Captain, wife, mother

Cordelia's Honor - Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been Bujold’s fan since my first reading of one of her Vorkosigan novels. Miles Vorkosigan, the hero of the series, is definitely my favorite sci-fi hero, but Cordelia, his mother, is much more. I love Cordelia. Her humanity and strength are humbling and uplifting. I hope such women exist in our lives, not just in Bujold’s sci-fi world.

Although I read and reread most of the books of this series more than once, this is my first review of this novel. It is Cordelia’s story, and it is divided into two parts: Shards of Honor and Barrayar.

The first part, Shards of Honor, opens with Cordelia as a Betan survey ship captain, exploring a newly discovered planet with her colleagues. Suddenly, her world explodes around her. Her scientific camp is destroyed. Some of her ship officers are dead or wounded. Unknown dangers threaten from every tree and bush, and her only ally in the frightening chaos is a Barrayaran officer, Aral Vorkosigan, who takes her prisoner. From that perilous position, Cordelia finally escapes, thanks to her courage and ingenuity, but her troubles are only starting.

Her twisty path weaves through the brutal war; she suffers capture by the Barrayaran military and the POW camp, but even when she at last reaches safety at home, troubles follow her in the person of the army psychiatrist who wants to wipe her mind clean of all she had endured. Especially from her love for Aral, the love that crept on her unawares, the love that changed her life.

Their love triumphs, of course, huge and poignant. The second part, Barrayar, begins after Cordelia’s frantic flight from her home on Beta Colony, one step ahead of the charges of treason and the dratted psychiatrist. Now, she is quietly married to Aral. Both are middle-aged, ready to settle down. He is retired from the military, and both of them are prepared to enjoy their retirement. They plan to start a family.

Barrayar interferes. The old dying Emperor of Barrayar asks Aral to become a Regent to his orphaned grandchild, five-year-old Prince Gregor. A patriot and an aristocrat to his bones, with honor imprinted on his psyche, Aral can’t say NO. Thus, Cordelia is thrust into the maelstrom of Barrayar’s turbulent politics, as the planet climbs from its almost feudal mentality towards galactic standards under Aral’s guidance. The resistance of the proponents of tradition is fierce, and Aral and Cordelia’s son Miles pays the price.

But Cordelia never gives up. She stands beside her husband, proud and free, a symbol of the new possibilities. She fights for her husband as only a Betan ship captain could, and she fight for her son’s life as any loving mother, and she wins in the end, although that victory comes with a painful price.

Cordelia is a marvelous human being, compassionate even to her enemies and a role model to countless young women on Barrayar. Loving and forgiving is her default mode, understanding and acceptance her dual mottos, but she could be ruthless to her enemies and acidic towards fools. I love Cordelia and I enjoyed her story. For me, it was, together with its sequel, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the best two books of the entire Vorkosigan saga. And the best heroine in the sci-fi genre.

This book is a sci-fi adventure in form, a love story in essence, and an exploration of several deep and penetrating issues humanity has been wrestling with recently, from feminism to democracy. Although it is at times hysterically funny, the laughter is frequently tinged with sadness. So many of Barrayar’s problems mirror our own that Cordelia’s tale sometimes slips into satire. Other times, into philosophy. It captivates its readers with all its multiple facets and its irresistible heroine.     

A lovely, amazing book.