,
FALLING FREE, which I have not read, is the first in the Vorkosigan Universe. It takes place several hundred years before Cordelia, Aral, and Miles. BTW, I just went over to your profile page. Wow! I din't know that you were following me. Thank you. The link to your advice will be up in just a little while. Thank you. :-)

Frances said...

Jenny, wonderful to see you again. It's been a long time. Thanks for the URL. When my computer crashed, I lost all of my bookmarks and addys. It's taking some time to rebuild them. I'll have the review of BARRAYAR up in a day or two. Take care of yourself.

Heather said...

Great review!

I agree, Bothari is an amazing character. Cordelia's relationship with him alone makes the book worth reading.

Frances said...

Hi Heather!

It's so good to see you again. Thank you. Bothari is amazing isn't he? My second half of the review should be up this evening.

Heather said...

[...]And speaking of the popular author, Frances Drake reviews CORDELIA’S HONOR & BARRAYAR[...]