The magic of Bujold – rereading and a journey of discovery

Alex has never read anything by Bujold. Tehani is a long-time fan. Welcome to a conversation of discovery and re-reading that will undoubtedly include a lot of squeeing, spoilers, and misdirected guesses from Alex. Also a fair bit of meta-commentary, since we can’t help ourselves.

Cordelia’s Honor (sic) omnibus: Shards of Honor and Barrayar.

By Lois McMaster Bujold


I can’t believe Bujold has never had an Australian print run; are we really that small a market that someone with so many Hugo nominations hasn’t been formally brought to our attention? I only heard about the series from Tehani and Tansy, who raved about it. I am actually quite happy, and lucky, to be able to read these in books in internal chronological order (barring any prequels she may see fit to write!), although a little sad that I don’t get the joy of reading this omnibus as a prequel, since I’m sure most long-time devotees of Miles were immensely excited to read his parents’ story. I’m also immensely pleased that I have so many more books to read, already published, and am not in the position of my friends who pounced on Cryoburn like so many starving wolves. I hadn’t realised just how hooked I was, by the way, until I finished Shards of Honour in two days and just kept ploughing right on into Barrayar almost without realising…

It’s quite amazing really that this is the first Vorkosigan book (Falling Free, set some centuries prior to the Vorkosigan period, is set in the same universe, but isn’t a Vorkosigan book, so I don’t count it) in both internal and external chronology. Such a huge amount of world- and character-building happens in even the first few chapters, without ever being info-dumpish – it’s an astonishing feat for an author, and just one of the things I adore about Bujold!


I absolutely agree. The universe Bujold has created puts me slightly in mind of the Hainish universe of le Guin – people have been (re)discovered and brought (back) into a galactic-wide society. There is a mention of the Time of Isolation, from which it’s obvious that there’s been some galactic community in the past from which some planets, at least, have been sundered for some period of time. In Barrayar we discover that that planet has only been brought back into communion 80 years ago, which seems a remarkably short period of time for that planet and society to acclimatise to galactic standards and norms – which some individuals actually haven’t managed.

The characters:
Meeting Aral and Cordelia like this, for readers of the Miles-proper books, was surely a fascinating experience. It makes me wonder whether they are known as the Butcher of Komarr and the Killer of Vorrutyer to Miles’ acquaintances, in the later books?

I like Cordelia. I was surprised by how quickly Bujold had Cordelia and Aral fall in love, but I guess it was a case of extreme circumstance.

It seems the romance between Cordelia and Aral does happen very suddenly, but I think it works, in this instance. Aral’s stumbling proposal is very sweet in his hesitancy, and Cordelia’s reaction to it is wonderful in the way it defies the normal expectations of romance tropes. The relationship development could be viewed to support the idea (posited in the movie Speed!) that pressure forces ties to form more quickly and of stranger bedfellows than the normal course of daily life allows. But the characterisation shown for Cordelia and Aral really allows the reader to see the inherent connection between them.

Aral may have other motives (conscious or unconscious, it’s difficult to judge here – I’d be interested to hear what you say on this, without the benefit of having read the later books!), but his genuine admiration for Cordelia’s strength, wit and intelligence is obvious. In turn, Cordelia is drawn to Aral despite her clear distaste for the society he comes from. This mutual connection is not for the usual romance reasons: there is not an instant physical response – neither are described as classical beauties! – nor is there immediate, unwarranted, trust. Instead, in just a few chapters, trust is earned, insights into each other unfold, and although it takes place in a short span of time, the relationship seems real. It’s a very skilled piece of writing that delicately subverts the romance tropes to become a believable developing relationship.


I can’t so far tell that there might be other motives on Aral’s part to falling for, or choosing, Cordelia. The sap in me hopes that I never get dissuaded of that romanticism!

I really liked that Cordelia is old! – well, by romance standards anyway; 33! Practically haggard! And surely beyond romantic entanglements… I particularly enjoyed the sense of duty and responsibility and common sense that attended this positively elderly romance – connected with the quiet desperation in their eyes. But back to Cordelia – she’s strong, and smart; a little bit broken by the past but resilient; a good leader, and someone I could definitely enjoy knowing. I admire her resourcefulness and was appropriately shocked by her ruthlessness on a few occasions.

