Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is like stepping into the Star Wars world again. And I don’t mean Star Wars I-III, but the Star Wars with Harrison Ford in Episodes IV-VI.
Cordelia’s Honor is a 1999 omnibus edition of two books: Shards of Honor (1991) and Barrayar, which won the Hugo and the Locus Awards for best novel in 1992, and is the beginning of the Vorkosigan saga within the science-fiction genre. It is available as a free read at Baen Books.
Commander Cordelia Naismith is the head scientist leading a Survey expedition from the planet of Beta Colony to study life forms in other inter-galactic systems. Beta is a desert, where people are of peace-loving, liberal and rationalist bent and are more scientifically advanced than other systems, like that of Barrayar.
The Vorkosigan series do not deal with any competing non-human intelligent species; in fact, the colonization of other planets is mainly by people who have migrated from Earth. The planet of Barrayar has been quite aggressive in its colonizing stance, the most infamous of their invasions being the bloodbath on the planet of Komarr. The head of the Komarr expedition was Aral Vorkosigan, who is menacingly called the ‘Butcher of Komarr’. In fact, the Barrayaran culture is military-led and patriarchal, which reminded me strangely of the ‘noble savagery’ in ancient barbaric Russia. Whether the ancient Russian empire was the inspiration for Bujold, I am not quite sure.
In the first book, Shards of Honor, Cordelia meets Vorkosigan on the newly discovered world of Sergyar, where her team is killed by a branch of Vorkosigan’s mutinying army and is herself taken as a prisoner of war. From here onwards, Cordelia escapes, rescues her team, saves Vorkosigan and his army in a deadly battle with another colony (Escobar), and is captured again, and so forth.
Poor Cordelia! The Betan in her hates wars, yet she is thrust into one military situation from another. In each situation, her “honor”, or her integrity as a soldier, scientist and team-leader, is tested. You can depend on her to do what is right, even if it is not easy.
What I really liked about the first book is the world-building by Bujold. Travelling through space is done by ‘jumps’ of the shuttle across ‘wormholes’; weapons like stunners, nerve-disrupters and plasma arcs are used; and alien creatures like hexapedal herbivores, fuzzy crabs, and vampiric bubbles are creatures studied by Betan explorers.
The second book, Barrayar, begins with the marriage of Cordelia with Vorkosigan. Cordelia has escaped to Barrayar because people in her own country were trying to lock her up in an asylum on mistaken grounds. Marriage to a Barrayaran is difficult, especially when said husband is the Regent of the minor Crown prince Gregor. During the first half of the book, we see that Cordelia, who cannot follow her Betan customs on Barrayar, is hopelessly powerless and spends her time as an anxious and confused mother-to-be.
An unfortunate assassination attempt renders her unborn child deformed, disabled and near-dead. That’s when Cordelia’s honor as a mother asserts itself and she takes matters into her own hands. The planet of Barrayar adores sons and despises physical deformities and genetic experiments, so Cordelia’s attempts of in vitro fertilization are met with horror and objections. She persists, and considering where she’s living, the courage of such persistence is remarkable.
I’m not a great fan of Aral Vorkosigan. His past is too shady and demented, and he is too bound by his duties as a Regent. Even when his unfortunate son is kidnapped (in his incubator stage, no less), Vorkosigan finds his hands tied up. But one thing is for sure. His marriage to Cordelia has saved him from becoming a monster; here too, Cordelia’s innate honor brings out the best in him.
The best part about Barrayar? When Cordelia manages a raid on the rebel Count Vordarian’s palace to rescue her son with a small team of four. Here’s a glimpse:
Count Piotr's hand slapped down hard upon the table. "Good God, woman, where have you been?" he cried furiously.
A morbid lunacy overtook her. She smiled fiercely at him, and held up the bag. "Shopping."
For a second, the old man nearly believed her; conflicting expressions whiplashed over his face, astonishment, disbelief, then anger as it penetrated he was being mocked.
"Want to see what I bought?" Cordelia continued, still floating. She yanked the bag's top open, and rolled Vordarian's head out across the table.
Fortunately, it had ceased leaking some hours back. It stopped faceup before him, lips grinning, drying eyes staring.
Piotr's mouth fell open. Kanzian jumped, the staffers swore, and one of Vordarian's traitors actually fell out of his chair, recoiling. Vortala pursed his lips and raised his brows. Koudelka, grimly proud of his key role in stage-managing this historic moment in one-upsmanship, laid the swordstick on the table as further evidence. Illyan puffed, and grinned triumphantly through his shock.
Aral was perfect. His eyes widened only briefly, then he rested his chin on his hands and gazed over his father's shoulder with an expression of cool interest. "But of course," he breathed. "Every Vor lady goes to the capital to shop."
"I paid too much for it," Cordelia confessed.
"That, too, is traditional." A sardonic smile quirked his lips.