the Little Red Reviewer

Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Posted on: October 29, 2012

Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

published in 1999

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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I don’t usually go for these ultra long series, I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to track down every single book and read them in a specific order. Ahh, but if the books can  be read in nearly any order (Vlad Taltos, Discworld, Culture, I’m staring at you!), and if a friend offers to lend me the first few books in the internal chronology, how could I say no?  Thus, my start of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is begun.

Cordelia’s Honor is comprised of the short novels Shards of Honor, and Barrayar, which are the chronological beginning of McMaster Bujold’s famous Vorkosigan series.  I read them as one long novel, and what better way to get introduced to the series’ titular character, Miles Vorkosigan, than to meet his parents first?

Cordelia Naismith is captain of a Betan scientific mission. She mostly keeps her crew focused on what they are doing and out of trouble. Attacked on a planet, she becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, heir to a noble family on the planet Barrayar. Recently out of it’s “time of Isolation”, Barrayar is the complete opposite of Beta Colony. Where the Betans are known as an egalitarian society, Barrayar is steeped in male dominance.  The Betans live lives of ease, with access to the best medical technology and mental health services, whereas on Barrayar women still die in childbirth and mental illness or physical ailments are seen as incurable and exploitable defects.

Aral Vorkosigan is Cordelia’s social opposite, but they believe in the same things – respect, dignity, honor, doing the right thing at all times. I can’t say there wasn’t any Stockholm Syndrome going on here, but when Cordelia is eventually able to return to her homeworld, she learns she’s changed too much to be welcomed home.  One thing leads to another, and the only safe place for her is the path that continues her relationship with Aral Vorkosigan.

Cordelia’s Honor is incredibly dense. McMaster Bujold crams about 1200 pages of plot and characterization into a few hundred pages,  showing us, through Cordelia’s eyes, the corrupted royal house of Barrayar, it’s bloodthirsty noble families, and Cordelia and Aral’s attempts at a normal life.  She’s a foreigner, he’s the guardian to the young Emperor. The one thing they can never have is a normal life. McMaster Bujold is most definitely following that time honored philosophy of coming up with the worst possible things an author can do to their characters, and then doing it, again and again, in ever more tragic and horrific ways, keeping the reader turning pages and biting nails.

If I attempted to tell you even a portion of what happens in Cordelia’s Honor (not to mention the tragic brilliance that is Bothari), I would still be talking into next week. There are a million things happening, often all at once, but the way Bujold presents it by focusing on one thing at a time, keeps the pace feeling just right and the story never feels rushed or slow. Cordelia’s Honor really does have it all – excellent characterization, action, political intrigue, romance, betrayal,  demented royals, assassination attempts, firefights, you name it.

Was the book wonderfully written? yes!  Did I find the story compelling and the characters fascinating?  Yes! And yet. And yet there was much frowning on my part.

I kept being annoyed by Cordelia. took me a while to figure out why: She has practically no internal monologue. She never keeps a clever thought to herself, or thinks something to herself. If she thinks something, she says it. This would usually be a good thing, but many times in Cordelia’s Honor it simply wasn’t. It’s especially hard, because I completely sympathized with her homesickness. I can sympathize with her that she finds much of the backwardness (and they are quite backward) of Barrayar confounding and frustrating. But there was this blatant black/white to the Betan culture = good and the Barrayan culture = bad. Cordelia too often came off as smugly superior, and that’s when I stopped sympathizing with her. Maybe McMaster Bujold designed her to be satirical, and maybe my frustration with her was part of the plan all along.

Even though Cordelia annoyed the crap out of me, I was drawn towards many of the minor characters, and I loved the big picture politics of what was going on.  Sergeant Bothari is so tragic I want to find him and fund his mental health counseling, the attempted romance between Kouldelka and Droushnakovi is awkwardly funny, and I enjoyed the political interactions between the progressive Aral and his overly conservative father.

