If revisiting old favorite stories can sometimes make you realize how much you have changed as a reader, and how different your tastes are at present, I fully avoided this pitfall in my return to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga: on the contrary I’m discovering that not only I still enjoy these books as much as I did some twenty years ago when I first read them, but that the knowledge of the overall story arc helps me appreciate those early installments even more than at first sight.
This is particularly the case with Barrayar, the second book (in chronological, not publication, order) of the series and the continuation of the story on the heels of the events we followed in Shards of Honor: where the internal timeline puts the beginning of Barrayar just days after its predecessor, the narrative focus and characterization have improved greatly since the author published a few more books in the sequence before returning to Cordelia and Aral and portraying the events leading to the birth of their son Miles, the true protagonist of the series, and it shows.
As the title suggests, the story develops on Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan’s home planet where Cordelia came to live after marrying him: to Cordelia’s Betan sensibilities the place is backwards and unrefined – both in attitude and technology – and the feudal system put in place during the Time of Isolation, when the planet was cut off from the rest of the galaxy due to the closing of its wormhole, relies on a rigid caste division and the separation of roles according to gender. To further complicate things, the couple’s projects of a quiet retirement oriented toward building a family are obstructed by Aral’s appointment as Regent for the young Emperor, which embroils them further into Barrayaran poisonous politics, a bloody civil war and an assassination attempt whose major consequence will be the as-yet-unborn Miles’ grievous physical damage that will shape his future.
Where this book deepens our knowledge of the main characters and introduces a few new ones that will also be part of Miles’ future, its main attraction to me is the depiction of Barrayaran society, which we see through Cordelia’s more sophisticated, and often sarcastic, eye: the accent on physical and military prowess, the open scorn visited on those who suffer disabilities, all sound much more ominous than they did in the past, because looking at them with hindsight I can see how the author was paving the way, so to speak, for Miles’ upward struggle toward acceptance. In Shards of Honor there was a first inkling of this attitude, when Aral did not understand Cordelia’s determination to carry her severely injured comrade along their arduous trek, and he suggested a mercy killing, pointing out how on his world that would be the required, accepted norm. Here in Barrayar we see how young officer Koudelka, whose encounter with a nerve disruptor left him motor-impaired, is the object of contemptuous pity and worse; or again how Sergeant Bothari, whose unstable mind was compromised by the callous misuse from his previous master, is seen as a monster to be caged rather than a lost soul to be cured.
Cordelia often remarks on the cruelty of Barrayar, comparing it to a ravenous parent who devours its own children, and even while she tries to partly conform to its less archaic rules to gain acceptance, she attempts to change them from the inside, to bring a veneer of galactic modernity to this place so firmly set in its past. Because Barrayar is on the cusp of a major change as forces for a more enlightened outlook battle with the old guard, still set in its ways and afraid of losing its privileges: Aral Vorkosigan tries to be the man to usher this transformation, as he straddles the uneasy border between the old and the new seeking a viable balance, and his willingness to be a… Renaissance man, supported by Cordelia, will see them accepting this difficult role and paying its high price with the future life of their son. A failed attempt on Aral’s life through a poison grenade exposes them both to soltoxin, whose antidote would prove fatal for Cordelia’s baby’s bone growth: again, the Barrayaran solution would be to abort the child who’s destined to be a “monster” by planetary standards, but Cordelia stubbornly refuses to give up and attempts an untested procedure that will allow the baby the possibility of an almost normal life. “Almost” being the operative word here, because we know that Miles will be born with fragile bones and a too-short, partly twisted body that does not meet the Barrayaran norm.
It’s through Cordelia’s battle that we see the unmasked nature of the planet she chose as her new home, one that wears the face of Count Piotr, Aral’s father, the man we first encountered toward the end of Shards of Honor, who welcomed the woman who was to marry his son and who later treated her as a precious creature once he knew she was carrying his grandson, his lease on the future of House Vorkosigan. That face turns so very rapidly from avuncular kindness to obstinate ruthlessness as he first insists on the abortion because he’s not ready to accept a less-than-perfect heir, and then tries to kill the fetus as it’s receiving medical care in the uterine replicator where it’s been placed. Piotr is indeed the incarnation of much which is wrong on Barrayar, of the desire of the few to be in total control and their terror in seeing this control slip from their fingers: he’s not much different from those of the old guard who are afraid of Aral’s more modern ideas and of how these will change the status quo – once Piotr understand that Cordelia, with Aral’s backing, will not budge from her course, he lashes out with a viciousness that’s even more disturbing than the actions of the rebels, because it’s turned against family, and it sounds utterly wrong.
Once again we are witnesses to Cordelia’s determination and strength of character, here enhanced by the powerful will of a mother to protect her child, not only from a merciless grandfather but from those who would use the baby as a tool in their games: this woman who knows how to exert compassion also knows how to turn into a ruthless killer when circumstances require it, and the ferociousness with which she defends her unborn child is only equal to the pain in realizing that she had to sacrifice some of her principles to adapt – for Miles’ sake – to the unforgiving environment where they will live, and that he will have to do the same.
“Welcome to Barrayar, son. Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history. […] Have a twisted form in a society that loathes and fears the mutations that have been its deepest agony. […] Have your body ripped apart and re-arranged. Inherit an array of friends and enemies you never made. Have a grandfather from hell. Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.”
These words touched me deeply, because I know what awaits Miles down the road, I know they are a peek into that difficult future in which he will have to fight an uphill battle but, on the other hand, I know he will take to heart his mother’s advice to live, and that following his path will be both exciting and inspirational. I will miss a little the presence of Cordelia and Aral, since from here on the focus will be mainly on Miles, and yet I can better see them now as the roots on which his amazing personality rests: getting to retrace his steps is going to be a fun journey, one I’m eagerly anticipating.