Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

<em class="BookTitle">Barrayar</em>, Lois McMaster Bujold

As second half of Cordelia’s Honor, Baen, 1996, 596 pages, C10.99, ISBN 0-671-57828-6

I first read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar more than a decade and a half ago, as I was making my way through the long list of Hugo award-winning novels.  At the time, the only copy I could find was a French translation, and I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the Vorkosigan universe in which Barrayar is such a keystone.

Recently, though, I happened to pick up a copy of Cordelia’s Honor, an omnibus containing both Barrayar and its prequel Shards of Honor.  Filling the blanks in my Vorkosigan series, I read Shards of Honor and then, while I was at it, started on Barrayar to see if there was anything I’d forgotten in the meantime.

It turns out that I had forgotten quite a bit, and didn’t know about many other things.

The first thing that struck me going from Shards of Honor to Barrayar is how seamlessly the story flows from one book to the other.  Barrayar picks up pretty much where Shards of Honor leaves off: Cordelia’s Honor makes for a far more justifiable omnibus than the other collections of Vorkosigan material that Baen has been throwing together for a while.  There’s a five-year difference of writing experience in-between both books, and it shows: While I had some trouble staying interested throughout Shards of Honor, such unevenness isn’t as apparent in Barrayar as the novel starts out strong and stays that way: Bujold’s prose flows more easily, and her gift for portraying characters get better and better.

The second thing I noticed is that even if Barrayar is chronologically one of the first volumes in the Vorkosigan saga, it’s quite a bit more enjoyable for veteran readers of the series.  Dramatic irony abounds for those who know where the universe is going and what the fates of the characters introduced here will be.  It’s amusing to see familiar characters during their younger years and heartbreaking to see doomed characters get their moments of glory.  It’s also hard to overstate how crucial the events of this novel are to the rest of the series: Globally, Barrayar describes how Aral Vorkosigan is designated as regent and takes over the reins of power during a difficult civil war.  More personally for the characters of the series, this is where a pregnant Cordelia Naismith suffers from a neurotoxin attack, something that will forever shape her unborn son (and series protagonist) Miles.  Less seriously, it’s intriguing to see here the first seeds (Ivan’s birth; the Kou/Drou romance) of plotlines that will keep going through much of the series so far.  I don’t, as a rule, tend to like long-running series, but Bujold does it better than anyone else, and setting a novel a generation before the main body of the series allows her to bring the most out of her overarching plotlines.  It’s one thing to read through the Vorkosigan series and hear about the history of the characters; it’s another to directly experience it here.

We can also see in this novel the beginning of Bujold’s middle-period Vorkosigan era: From 1991’s Barrayar to 1999’s A Civil Campaign represents, to date, the peak of this series, past the initial throat-clearing and before the relatively minor exercises of Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn.  It’s during that time that she’s at her best blending SF plot devices, strong character development, pitch-perfect transparent prose and ingenious plotting with whatever tone any particular novel mar require.  Few other SF writers have ever reached the kind of sustained excellence of that series, and Barrayar is without a doubt one of the major novels in that cycle.  Never mind the Science-Fictional trappings and the accumulated knowledge of the series you need to have in your head in order for the book to work best: This is one great novel, beautifully conceived and skilfully written.  It’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with the Vorkosigan saga, and well-worth a re-read if you are.

[August 2011: Let me hide in a footnote another difference in reading the novel that should have headlined the review if I wasn’t so reluctant to discuss my private life on-line: Reading Barrayar, with its embryonic neurotoxin subplot, as an older teenager is one thing.  Reading it while my wife and I are experiencing the first trimester of our first pregnancy is positively terrifying.]

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