Reviews

Sci-Fi Month 2019: BARRAYAR, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

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.

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com
Reviews

Sci-Fi Month 2019: SHARDS OF HONOR, by Lois McMaster Bujold #SciFiMonth

 

The main character of Bujold’s body of work is Miles Vorkosigan, born with a crippled body in a militaristic society where physical prowess is paramount, and clawing his way to recognition through the best assets he possesses – his keen mind and his ingenuity.  Miles’ story, however, starts even before his birth with the meeting of his parents and then with the events leading to his… appearance on the scene, so here is where I will begin.

Shards of Honor is not only the start of the overall saga, but also Lois McMaster Bujold’s very first novel, and considering it again now, several years after my first encounter, I perceived some of its imperfections, while I also discovered a few of the elements at the root of future events, and appreciated their foreshadowing value – whether it was intentional or not at the time.

The universe depicted by Bujold is set in the far future, one where a good portion of space has been explored and colonized thanks to the discovery of a kind of shortcut called “jump nexus” which allows to breach vast distances in less time – provided you have access to a nexus, of course, so that proximity to one of these shortcuts can make or break the fate of any given planet, or subject it to the threat of invasion by less fortunate neighbors.

Cordelia Naismith is a commander in the Betan Survey: while she and her scientific team are exploring a new, uninhabited world, they are attacked by a party from Barrayar, a planet notorious for its aggressive stance, and Cordelia is captured by their commander, Aral Vorkosigan.  Things are not as they seem, however, and more than her captor and enemy Vorkosigan turns out to be the victim of a mutiny prompted by his political adversaries, and an honorable man as well, contrary to the popular opinion about Barrayarans in general and Vorkosigan in particular, given his unearned moniker of “butcher of Komarr”.

While the two of them brave the dangers of an uncharted world, trying to reach the Barrayaran camp where Vorkosigan needs to reconnect with his loyalists, he and Cordelia get to know each other, and move from an uneasy alliance to a mutual respect that slowly morphs into reciprocal attraction. The vagaries of politics and war will separate and then bring them together again, and if the ultimate ending of such relationship looks somewhat telegraphed, their story feels real and solid – to the point that even my usual aversion to romance falls to the wayside, given the high believability of the way the relationship evolves and the maturity, in age and behavior, of Cordelia and Aral, which is a refreshing change from the usual fictional patterns.

Cordelia has always been one of my favorite Bujold characters, and here she shines on her own, and not just as Miles’ mother – albeit a very formidable one.  The Betan commander is a practical, no-nonsense woman who can also exhibit a great deal of compassion; a shrewd observer with a keen mind both for science and politics; a fierce fighter when circumstances require it and a person with a quirky sense of humor. It’s easy now, with hindsight, to see where Miles gets his cleverness from, and there is a scene here in Shards of Honor where Cordelia resolves a problematic situation by being so verbally inventive that I found myself smiling because it felt like listening to one of her son’s most daring scams.

By comparison, Aral looks somewhat wooden and less defined, but on one hand this novel is very much Cordelia’s story and on the other we see a few glimpses of his past – with its own horrors and tragedies – and can understand why he’s less revealing of himself.  Aral is the kind of character that grows on you, once you start to see behind the mask, although I wonder how much of it stems, now, from the knowledge I garnered in the course of the saga.  The fact that both he and Cordelia are not young people – she’s in her early thirties and he’s in his mid-forties – adds to the feeling of solidness of these characters and the ease with which I grew attached to them.

Thinking back to Shards of Honor now, however, brought to light some elements that might have caused me to stop reading the series there and then if this had been my first Vor Saga book: luckily for me, I began with book 3 in the internal chronological order and got to know Miles first, so that going back later to learn about his parents “armed” me with the ability to overlook the flaws inherent in this story.  The most annoying one comes from the depiction of the Necessary Bad Guy, a perverted sadist who enjoys torturing his victims – namely young and beautiful women – and tries to subject Cordelia  to the same fate: first, the scene of a tied and helpless woman at the mercy of the evil antagonist, who delights in talking a great deal about the horrors he’s going to visit on her, reeks too much of a bad B-movie for my tastes. And second, putting the heroine in such a situation, only to be saved in extremis from the proverbial fate worse than death, is something of a tired trope, and it seems to contradict all that we learned about Cordelia up to that point – i.e. that she can save herself quite efficiently, thank you very much.

The use of the trope can be probably ascribed to the times (the book was first published in 1986) and to the fact it was a debut novel, which also must account for some uneven pacing and a few over-the-top developments (like Cordelia’s escape from Beta Colony when everyone believes her the victim of Stockholm’s Syndrome). Again, hindsight allows me to know that the author’s skills improved greatly over time, and to overlook the flaws common to debut authors.

In the end, reconnecting with Shards of Honor felt like time well spent, re-acquainting myself with this world and these characters and appreciating the complexity of Barrayaran politics that will take center stage in the next novel, Barrayar, which I remember as one of my favorites in the overall saga.

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com
Reviews

SCI-FI Month 2019: Ready for liftoff?

Image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

 

One of the highlights of November, for us book bloggers who enjoy speculative fiction, is the Sci-Fi Month event, 30 days in which we enjoy talking about one of our favorite genres, sharing titles and comments and – above all – having fun.

With many thanks to  Deargeekplace and Imyril who are hosting the event, I would like to direct you to the event’s Twitter page, where you will learn everything you need to know to participate: there is no time limit for signing on – as long as the fun goes on, everyone will be welcome. The more the merrier!

This year I’ve decided to do something different: instead of showcasing various SF novels (or movies, or TV shows – remember, the sky’s the limit!) I want to focus on one of my favorite space opera series, Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA.  Since I started blogging I recommended it emphatically to anyone who asked me for recommendations, but given that I read the books long before the idea of a book blog came to me, I have never reviewed any of them – with the exception of the latest works, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen and The Flowers of Vashnoi.

So starting this November (and then moving beyond it, given the huge number of works in the series) I will share my reviews of the Vorkosigan books and novellas, using the internal chronological order rather than the publication date, so as to offer a logical timeline and a more coherent narrative pattern.

The books I will showcase are:

Shards of Honor

Barrayar

The Warrior Apprentice

The Mountains of Mourning (novella)

The Vor Game

Cetaganda

Labyrinth (novella)

The Borders of Infinity (novella)

Brothers in Arms

Mirror Dance

Memory

Komarr

A Civil Campaign

Winterfair Gifts (novella)

Diplomatic Immunity

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Cryoburn

So I hope you will appreciate rediscovering with me the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan & Co. or be curious about this highly enjoyable series and start reading…  Shall we begin?   🙂

 

 

A small side note on the books’ covers: I have searched for nice-looking covers that could give a good idea of the single stories, but this series seems to be plagued by an abundance of not-so-stellar cover images. Remember that no book should be judged by that…. 😉