Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Wednesday, February 26, 2014

TITLE: Barrayar
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 389

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: I'll call it #2 in the Vorkosigan series

Believing her warship days are over after she defeats the Barrayaran militarists and marries their leader, former commander Cordelia Naismith is astounded by the role her unborn son will play in a world on the brink of civil war.

There seem to be endless ways of reading the Vorkosigan series. Chronological vs order of publication, just the main novels vs. interspersing the short stories, or even none of the above, as Bujold has said she tries to write them to stand alone. Well, I chose to mostly* follow the internal chronology of the series, and start with the two novels telling the story of Miles' parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan.

In the first, Shards of Honor, Cordelia and Aral met and fell in love through a number of military campaigns in which they were in opposing sides. In addition to telling their story, the novel introduces the wider universe of the series and gives us a very good idea of how Barrayar is seen from the outside. The story closes with Cordelia deciding to move there to make a life with Aral, and the realisation that they won't be able to keep far away from the complex and dangerous Barrayaran politics.

In Barrayar we see exactly what all that entails. Cordelia is now pregnant and doing her best to find a way to fit in. A lot of things about her new home seem backwards and barbaric to her. It's a patriarchal, militaristic, quasi-feudal society. It's also one where there was a sudden jump in technology when the world was rediscovered by the rest of the universe after centuries of isolation. That was just a couple of generations back, and so high-tech still lives uncomfortably side by side with attitudes which, in Cordelia's planet, were left behind centuries earlier. There are plenty of pressures for reform, and it's a fine balance for her and Aral, now the Regent, to figure out how far they can go and in which areas.

It's brilliant stuff, even if objectively, it maybe shouldn't work. There isn't really an overarching plot, it's more surviving Barrayaran politics in general, in a bit of an episodic way. There is very heavy stuff happening. Not only is there a war, but, if you've read any further books in the series (or if you know the basics about Miles), you will realise that something very bad is going to happen during Cordelia's pregnancy. So in addition to the horrors of war (and it's clear to all characters, even war hero Aral, that war is horrible), and even once it becomes clear that there's some hope the baby won't die and might be viable, there's the challenges of bringing what's clearly going to be a child with some disabilities into a society that has a very fucked up attitude towards that.

So it sounds really depressing, but Bujold manages to write it in a way that is not only bearable, but positively enjoyable. Maybe it's because the characters retain their humanity and love, both romantic and fraternal. Aral and Cordelia are two of the most honourable characters I've ever read, and it's clear here how hard it is to maintain that honour.

Also, from all the pain and suffering, Bujold manages to extract a happy ending, even one that is completely believable. First there's the amazingly triumphant moment when Cordelia comes home with... er.. shopping (those who've read this will know what I mean). I actually rewinded (is that the right term for an mp3?) and listened to it again as soon as it was over. And then there's an epilogue that I might have thought too sweet, but that was necessary and right for the story.

I think I liked this one even a little bit more than Shards of Honour.


* I say 'mostly', because the first entry, really, is a novella called Falling Free which takes place a couple of centuries before the rest. I didn't want to start with something so unrelated to the rest of the series and for which reviews are kind of lukewarm, so I left that one for a bit later.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I'm listening to the Readers' Chair versions, rather than the new ones, and the male reader is beginning to annoy me. The voices for Aral and a couple of other characters are ok, but some verge on caricature. Count Pyotr's was horrible, Kudelka sounded buffoonish and poor Prince Gregor (and 5-year-old Miles, in the epilogue) sounded creepy. The female narrator is good, but I worry that once we get to Miles' stories, it'll be mainly the bloke reading. We'll see. I might end up using some of my audible credits and getting the new versions.


Sun,  26 February 2014 at 11:54  

I absolutely love Barrayar. The "shopping" part was just brilliant. I still chuckle every time I think of it. This book made Cordelia one of my top all-time favorite female heroines.

Falling Free isn't a good place to start the series. I feel that it should be read way later, at least after Labyrinth.

Fernande,  26 February 2014 at 17:10  

Hi Rosario, I believe I commented on an earlier post about how much I enjoyed listening to all of Bujold's books on audio, and want to recommend to you the versions produced by Blackstone Audio if you can find them. I think that Grover Gardner does an amazing job on the Barrayar/Vorkosigan books, and Kate Reading and LLoyd James are very good on Paladin of Souls and Curse of Chalion respectively. I so agree with you about the element of honour present in the books; I often find myself moved by the integrity and humanity of the characters.

