Discussion Post: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold


Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.

You can read Tsana’s review of Barrayar here, and Katharine’s review here.

Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice – almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about – which also made it even more realistic – they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first – which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do – it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech – it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

Spoilers start here! 
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Review: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Series: Vorkosigan Saga
Published by: Baen
ISBN: 1476781117
ISBN 13: 9781476781112
Published: 1991
Pages: 400
Format reviewed: Paperback Omnibus
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five
Related Reviews: Reading Challenge: Vorkosigan Saga Project

Reading in chronological rather than published order, going from Shards of Honor to Barrayar has barely a moment to breathe in between novels. Cordelia and Aral are deep into their new life, having been clawed out of retirement before they were even really in it, to be in charge of Barrayar until their young charge is old enough to do so himself. As one could expect, not everyone is happy with the decision. Cordelia is from another planet, and Aral is seen as power-hungry, so it’s no surprise that their lives are soon under threat. We see multiple attacks on their life until it all explodes into something much bigger.

What struck me in this novel is how accurate and articulate the fights are – those with words, in any case. Surprisingly, Aral’s father is almost one of the main antagonists in this story and it’s here that we see accurate family drama where things are said that aren’t necessarily meant, but egos are involved. In some books you see fights as if that’s it – the end – and they only talk again if someone admits they were wrong and then the novel is usually over – but in this, you see them put aside things when needs must – yet not forgotten.

Overall all characters have growth and you can easily see what drives them all – even if they themselves don’t always see it as clearly. Knowing that Miles is more of a main character than Cordelia quite soon does put something of a dampener on the majority of the action and adventure because we know that somehow it has to sort itself out somehow by the end. That doesn’t make it any less heroic or capturing though – and in fact it makes it all easier to read as we know somehow everything will be okay and you want to read on to see how on earth they manage to pull it off.

What I love especially in all this is how Aral and Cordelia do or say things the other doesn’t always like or agree with, but in the end they have respect and care for each other deeply – and this remains the most important thing to them, where in other fictional couples the ‘only’ resolution would seem to be have a massive fight and separate for a while. We finally have role models for a reasonable and healthy relationship where things don’t have to be perfect in order for a couple to be functional together.

All in all I can’t wait to get my hands on The Warrior’s Apprentice and meet Miles… but I also don’t think I want to leave Aral and Cordelia just yet – someone tell me there’s another novel of them still to go, please?