Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1991 Barrayar is the second Cordelia Vorkosigan novel. I am going to put off working out how to number it in the grander Vorkosigan Saga and Vorkosigan Universe sequences in the hope that nobody will notice if I am inconsistent1.
The plan: Barrayaran Aral marries Betan Cordelia; Aral retires from active duty and the couple lives on their country estate, there to enjoy long, happy lives.
The outcome: Emperor Ezar Vorbarra is dying and has one last task for Aral. It is a weighty task that will burden Aral and Cordelia for years to come.
Crown Prince Serg is unlamentably dead. He leaves behind him a traumatized wife, Kareen, and a five-year-old son, Gregor. When Ezar dies, Gregor will be emperor. Until Gregor is of age, he will need a regent. Aral will be that regent.
Barrayar has many arch-conservatives. They regard (rightly) Aral as suspiciously progressive. The once-isolated world also has its would-be reformers. They regard aristocratic Aral as a symbol of the hateful old order. It’s not terribly surprising, therefore, the regent-to-be is targeted by several attempts at assassination, one of which leaves the couple’s unborn son Miles permanently disabled.
Ezar’s death kicks political tensions from “on-going background noise” to “full on conflagration.” Count Vidal Vordarian believes that the aristocrat most suited to be regent (or even, should something unfortunate happen to Gregor, Emperor) is none other than Vidal Vordarian himself. Ezar is still cooling when Vordarian launches his coup.
Vordarian’s coup is only partly successful. He captures some significant facilities and the unfortunate Kareen. He does not get his hands on the young emperor Gregor, who is whisked away to Aral’s country estate by a mortally wounded loyalist. The space forces remain undecided, while the battles on the ground fail to provide Vordarian with the decisive victories he needs.
No matter. The unborn Miles was transferred to a uterine replicator as part of his on-going treatment for poisoning. Vordarian has the replicator with fetus inside. With Miles hostage, and with just six days remaining before the replicator stops working, there can be no doubt that his parents will be forced to come to terms with Vordarian.
Vordarian did not reckon with Cordelia.
I am torn over whether I should be tackling these books in internal chronology (which is what I am doing) or publication order. The first suits my obsessive ordering but the second would let me more effectively chart Bujold’s growth as a writer. There is a marked improvement between Shards of Honor and Barrayar, made more dramatic by the fact that I skipped over all the novels published in the six years between those two books.
It takes a while for the civil war to start, which provides Cordelia with the chance to meet and know Barrayarans. Mostly they can be sorted into aristocratic Vor, who are all too often monumental dicks, and the common folk of Barrayar, who seem nice enough until you discover that their hobbies include torturing cripples. There is the odd Barrayaran whose values are somehow close enough to Cordelia’s for her to gather them into her circle, but on the whole, poverty, centuries of isolation, and technological backwardness have turned Barrayar into a world of mean, suspicious, class-conscious brutes.
On the plus side, there’s tremendous scope for improvement. Mind you, the Cetagandans probably felt the same and their efforts to reshape Barrayar failed in the end. Many Barrayarans have no problem with the planetary value system; Cordelia’s father in law invests a fair amount of time trying to kill his unborn grandson for being a “mutant” and he sees Cordelia’s refusal to cooperate as entirely unreasonable.
On the topic of class consciousness: does Beta really not have poor people or did Cordelia just never notice them? Or is it that Beta is so expensive a place to live on, being a pretty marginal world2, that anyone who falls out of the social safety net will simply expire in short order? One might think Cordelia is too smart to overlook such things, but in the first book it turned out Beta had some unfortunate therapeutic practices of which Cordelia was unaware until they were applied to her.
A good chunk of the novel is driven by the implications of cutting-edge reproductive technology. The uterine replicator allows Miles’ guardsman Bothari to take custody of his unborn daughter despite the fact the mother rightly despises him and lives on another world. Miles’ injuries can be treated in the replicator, whereas they could not have been if natural birth were the only option.
Bujold avoids a miserable novel of brutes squabbling over who is to rule a world of barbarians by focusing on Cordelia, whose values are moderately progressive and whose efforts, for the most part, produce acceptable results. Barrayar as a whole is an unpleasant world, but the part of it in immediate proximity to Cordelia is full of constructive action, mutually supportive alliances, and happy endings. Although perhaps not so happy from Vordarian’s perspective.
Barrayar is available here (Amazon). This edition does not seem to be available from Chapters-Indigo. I am disinterested in other editions; please don’t feel any obligation to point them out to me.
1: Bujold is responsible for most of my “how do I order these books” issues on this site.
2: It is a consistent worldbuilding detail in the Vorkosiganverse that most habitable worlds are only marginally habitable from the perspective of humans. There may be a few garden worlds, but most planets are fixer-uppers. Barrayar, for example, has abundant life, but that life is biochemically incompatible with humans. A nuclear strike by the invading Cetagandans did not help the terraforming efforts.