Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books in one (a double whammy!): Shards of Honor (first published in 1986) and Barrayar (first published in 1991), that together tell the story of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, from their first meeting, to their getting hitched and having a child, Miles, who becomes the main protagonist in the rest of the Vorkosigan saga. If this sounds a bit humdrum and not quite your cup of tea, then that’s a pity (for you) because these two books are an absolute blast.
Before I go on to babble about how much I loved Cordelia’s Honor I do just have to say – dreadful cover! I mean, really?! … why? … with the green dress … and what the…? that red sash … and, erm, whose hands are they? … No. Sorry. Just no. I prefer the original covers way more, especially the one for Barrayar:
Anyway, all that aside, I’ve been hearing great things about the Vorkosigan saga for years, so finally bought Cordelia’s Honor second-hand with some birthday money. And then, naturally, didn’t read it for another six months or so. I only really picked it up now because I couldn’t think of another bad book cover off the top of my head. It’s a funny, thought-provoking and engaging story though, set in a universe where humanity has colonised other worlds. Cordelia comes from the egalitarian Beta Colony and Aral from the feudal-ish Barrayar. We see the story and the world from Cordelia’s POV and she’s a pretty cool character: easy to like, practical, and quick-witted; although I feel that she’s more interesting in and on Barrayar where her upbringing and beliefs are thrown into relief by Barrayaran society, and where she’s forced to fight for something desperately important to her. She’s one of those characters that shows to best advantage when fighting.
Characters are something McMaster Bujold does incredibly well. Aral Vorkosigan is as interesting in his way as Cordelia, he’s a military man and a Lord, definitely a fighter, but also rather vulnerable and incredibly lonely. Ensign (later Lieutenant) Koudelka is hilariously dim-witted in some respects, but also warm and loyal. Count Piotr is a product of his world, his time and his class. Droushnakovi is a sensitive but nevertheless kickass warrior woman. Vorrutyer and then Vordarian make beautifully chilling bad guys. And Bothari is … well, I had a sort of sick fascination with Bothari. He is a monster. But he’s always due some compassion as a deeply conflicted, used and abused individual with barely any sense of self. After Cordelia, he is my favourite character, and his deeply ambiguous relationship with her is brilliantly written. I really hope he continues to have a role to play in the following books.
The Beta-Colony-versus-Barrayar set up is inspired too. In these first two books McMaster Bujold has created an arena in which a huge range of issues can be explored, from motherhood, sexism, and prejudice against the differently-abled, to the right to an education, class conflict, and the “primitive culinary practice” of eating dead animals. I think one of the reasons I found this such an engrossing read is because I couldn’t help but have an opinion on every topic that arose, and there were so many characters that needed to be proved wrong and punched very hard in the nose. (Count Piotr climbed that list steadily as I came to the end of Barrayar, although there was the suggestion in the epilogue that young Miles may yet help him see sense – so maybe he’ll avoid a punched nose yet). Beta Colony stands in for Humanity’s better self and in many ways made me think of Star Trek’s Federation. Cordelia is genuinely horrified by the poverty and lack of education that she encounters on Barrayar, having never come across these things on Beta Colony. Barrayar then, stands in for Humanity’s more primitive side. There women are baby-makers and “frills”, and to be differently-abled is to be shunned, mocked and treated as a third-class citizen. All of this is cleverly foreshadowed in Shards of Honor where one of the first things we learn about these two peoples is that Betans carry stunners as their only weapon, and Barrayarans carry nerve disruptors (which are quite as nasty as they sound).
So here is an author who wants to explore identity and what it is to be human, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a laugh while we’re doing it. Another great thing about Cordelia’s Honor was just how much humour was packed in with all the action and thought-provoking-ness (not a word, I know … it’s late). There’s the affectionate, rather touching humour between Cordelia and Aral (considering I don’t really enjoy romance there’s been a fair bit of it in my reading material this year, and most of it’s been … ok, actually), some brilliant deadpan one-liners – “Why are you wearing slippers?” … “I’m – sorry, Pilot Officer Mayhew. That’s classified.” had me in stitches – and situations in which Cordelia accidentally kicks the Betan President (that no-one voted for it seems) in the nuts, encounters Barrayaran sexism while shopping for a sword-stick and plays at being an appallingly “friendly neighbourhood go-between” for a couple of hopeless lovers. it’s the kind of generous, inclusive humour that will entice me to reread these books, and that’s my favourite kind.
It’s a pretty impressive thing to write an interesting SF adventure about a gal and a guy, neither in the first bloom of youth, making a connection against the odds and seeing it through. It’s a downright awesome thing to then write a gripping SF adventure story that revolves around said gal and guy having a baby. For that alone Cordelia’s Honor would have made it onto my All-Time Greats list. Lois McMaster Bujold explores so many issues in this story, however, issues that are no less relevant now than when these two books were first written, that she promises to become one of my all-time favourite authors. I can’t wait to read more of the Vorkosigan saga. I can’t wait to meet Miles as a grown-up, and see what becomes of Count Piotr and Bothari, and Cordelia and Aral, and Beta Colony and Barrayar. And being as late as I am to this party, they’re all out there waiting for me (I think there’s another eighteen novels!) – which makes me feel like the cat that’s got the cream.
I couldn’t find anywhere above to mention the beautiful short story that is tacked onto the end of Shards of Honor. It’s called Aftermaths and it makes a perfect epilogue to Shards, as well as an appropriate introduction to Barrayar with its motherhood theme. It’s lovely in its own right, however, in its telling of an Escobaran Medtech and a Pilot sent to retrieve the dead from space. It deals with seeing people as people and not just a rank, or a type, or a symbol of something. To say any more would ruin it for anyone who wants to read it, which I heartily recommend you do, even if you don’t want to delve into the Vorkosigan saga itself.