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BARRAYAR
1991

Book cover art by Gary Ruddell (left).
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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With Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold became the first writer since Orson Scott Card to win the Best Novel Hugo two years running. Though a handful of novels in the Vorkosigan saga separate them in their publication order, Barrayar is the direct sequel to Shards of Honor and depicts the birth of Miles against a backdrop of insurrection and civil war.

Opening right at the point Shards of Honor ends, Barrayar concerns itself with the Regency of Aral Vorkosigan, who has married Betan survey captain Cordelia Naismith and settled into the rule of the militarist and classist Barrayar during the infancy of the imperial heir Gregor Vorbarra. Gregor's father, the real putative heir to the Barrayaran throne, was killed in the Escobaran War, and many counts in the Vor military aristocracy are eyeing the chance to increase their power. In particular, one Count Vidal Vordarian, who was under the assumption the Regency was as good as his, looms as a potentially highly dangerous rival to Vorkosigan — and Vordarian has powerful friends.

Things heat up when a couple of attempts on Vorkosigan's life are made, one of which, a poison gas attack, comes dangerously close to succeeding. Cordelia, heavily pregnant with Vorkosigan's first heir, is caught in the attack, and the antitoxin used to save her life effectively dooms her unborn son. But she refuses to abort the child, having it instead transferred to a Betan-designed "uterine replicator" for gestation. This causes added friction between herself and her father-in-law, for in Barrayar's culture, cripples — which is the best the baby could hope to be even if it survives — are held in shame and disdain. What's worse, Vordarian looks like he might have sufficient support to make an overt bid for the throne through a coup.

Bujold allows her story to unravel through Cordelia's eyes, a refreshing and quintessentially feminine approach to the kind of tale that most writers would have approached as a straightforward military SF/space opera epic. Thus Barrayar has a heart and a wit that many sagas of this sort lack. Bujold's gift for character development is in top form here, making Cordelia, for one, heroic not so much in the actions she undertakes but for what she is forced to endure. Many times she overtly regrets her decision to emigrate to Barrayar, whose warmongering customs are so alien and repugnant to her, even though she dearly loves her husband and knows there is no home on Beta for her to go back to. But when it's time to grab the tiger by the tail, as it were, she rises to the occasion. While other volumes in the Vorkosigan saga cannot help but rob Barrayar of some measure of its suspense — we know that little embryonic Miles isn't going to get killed, after all — when the time comes to ramp up the action Bujold still delivers ample tension to get the job done.

Only here and there does a nit pop up to be picked. Bujold fleshes out the characterizations of Cordelia's closest staffers and confidants, to excellent effect, although this does entail a few too many scenes when one of these characters cries — figuratively, mostly — on Cordelia's shoulder. It's as if Bujold wants Cordelia to be mother not only to Miles but all of Vorkosigan's staff! And perhaps a bit too much time was devoted to a subplot inolving a tentative romance between Cordelia's bodyguard Droushnakovi and her husband's adjutant Koudelka, with Cordelia literally holding the two lovers' hands as she walks them through their mutual insecurities. But these scenes do endear you to the characters, and they're also a welcome respite from the action, which takes some startling turns as the book nears its climax (don't worry, I won't spoil it for you).

Barrayar is superb and satisfying modern space opera, and a seminal volume in one of SF's most popular series. And for once I have to give Baen Books props for putting this novel and its predecessor together in the single-volume omnibus Cordelia's Honor. I usually consider Baen's habit of repackaging and retitling their back catalog books (without warning to unwary consumers) to be just a bit on the sleazy side. But on the earlier edition of Barrayar that I read, there was no indication on the cover or anywhere that the book was a direct sequel to Shards of Honor. And as Barrayar assumes you have read Shards and remember it well — though the novel's character development is strong, it establishes none of its principals, simply building on characters introduced in Shards — this could really prove a problem for uninitiated readers picking up this book as their first Bujold title, on its rep as a Hugo winner. But with the Cordelia's Honor edition that problem has been erased.

Followed — in the series' chronology, not in order of publication — by The Warrior's Apprentice.