Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 9/22/2013, Reviewed 9/23/2013
Rating: 4 stars
Cordelia is a war hero from Beta Colony and pregnant. She is married to Aral Vorkosigan, an admiral from Beta Colony’s former enemy, Barrayar. The admiral becomes regent for the child emperor, plunging the couple and their unborn child into constant danger from coup and assassination attempts. Full of political intrigue, plot twists, and delicious humor, Bujold delivers a fine example of what a great space opera should be.
The book is told in Cordelia’s voice. This in itself is a great choice. Being a woman and a Betan, she is an outsider to the male-dominated maelstrom that is Barrayar politics. She brings a clear, critical voice to the events into which she is thrust. She has a wry and wicked sense of humor which you sometimes hear in her thoughts as well as in her conversations. In fact, most of the really dark comedy comes from the retorts in her head. I think if this story were told solely from a male Barrayaran perspective, it may not have been nearly as interesting, clever, or exciting.
Barrayar is one of approximately 18 books in the Vorkosigan saga. Initially, I was concerned that I hadn’t read any of the previous novels, though I was aware there was only one earlier novel directly related to Cordelia. Still, there’s a part of me that has a hard time not reading all the preceding novels in a series. In fact, I had to stare at Wikipedia’s discussions of internal chronological order vs. publishing order to convince myself I could read Barrayar before The Vor Game, Bujold’s previous Hugo winner from the series.
Regardless of the order, Barrayar stands as a great book on its own. I found the character development to be nearly perfect. This is often one of my big beefs in literature, and particularly in space operas. Too much development and not enough page time, too many characters and not enough development, and so on. Instead, I found myself growing to like all the characters, even the crazy and whiny ones.
My one problem with the book, and I’m sure I’ll have this with the other books in the saga, is the Vor prefix on the names of the upper class families. It’s a great concept, but, particularly with secondary characters, it makes for a lot of potential confusion. Fortunately, I was able to sort out most of them. And many of the supporting characters are not Vor___, so that helped.
Another problem I had was my own inner dialogue as I was deciding on the number of stars to assign. I had to fight with my own prejudices about soap operas. I had to keep clear in my head that just because the story is told from the point of view of a woman and deals with love, relationships, pregnancies, and children, doesn’t mean this is a soap opera. Sure, it’s a space opera. But it is also a realistic commentary on the brutality of war and the futility of a society that’s not much different than the one we live in today. It happens to be told from a woman’s perspective, and that’s what helps it rise above pack. Once I cleared my own perceptions, I realized I couldn’t give this anything less than 4 stars. Having read “Barrayar,” I look forward to Bujold’s three other Hugo winners.