Here's the thing: I almost screwed up and disliked this book. But this is the other thing: I just read the first book and thought some things about the sequel that were wrong. And this is the other other thing: I read this as a part of an omnibus edition and I should have known better.
I'm writing this review as a stand-alone book, but that's pretty wrong in some ways, and I'm half-tempted to go and hunt down the edition that is Cordelia's Honor and cross-post. But meh, whatever. Barrayar
is the culmination of the love and politics of Shards of Honour, which goes from the mud-boots of first contact to soaring, shooting nastiness on space-ships, rape, torture, vampire jellyfish and, as I said in my review...stuff, and lots of it. Barrayar
is stuff-less for a long time – Cordelia has settled down and gotten knocked up. She's wending her way through Barrayarian society, which is pretty Russian/Roman traditionalist, while she's from Annoying Psychobabble Planet – holy cow, spell-check recognizes the word “psychobabble” ftw! - so there's some lightly comic pieces about how wacky traditional gender roles are.
I won't say this first section is inert, because it's not, but it's certainly more stagy & has that fine-nuance-of-court-politics thing going for it which I find affectionately boring. Everyone has the same sounding names, and if you're me, you don't read much past the V in your mind when you encounter names like Vorkosigan or Vordavian, so it's all, like, what? Who again? This is purposeful, I think, mirroring Cordelia's confusions, so we shall give this a pass. This was my real worry: Cordelia, in Shards
was this ass-kicking machine, not because she was some berserking maniac who was secretly a guy, but because she had true power that was centered in a profound ethical sense. I did not want to see her settle into the treehouse on Endor and brush her hair – this will not do.
The drag of the marriage plot – not that Shards
is entirely or even mostly this – is that at the end of it you're married
and the endless frustration/endless potential of the courtship state sags into bitching about toothpaste tubes – hi Richard! - and a bunch of boring domesticity. I'm not ragging on boring domesticity – this is the thing that should make the world go round – but this is the other other other thing: it's really hard to get right in narrative, because the tides of long relationships are so coded, so personal, so hard to chart. There's almost a Gothic sensibility to the early section – the hanging dread, the constant coded threats coming from the interpersonal – and when the other shoe drops, it drops freaking hard.
At mid-point, the plot begins to move with an page-turning force, taking all the coded domesticity and turning it inside out and writing the Oedipal, parental conflict out into pitched battles and military coups. I'm not over my discomfort with this, in a way, because I'm not entirely comfortable with how front-and-center the whole baby-making thing is to Cordelia & Aral's relationship – the experience of marriage is not dependent on procreation, imao, although I get that this book is about that decision for C & A. As I've said before, things are about what they are about, and not about other things. Cordelia continues to kick some serious ass, in that same intensely ethical way, a way that values people over ideas, but there's the twist of the personal in her societal ethics, which is an interesting twist.
Here's the other other other other thing: Bujold is sensible enough not to twist this conflict between personal & societal honor – already stretched by a number of unlikely coincidences & frank sf silliness – into the full blown “Noooos, how do I chooooooose?” for which I am deeply grateful. (There is one sequence in particular that really gets awfully close, but then I've grown to hate the birthin' babies tropes that one finds in popular media. Again, didn't set me off, but did get really close.) But when Bujold gets it right, she nails it to the ground
, and the very last part of the book, the “shopping” expedition, stands as one of my favorite closing sequences in a book. I think I'm sensitive to endings, because they're hard, and so many of the are botch jobs that mar the read – let's just not even mention the unnecessary epilogue – but the ending of this book was the opposite of that, causing me to reevaluate what I thought of as shagginess into aha-you-had-this-planned-all-along.
Nice, really nice.