L 26 February 2014 at 21:55  

Oh, Cordelia's "shopping" trip is the BEST ever.

I read this book as part of the CORDELIA'S HONOR omnibus (so SHARDS + this one), so can't really distinguish between the two books in my mind - but I do recall there being this really quietly romantic scene that made the book for me.

(Also I agree with Sun that FALLING FREE is not a good place to start the series. I think I read it last, actually.)

Rosario 27 February 2014 at 07:08  

Sun: I've read Falling Free now and I agree. I liked it, but if I'd read it first, it wouldn't have particularly inspired me to read the whole series.

Cordelia is one of my favourite characters ever now, too.

Fernande: Oh, that's good to know. Those are the versions available on Audible.

I think the humanity of all characters, not just the main ones, is exactly why I liked these books so much. There was the somewhat cartoonish Vorrutyer in Shards of Honor (and even he had some depths), but everyone else has full motivations and characterisation.

L: I think I might need to reread the shopping trip :)

I read the two books separately, so they feel kind of distinct in my mind. Shards felt possibly more 'traditionally' romantic, but both had better romance than many romance novels!

Marg 27 February 2014 at 08:46  

I really need to get back to this series. I have enjoyed what I have read but just need to find some time to read more

Anonymous,  27 February 2014 at 15:55  

Aral and Cordelia are two of my favorite characters, and I feel as though to understand Miles, you have to have read Aral and Cordelia's story.

I'm actually not a huge fan of Grover Gardner and his reading of the Vorkosigan books, but it sounds as though he's at least better than the version you experienced. He's all right, I guess, but for the Miles books in particular, for me he sounds too old and a little too sedate for the bundle of energy and brilliance that is Miles.

If you want to delve into Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy, I agree with the recommendation for The Curse of Chalion, and Paladin of Souls. Ista, the heroine of Paladin, is one of my all-time favorite heroines. She has suffered and risen above unimaginable tragedy, and her HFN is incredibly satisfying. The Kate Reading audiobook for Paladin of Souls is wonderful. I'm less enthusiastic about Lloyd James reading of Curse of Chalion, but I tend to be nitpicky about readers, so I'm sure that's just me. You do have to read The Curse of Chalion before Paladin of Souls.


Rosario 28 February 2014 at 08:16  

Marg: That was the case for me until I started it again this time around. It feels like I was waiting for the right time, because I'm enjoying them even more now.

Aoife: That's what I feel, as well, though it might have been interesting to read their story after having read Miles's. I wonder if there were things I missed in Barrayar, since that was written after a few Miles books.

I'll listen to a few samples from different books in the series and see what Grover Gardner's like. I've read a couple of books after Barrayar now (I'm always running behind with my reviews), and I think I'm getting used to the Readers' Chair guy.

I've actually read Chalion and Paladin of Souls! They were amongst the first books I borrowed from my local library when I first moved to England (it was a tiny library, but coming from Uruguay, where libraries are meant for improving, academic reading, not for pleasure reading, I loved it). It's been a while, though, so I'm planning to reread them after I finish the Vorkosigan series. Plus, I never did read The Hallowed Hunt, since the library didn't have it.

CD,  8 March 2014 at 05:12  

I'm SO glad that you caught the Miles bug! What took you so long ;-)?

I'm a huge convert to audiobooks so thanks to all for the suggestions. I'm a bit leery of a narrator who's "old and sedate" for the Miles books - come on!

Rosario 8 March 2014 at 07:15  

CD: You know, I really don't know. I mean, I love Bujold's other books and I loved Shards of Honor when I first read it over 10 years ago! I think, though, that I'm probably appreciating the series more now than I would have all those years ago.

Yeah, old and sedate really doesn't sound right for Miles. For all his faults, the Readers' Chair narrator actually does a pretty ebullient Miles.

CD,  8 March 2014 at 12:15  

Yep - keep telling yourself that, Rosario ;-). Still, I'm actually jealous that you've all that juicy goodness ahead of you...

Hmmnn. I'll give both audio versions a sample go. Bloody hell, I've got the paperback and ebook copies of all the books in the Miles Vorkosigan series, and now I obviously NEED the audio versions. [sigh] Bujold is making a mint out of me. But she's worth it.

Rosario 9 March 2014 at 09:08  

CD: It feels really good to know there's so many ahead of me. Usually, starting a really long series feels overwhelming, but it's the opposite with this one.

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