Do I have plans to continue in this series? absolutely.  It’s a long running and award winning series by an author I have a lot of respect for.  To continue the pattern of doing horrible things to your main characters, Miles Vorkosigan is born with many physical deformities on a planet that abhors physical imperfections. A tragic hero who beats all odds? Of course I’m going to read that! But will it bother me that Cordelia isn’t the main character in the future books? Not a bit.

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11 Responses to "Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold"

I recently read the first novel in this same book. Haven’t read Barrayar yet, but I will. Loved Shards of Honor. Perhaps because I am a guy Cordelia didn’t annoy me at all. I was really taken with her and with Vor. I liked the heavier romantic angle of the story and appreciate that Bujold was able to write that way while building a convincing world and world system(s) that make me want to continue on with the series. Although my wait is in part because I have other things to read, I am also holding out on reading Barrayar because I know after that the focus shifts to her son Miles and I’m not quite ready to be done with Cordelia being the focal point. I’m going to miss her. Still, I’ve heard such great things about the series that I am excited that I have several more books to enjoy in the future.

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*looks over at bookshelf* :D I totally have this book! I got it from the library used bookshop on the recommendation from the adorable library lady! I am now super excited to read it, thanks so much for the review!

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I adore this series! :) I re-read it this spring and have only the last 2 to finish.
First time I read them, I started with Miles and only read his parents’ story later. But Miles… He might be small and deformed but his character has the force of a sun.

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I love love love love these books. And I adore Cordelia. I love her conflicts and the strength she finds, I love that this is a book about two older people with lives and baggage finding each other, and a book about parenting. Having parents, becoming a parent, or losing one. This is a series where which book is my favorite shifts depending on what else is happening in my life. This is the one I pick up when I’m thinking about aging in a relationship and children. Shards of Honor was Bujold’s first published novel, so the style is a little rough in spots and the world-building isn’t complete yet, but I love it anyway.

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Cordelia admits absolutely no shit – neither from the others or form herself. I wasn’t so observant to notice the abscence of internal dialogue while reading but I think it might be Bujold’s way of translating this. Her modus operandi is actually terrifying. Self-delusion is so comfortable!

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Hey, awesome, Cordelia’s Honour! :D This series is my favourite science fiction; and ever since Martin’s post-ADWD fall from grace, Bujold is my favourite speculative fiction author, possibly even my #1 fiction author.

The folks further up have touched on a couple of the points I wanted to make. Like Lindsay at #4, my favourite books have changed as I’ve gone through life. I discovered this series when IIRC I was the same age as Miles in his first novel (17), and my favourite entries were those with the most action! Then I re-read as a grown-up, and suddenly the novel about coping with the upturning of one’s life hit me like a ton of bricks. I also agree with Lindsay that Shards is a lot rougher than the later books — generally they get better as Bujold matures in her craft.

Re: Cordelia, I really liked her, but I can see why others might find her grating. She struck me as being very much a self-insertion character — her values and beliefs (say, on the futility of war and the delusions of the Barrayaran warrior ethos) are quite obviously a stand-in for Bujold’s — but I guess that for me, she’s proof that not all authorial stand-ins are bad.

In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed these books and I hope you have as much fun as I did with the rest of the series!

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One of my first goals, when I started my blog, was to read this series. So far I’ve only succeeded in reading the first few books, and this is one of them. I really did enjoy it but I wanted a bit more from the characters and the relationship between Cordelia and Aral, more depth and complexity. But Miles is a great character and I definitely intend to read the rest of the books…eventually.

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eventually, yeah, you and me both! Young Miles is in my TBR pile, but when I’ll get to it, I have no idea. i gotta stop bringing new, unread books into the house so i can read what I’ve got!

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I like your comments about internal dialogue. I wonder if I would have noticed that. I recently read the Maltese Falcon and none of the characters have internal dialogue, but that’s meant to add to the mystery. And the characters don’t say everything they think. I think with your book it would have bugged me.

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I really need to get back to this series. I read one book at the beginning of the year and then sort of slacked off… Not a big surprise…

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