Immediately after finishing Shards of Honour, I jumped into Barrayar with gusto. I’d say this is the payoff to Shards of Honour, but that might give you the wrong idea. Both novels are good—but this is where it gets really interesting. Cordelia has married Aral Vorkosigan and left everything she knows behind to live with him on Barrayar, capital planet of the interstellar empire of the same name. Things are complicated: she’s pregnant and has very progressive ideas about raising kids; Aral gets named the regent of the new child emperor when the old emperor dies; and not a week goes by without some kind of assassination attempt. Pretty much, Cordelia and Aral have a very busy year. Because that makes for good reading.
I can say for certain that I liked this book better than the first one. However, there is a lot about Barrayar that gives me reservations. In the first book, Cordelia is this super-capable survey ship captain. She escapes the slightly-oppressive psychiatric regime imposed upon her by the authorities of Beta Colony and ends up with Aral, whom she has developed an affinity and, yes, love for. In Barrayar, though, Cordelia at first seems like her strings have been cut. She’s married but somewhat lifeless. Examples of her agency and will are few and far between—though, to be fair, they are certainly present. For the most part, however, Cordelia spends a lot of time confused by Barrayan customs and going to boring parties.
Fortunately, Lois McMaster Bujold turns it all around in the third act. Up until that point, I stayed afloat thanks to the masterful plotting even though the characterzation wasn’t satisfying me. I wanted to know who was behind these assassination plots, whether the child emperor would survive, and whether Cordelia’s child would survive. Bujold wraps all these questions up into a neat little ball—then tosses it into the creepy neighbour’s backyard and tells us to go ring their doorbell. She’ll wait.
Cordelia has to save her baby and, in so doing, gets a little ambitious by accident and saves the empire. I love it. I love it, because Bujold isn’t writing a Mary Sue here—Cordelia doesn’t go in there with the intention of killing Vordarian. It just kind of … happens … even after she tries to prevent it. The domesticity of Cordelia’s motivations frustrates me slightly, but it also makes the most sense. This isn’t Cordelia’s fight. She might be married to Aral, the rightful regent of the empire, but it’s not her empire. For all she cares, they could leave this all behind and go retire on an asteroid somewhere. What matters to Cordelia is her child, and creating a Barrayar that will accept her child. I can get behind that.
So I spent a good deal of Barrayar vaguely bemused by these characters even as I screamed, “Get on with it!” The intrigue, though, is what makes the book. This is science fiction in name only: it has the trappings and plot devices of a science-fiction novel, but Bujold has really written historical fiction transposed and redecorated. Call a grenade a “sonic grenade” instead of just grenade. Have some aristocracy and swordfighting and, oh yeah, external womb tank machines. There are some minor details in here that make it science fiction, but Barrayar will appeal to anyone who is interested in court intrigue and dynastic power struggles. Because the science fiction is secondary here, and there is nothing wrong with that when the result is a powerful and interesting story.
I can’t quite give Barrayar top marks. As I said above, it occasionally disappointed me and doesn’t quite deliver everything I wish it could. Like Shards of Honour before it, however, and Cryoburn, which was my first Vorkosigan Saga experience, Barrayar demonstrates that Bujold can create compelling and fun stories. This was exactly what I needed to read during a very stressful week at work and after two somewhat more depressing novels. Barrayar isn’t exactly “light” in terms of subject matter, but it light in tone and not exactly the most challenging read. Sometimes, that’s all you need.