Aral is awesome. Again, older; and it may be somewhat heretical to make this comparison, but I can’t help seeing the similarities between him and Eddings’ Sparhawk. World weary, largely unflappable, no beauty, violent when necessary, intensely loyal and honorable. I like the humanity that Bujold shows in his sensitivity to Cordelia, and towards his men too. He and Cordelia complement each other nicely, I feel. Having Aral be bisexual was an immensely interesting choice, too – up to that point I’d had no idea that this would be anything but a universe where heterosexuality was the only acceptable mode (maybe the Miles books are full of non-hetero sexuality and this is something Bujold fans expect; again, I look forward to finding out).

Sparhawk, yes!! I agree, some readers might find that heretical, and the books the two appear in could not BE more different, but there are definite similarities in their characterisations!


It’s so wrong, isn’t it?

Bothari is … complicated.

And Miles? Well, I really hadn’t expected that he would be – what’s the right word? – malformed? Not completely physically perfect, anyway. I think I had assumed I was getting myself into a series where the hero was a fairly typical hero, to be honest. Although I was shocked by the attack on Cordelia and Aral, and the fact that theantidote had such an impact on the fetus Miles, I admit that I expected that the doctor’s work would come out perfectly and the Count would have to eat his words. To have him born with bones so fragile that one breaks in the first 30 seconds, and the Count then renouncing familial ties (although that’s somewhat resolved in the epilogue)… I realised at that point that this was not going to be the sort of series I was expecting.

I think Miles’s imperfections are part of the reason we adore this world so much. That he has so much to overcome from the very beginning makes him far more fascinating than if he’d been handed looks, ability and brains on a platter! You’ve moved on into Barrayar here, which while second in internal chronology, was actually the seventh book published, and it’s really interesting that Bujold went back to fill out the circumstances surrounding Miles’ birth. These two books work really well as a duology, which is brilliant given they weren’t written or published in order!


I really am amazed that they were written so far apart. They flow so seamlessly together! It really would have driven me wild to read them out of order. Also- yes, I can imagine that Miles’ imperfections are very attractive, in a hero.

The worlds:
Barrayar and Beta Colony are (literally) worlds apart, and I’m now wild to find out where Miles spends most of his time – at one quarter through Barrayar I guessed Beta Colony, because there’s so much more on Barrayar that it seems like it might be filling in gaps for readers. Barrayar is a fairly recognisable military-dominated world – recognisable from other SF/fantasy that is – with attendant philosophies and values. It’s Beta Colony that fascinates me, though, because it is a more classically science fictional world: uterine replicators, hermaphrodites, parental licenses, a liberal view on sexuality … yet all of this takes place of a planet that’s happy to use drugs on someone to get information, is unwilling to believe their officer’s testimony, and has a President that apparently no one voted for. Deliciously complicated. I can’t wait to find out more.

Oh, so MUCH more to come for you! 🙂


The narrative itself:
I really enjoy being thrown straight into the action when it’s done well – which is something I can’t define – and Shards of Honour definitely manages that. Traitors, unlikely alliances, honour … so much goes on in what is a relatively short book. I was horrified by the actions of Vorrutyer, of course, and Bothari doesn’t really make those circumstances any better … but Aral bursting in on the scene is marvellous, and would surely play well on screen! The reception of Cordelia at home, and then her efforts to get away without betraying herself or Vorkosigan, are nail-biting indeed. I jumped straight into Barrayar after Shards, so I admit they muddle together in my head – but I love the vision of Cordelia turning up unannounced as Aral starts on a binge, and that their relationship just goes on from there. Civil war is always an interesting narrative mode for setting up alliances and world politics, and for outlining personalities too. I enjoyed the action bits of Cordelia and Drou etc running off to rescue the replicator with Miles in it, although it did feel just a little out of place – direct violence and action had been removed from the story for what felt like a long time. It was nice to have the conclusion with the Vorkosigan family making some attempts at reconciliation with each other, and I’ve no doubt this sets things up for the rest of the series.

Questions I’m left with:

Will Bothari and Elena feature in the Miles books? What about Kou and Drou (gotta say, that’s a bit tacky), Piotr, Gregor and Ivan? Will bone density continue to be an issue? Do we visit more than just Barrayar and Beta Colony? Will I continue to be hooked??

I can only answer one of those questions without venturing into spoiler territory so I’m just going to go with the easy one – YES, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO BE HOOKED! 🙂


Awesome 😀