GUEST REVIEW: Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
I would not describe myself as a science fiction fan-and not because I haven’t tried it. Thanks to my college habit of taking only classes that met Tuesday-Thursday, I’ve read the whole SF canon, everything from Left Hand of Darkness to Snow Crash. And while I didn’t hate it all (Because, really, who could hate Dune?) literature about dystopian feminist/fascist/droid-ruled/war-mongering societies just doesn’t get my blood pumping. And, though I have nothing against space operas in theory, many “composers” seem so besotted with the nifty little worlds they’ve created they forget details like characterization and lucid plots. But last January, in a post about genre labels, you mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books as a series often embraced by romance readers. I needed something to read, so I gave them a shot.
Cordelia’s Honor is the first installment in the Vorkosigan series, but it reads like a stand-alone novel. It also reads like one of the best damn books I’ve ever owned. It’s primarily SF, but the relationship thread is very strong and the book ends with a HEA, so it more than satisfied my romance needs. Even better, the lead couple, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, are actually great people. With all the Mary Sues and Too-Stupid-To-Lives masquerading as heroines, all the Jackass-Alpha-Males and Self-Centered-Brooders offered as heroes, I often settle for merely tolerating my main characters. But Cordelia and Aral are different. For starters, they’re Grown-Ups. They do not play dumb relationship games or pull stupid stunts that endanger themselves and others. They’re intelligent and competent. They respect each other. It’s all so refreshing!
Aral, from the empire planet of Barrayar (imagine a really cut-throat and futuristically-equipped Regency England) is an aristocrat and a soldier in command of a starship. Cordelia, hailing from the progressive Beta Colony, is a scientist in command of a survey expedition. In the beginning, anyway. A lot happens in this book, more than any sane person would attempt to summarize (in fact, I believe this was originally published as two separate and complete novels.) And it’s a really good story. But, for me, this book succeeds because Bujold concentrates not on the universe she’s created, but the people living in it.
Vorkosigan returned from the forward pilot’s compartment, and slid in beside her. “Are you doing all right?”
She gave him a nod. “Yes. Rather overwhelmed by all these herds of boys. I think you Barrayarans are the only ones who don’t carry mixed crews. Why is that, I wonder?”
“Partly tradition, partly to maintain an aggressive outlook. They haven’t been bothering you?”
“No, amusing me only. I wonder if they realize how they are used?”
“Not a bit. They think they are the emperors of creation.”
“That’s not how I’d describe them.”
“I was thinking of animal sacrifice.”
“Ah. That’s closer.”
She also does a terrific job of showing all this SF strangeness through Cordelia’s eyes, a point of view that most can relate to.
She gathered Dubauer and followed him aboard Vorkosigan’s ship. It smelled different from her survey ship, colder, full of bare unpainted metal and cost-effective short cuts taken out of comfort and dÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©cor, like the difference between a living room and a locker room.
But Aral and Cordelia themselves are the main reason I’ve read this book three times since January. They’re the kind of characters that keep you coming back for more. They’re honorable and wise-even in the face of enormous challenges. They have an inspiring but realistic relationship. And their humor saves them from stuffy paragonhood.
“Don’t worry. You’re not going to have to carry me. I’m one of the fittest men in my command.” He limped on. “Over forty.”
“How many men over forty are there in your command?”
Or try this part, in which Cordelia insists her bodyguard-the only female to hold such a position on the entire planet-be allowed to participate in the weekly sparring competition among their otherwise exclusively-male security detail. Aral goes to arrange it with the referee, Lt. Koudelka (aka “Kou”).
Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, “Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants gurls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her-hm, I do hope that’s what that gesture means, otherwise you’re getting obscene, Kou-wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan-Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey.[…]”
The rest of this series follows the adventures of Cordelia and Aral’s son, Miles, with Cordelia and Aral making periodic cameo appearances. The “Miles books” have very little romance, but I was so hooked after reading Cordelia’s Honor I didn’t care. I recommend this book to all romance readers, even if your preferred flavor is Scottish Highlander or frontier sheriff. Give it a try. Grade A.