Independent Honor: Love and Science Fiction in Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

cordeliasAs you look at the cover, you realize that Cordelia’s Honor is part of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.  This book is comprised of two separate yet extremely connected novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar (published 5 years apart) which tell the story of how Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan meet.  As part of a series, you may struggle momentarily with whether or not you should read this book first as it was published later than several other of the Vorkosigan novels.  These two stories, no matter what their publication dates, can easily be labeled as prequels and what order you read them in is entirely up to you.

I read this as my first foray into the Vorkosigan universe and I’m not sure this is the way I’d recommend they be read.  Cordelia’s Honor, although it can play as a standard science fiction novel, is chock full of romance, another genre I enjoy reading.  I admit when I read the next book in the series, The Warrior’s Apprentice, I was expecting a very different type of story based on what I had read in Cordelia’s Honor.  Both novels are brilliant, mind you; I just think they are very different styles of books.  This novel could easily be considered either romance or science fiction, while most of the other books in the Vorkosigan universe are science fiction with elements of humor and romance.  If I had to do it again, I’d read The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game before this one.

As with her all her other science fiction novels, Bujold’s understanding of military protocols and oddities are amazingly detailed for someone who has never served.  The empathetic descriptions of what personal sacrifices are made to serve what may be someone else’s patriotic ideals are well thought out. Our main characters provide us a ‘meet-cute’ that has potentially more impact than the traditional coffee shop romantic beginning.  Cordelia and Aral are members of opposing forces who are made temporary allies by a forced march while taking care of a severely wounded crew member.  Their inability to get where they need to go might lead not only to the death of Cordelia’s soldier, but also to war between their respective worlds.

Both characters show more honor than the cultures where they were brought up.  Cordelia’s home world, Beta Colony, seems to have taken the worst of politics and environmental caution to set up a system in which personal freedoms are excessively curtailed in the name of good government.  Barrayar has its restrictions as well, but instead of a government based on logic, it’s based on personal honor and responsibility.  How can two people from such disparate backgrounds manage to see through their culture imposed facades to find each other and avert war?  Because they both have internal sets of standards that are not tied to the places where they grew up.  Once thrown into a situation like they have never seen before, both characters reject these facades and grow before our eyes into people looking for solutions that work, not just solutions that meet the status quo or will make them heroes to their people back home.

In Aral Vorkosigan, once again (see review on Red Country), I seem to be reading about a man of war who only seeks peace.  With his particular intelligence and skill set, it’s impossible for him to avoid being involved in death and violent actions at the highest levels of government.  He hopes that his sacrifices leave an inheritance the children of Barrayar can live with.

Cordelia’s sense of honor is of a different sort.  This paraphrased quote seems to me to describe not only that honor, but really, the basis for the actions of the major characters in many of Bujold’s future novels, not only the ones in the Vorkosigan Saga.  When Aral asks Cordelia about taking on something he considers very difficult, she says:  “But I’ve always thought—tests are a gift.  And great tests are a great gift.  To fail the test is a misfortune.  But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune….If you think it’s really wrong, that’s one thing.  Maybe that’s not the test.  But if it’s only fear of failure—you have not the right to refuse the gift for that.”

While the situations that are created center on Aral and Barrayar, the solutions to these problems always come at Cordelia’s hands.  It’s refreshing to read a story of a woman who isn’t heroic in her day to day interactions with people, but rises to the occasion when necessary, in creative and surprising ways.  In fact, the plot twists at the end of each of the books leave you believing in Cordelia’s resourcefulness as well as honor.

For fans (or those who will be fans) of the rest of the series, this book also provides the origins of Miles Vorkosigan’s bodyguard Bothari, his daughter Elena, as well as the Koudelkas.  Cordelia’s Honor provides us an extremely illuminating and enjoyable back story on the birth of the astounding individual who becomes Miles Vorkosigan and the world he inhabits.

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