Monday, November 10, 2008

CORDELIA'S HONOR by Lois McMaster Bujold


***Thanks to Frances http://frances-writes.blogspot.com/ for gener0usly granting me permission to cut-and-paste her review. I really wanted this one, but didn't have time for it myself.***
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Recently, I reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s CORDELIA’S HONOR. It’s actually two books in one, SHARDS OF HONOR, and the 1992 HUGO Award Winner, BARRAYAR. It’s been some years since I first read it. I liked it then; and I like it now, more than ever.
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Aside to the reader: In addition to the cover illustration of CORDELIA'S HONOR, above, which I do like, but which I don't feel fully reflects the characters, I have included, one of the original cover illustrations of SHARDS OF HONOR. I think that it clearly reflects the characters, and one of the episodes in the book. Neither hero nor heroine are young, gorgeous, or perfect; but they are wonderful.
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If there were one word that I would use to describe CORDELIA’S HONOR, it would be complex. Don't mistake that for confusing. It's simply that the more you think about this book, the more you see. Ms. Bujold has created three diverse ecological systems, two distinct socio-political organizations, and a study of evil that is magnificent, and all too real. All of the events in the exceedingly strong plot lines serve to reveal aspects of the characters and their conflicts. Layers upon layers lead to lots of, ‘Oh ho! So that’s what is going on!’ These are subtle moments of discovery that delight the reader. .
Commander Cordelia Naismith and Captain Aral Vorkosigan come from planets with antithetical cultures: his, reminiscent of a violent cross between Victorian England and Imperial Russia; and hers, a supposedly peaceful, advanced, constitutional, free, and politically correct society. They are first thrown together in SHARDS OF HONOR, on a hostile alien world, which quickly reveals their true natures. They are complex, flawed, and, above all, honorable. Each brings a starship load of life experiences with them, which, strangely enough, mirror one another. They have both had painful failures in their pasts; and I found their shy efforts at sharing their pasts to be particularly endearing. When Aral asks Cordelia to marry him by listing all of the terrible consequences to doing so, I lost my heart. Quick, woman, marry the man! Ah, but what can they do, when they are on opposite sides of a coming war, and they are both bound by duty and honor?
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Nothing is as it first seems. As enemy combatants, Cordelia and Aral are both constrained to keep secrets from the other, in spite of their attraction. Everything rests upon their judgments of the other’s character; and contrary to all appearances, ultimately their survival depends upon character judgments. (As a special note, it is here that Ms Bujold introduces Sgt. Bothari, one of the most ugly, schizophrenic, psychopaths that I have ever loved.) I wanted to cheer for Cordelia as she reasoned out the terrible trap to his honor in which Aral is caught. And I wanted to cry for him. For Aral, there are no good choices. There are only bad and worse choices, each tearing his honor from him, bit by bit.
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After the war is over, Cordelia returns home. She finds that her world, which she, has idealized as free and advanced, has its own dark side; and it almost destroys her. She possesses information which could devastate the political fabric of Aral’s planet, Barrayar; and the authorities of her planet, Beta, want to take her brain apart and reassemble it... for her own good, of course. I found this sham altruism to be terrifying! If she is not to suffer the Betan equivalent of a lobotomy, Cordelia must flee to Aral on Barrayar, a world which she fears as ‘eating its own children.’
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When Cordelia arrives on Barrayar, she finds a world that is both better and worse than what she had expected. Compared to Beta, Barrayar is beautiful beyond belief, with natural resources that boggle her mind. Family, marriage, loyalty, and honor are deadly serious matters on Barrayar. However, because of her honor, Cordelia, now Lady Vorkosigan, cannot avoid becoming enmeshed in the Machiavellian intrigues of Barrayar’s dying Emperor, Ezar Vorbarra. For the future of Barrayar, she and Aral must take their place in Ezar’s plans. Ezar is only seen in the next to the last chapter of SHARDS OF HONOR; however it is his machinations which have set all events in motion... and dominate BARRAYAR. He is brilliant, honorable in his own way, and utterly ruthless, especially with himself. He is one of the most fascinating and terrifying characters of whom I have ever read. I would like to have known more of him.
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The last chapter of SHARDS OF HONOR is very disturbing. Ms Bujold leaves Cordelia and Aral to their new life and uses this chapter, a seeming non-sequitur, to show the cost of the war started by Ezar Vorbarra, to the people of Beta, Escobar, and Barrayar. She does this through the device of one mother’s grief and awe-inspiring love. Every time that I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes. It was an immense gamble to end SHARDS OF HONOR on this note. It is both brilliant and devastating. I was left with both a question and a conclusion. Question: Is barbarism which is hidden by political correctness any less barbaric than that which is open for all to see? Conclusion: Only love offers any redemption in a broken universe.
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Since CORDELIA’S HONOR covers so much, I will review BARRAYAR in a future post. Thanks for your patience.
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Happy reading,
Frances
Writing Science Fiction Romance
Real Love in a Real Future

2 comments:

Kimber An said...

So, Frances, would you say this is a good one for readers who like Science Fiction & Romance, but can't stomach the graphic sex scenes in SFR New Releases?

Frances said...

KimberAn,

This is an outstanding book for those who like strong character studies. There is some graphic violence and are some very strange situations in the CORDELIA'S HONOR; however, it is never gratuitous. When these are portrayed, the cost is always clearly shown, as I indicated about the mother at the end of SHARDS.

But perhaps the most important aspect of Bujold's work is the compassion which she shows. If something is wrong, she doesn't call it right. She looks at people and situations with clear understanding and forgiveness when needed. Thanks KimberAn.

Frances

Writing Science Fiction Romance
Real Love in a Real Future
http://frances-writes.blogspot.com/