Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
I was introduced to Bujold’s Vorkosigan chronicles more than a decade ago by my at-the-time boyfriend, who was already a big fan of the series. The first one I read was ‘A Civil Campaign’, one of the later books in the series, which still remains a favourite of mine and will no doubt feature as a reviewed book later on this blog. However, I wanted to start my review series with this one: Cordelia’s Honor.
Cordelia’s Honor is actually two shorter books published together, Shards of honour and Barrayar, which won the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1992. It deserves the title and is definitely my favourite out of the two works contained in this edition.
The eponymous Cordelia is Cordelia Vorkosigan, nee Naismith. A captain of the Betan Expeditionary Force, a respected officer, educated and intelligent woman, Cordelia is a product of Beta Colony, a world where equality of the sexes has been achieved, class has been all but eradicated and the act and pursuit of enjoyable sex is no longer subjected to any form of social shame. Cordelia has never known prejudice, never known disadvantage and has never had cause to see her world as anything less than fair and just, until she meets Aral Vorkosigan and falls in love with him, and moves to Barrayar to marry him. Their love story forms the central strand of Shards Of Honor, and is worth reading in its own right.
Barrayar is as far removed from Beta Colony in social terms as can be imagined. Having recently emerged from a period of galactic seclusion, known by its inhabitants as The Time Of Isolation, the Barrayaran Empire resembles an archaic, brutal dictatorship, obsessed with war and conquest. Military service is an obsession for the culture, men are considered socially superior to women, caste and bloodlines are held in high regard and there is little pity or understanding for the weaker or disabled inhabitants. The gulf between the wealthy Vor caste and the poor proles is immense and impenetrable.
Married to Aral, who serves as ruling Regent to the five year old boy-Emperor Gregor, Cordelia is thrust into the spotlight of upper class Vor society. As the novel progresses and Barrayar descends into a chaotic rebellion, she also forays into the lower class poverty stricken echelons, and is stunned by the difference between them. Fortunately for Cordelia, she is blessed with a series of unlikely guides and allies, many of whom find themselves on the wrong sides of Barrayar’s expectations and requirements. In Cordelia they find a champion of social justice and equality, who recognises them for their strengths and abilities rather than their perceived failures.
The three characters who come to her aid include a mentally ill soldier, Bothari, a physically crippled former soldier named Koudelka and a highly trained female bodyguard, named Droushnakovi who lacks confidence and self believe. This trio form one of the most diverse and compelling clutch of characters I have ever encountered in a science fiction story.
Bothari is a damaged man, repeatedly abused as a child by his prostitute mother and then subjected to the orders of a sexually depraved commanding officer, he has been turned into an horrific person whose fractured persona can be triggered towards honour and protection, but also towards rape and assault. However, under Cordelia’s high expectations and trust after he defends her and refuses to attack her out of loyalty to Aral, he becomes her champion, her knight errant. He acts as her protector and guide through the seedy underworld of Barrayar to assist her in a daring rescue mission. Exposed to both the best and worst of his character, Cordelia never loses sight of who Bothari really is, or what he is capable of. She acknowledges his insanity and describes him as a ‘monster’, but she equally values him for his positives and is willing to trust him on the basis of good outweighing bad within his nature.
Lieutenant Koudelka, a wounded soldier who was struck by a nerve disrupter blast, struggles to find his way within the military obsessed Barrayaran culture, not only held back by his prole status but also by the continuing debilitating effects of his injuries, which force him to walk with a limp. Driven into depression and almost to the point of suicide, Koudelka is a proud and deeply unhappy man when he meets Cordelia. However, under her guidance and care, not to mention forthright intervention, a touching love story blossoms between him and Drou and he finds new purpose and value in his role in Aral Vorkosigan’s staff.
Drou is possibly my favourite character of the three. Assigned to Cordelia as a body guard having previously protected Princess Kareen and her infant son Gregor, Drou has as much training and ability as any of the male guards and soldiers who are enlisted in the Barrayaran army. However, her gender has rendered her ineligible for ‘proper’ military service, and this role is the next best option available to her. Cordelia’s open minded background opens Drou’s eyes to the opportunities that her job allows for her and under the Vorkosigan’s guidance she is given the opportunity to prove her abilities both in contests against the male guards but also in assisting Cordelia in her efforts to rescue her son during the revolution. Alongside Cordelia, Drou is in a position to influence the development of the child Emperor as he grows to adulthood, acting as a constant reminder of the strength, abilities and determination that Barrayaran women are capable of in a male dominated society.
Cordelia not only teaches during this novel, though. She learns. Faced with a world which is the social antithesis of her native Beta Colony, Cordelia is given a crash course in the forms of privilege that she has taken for granted all of her life, and in doing so she offers lessons to the other Vor caste around her about the value of those they have dismissed as inferior or defective. Brought face to face with real poverty and deprivation for the first time, as well as the lack of opportunities available to Barrayaran women, Cordelia sets about making changes. In her position as wife of the Regent, and foster mother to the future Emperor of Barrayar, she has more opportunity than most. Faced with this realisation, Cordelia is certainly not idle, and by the time Gregor accedes to the throne, Barrayar has begun its transition into becoming a more open, accepting and liberal society. As the later chronicles unfold, this process continues, with new challenges to Barrayar’s traditions bringing further cultural awakenings with each page.
The Vorkosigan Chronicles, especially the earlier ones, are rip roaring adventures of the best sort space opera has to offer. Cordelia’s son Miles, who as a physically deformed pint-sized hero offers many of his own challenges to his native culture’s attitude to disabled people, takes to the starry skies as a mercenary fleet admiral. He gathers his own band of misfits, all seeking out a place where they can be accepted for their strengths rather than despised for their weaknesses. Later in the novels, as Miles returns to Barrayar and accepts a new role in the political structure in service to the Emperor, the books turn into a beautiful mix of political thrillers and comedic social commentaries.
If you are looking for books which highlight and also successfully and realistically challenge examples of social injustice, particularly centred around gender, sexual identity, physical appearance, class and coping with disabilities, I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They offer an example of a way forward toward social justice and equality and sometimes in this dark world, such lights are sorely needed if optimism is going to survive. If I had to pick a weak spot, it would be the assumption that all of the characters in the book are white, due to a lack of description depicting people of colour (although I should point out I am still working through them and hope to yet be pleasantly surprised on this matter). But there are so many positives that I would still suggest giving them a try. Racism as an issue is touched up with the relations between various worlds and colonies being strained by war, occupation and subjugation, so there might still be enough in them to appeal to you if those interests are of prime important to you.*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*