>> Wednesday, February 26, 2014
...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.
MY GRADE: An A.
* 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.