Captain Cordelia Naismith is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction: empathetic but tough, brilliant but self-effacing, loving mother and coldblooded soldier. In Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, she is now married to Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. When the two met, they were enemies, both stranded on an alien planet. They came together to defend themselves against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship.
Now, months later, living in luxury on his home planet, Barrayar, Cordelia is reasonably content—until the Admiral is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. As she soon discovers, the new position takes Aral away from home most of the time. Cordelia becomes increasingly unhappy. “She hadn’t married the regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier.” As you might guess, this is a big cut above the run-of-the-mill space opera.
Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #3) by Lois McMaster Bujold ★★★★★
Life in a militaristic patriarchy plagued by factional fighting
Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes. Aral, an aristocrat with the title “Lord” as the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, is a rare example of tolerance and flexibility in a society that is stubbornly resistant to change. Only 80 years earlier had Barrayar emerged from its Time of Isolation and “made contact with the wider galactic civilization again.” Prince Gregor’s grandfather, Emperor Ezar Vorbarra, had been largely responsible for suppressing the factional fighting and reintroducing contemporary technology to the planet. However, by Cordelia’s standards, Barrayar is a primitive place compared with her home world, Beta Colony. The society’s relative backwardness proves problematic when she gives birth to a son months later.
Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent. The struggle that follows tests both Aral and Cordelia to the limit. Though we’re confident they will triumph in the end, the path to victory will be strewn with costly losses.
Much more than a space opera
Superficially, Barrayar is a space opera. But it’s much more and better than that. What sets Bujold’s writing apart from that of most other science fiction authors is the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Cordelia is at once strong enough to best some of her most fearsome enemies, a loving mother, a homesick off-worlder, and a leader who inspires both respect and affection from those she commands. Her internal dialogue is colorful, full of internal inconsistencies, and all too believable. She is truly a unique character. Aral, too, often surprises, as do several of the soldiers who surround them. Barrayar is superior science fiction.
About the author
Lois McMaster Bujold has won multiple awards for both science fiction and fantasy. The only other author who has won four Hugo Awards as she has, is Robert A. Heinlein. The Vorkosigan Saga, one of the three book series she is writing, consists of 30 novels to date, spanning the 30-year period from 1986 to 2016.
For related reading
You’ll find all the books in the Vorkosigan Saga at The pleasures of reading the complete Vorkosigan Saga.
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