The second book in the Vorkosigan series, in the internal chronological order when Falling Free is considered a prequel novel. Part of Cordelia’s Honor omnibus.
Publication year: 1991
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Running Time: 11 hours 40 minutes
The Vorkosigan series is one of my favorite series ever and Barryar is one of my favorites in the series. I strongly recommend reading “Shards of Honor” first where Aral and Cordelia meet, and their worlds are introduced.
Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is a former exploration ship captain from Beta Colony but is now married to Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan who has been appointed the Regent of planet Barrayar. Cordelia comes from a very different culture and she’s still trying to navigate the strange Barrayaran culture. She’s especially lost among the high military caste Vor who have some pretty strange attitudes and customs, from Cordelia’s point-of-view.
She’s pregnant with their first child. Aral is attacked with a soltoxin in their bedroom and Cordelia is exposed to the gas, too. Unfortunately, the toxin deforms the unborn child and Aral’s father wants them to abort the child and try again. However, Cordelia doesn’t give up. Over her father-in-law’s loud objections, but backed by her husband, she has the fetus transferred to a uterine replicator, an artificial womb. In the UR, the doctors can try to correct the damage done to the fetus. At the same time, a civil war breaks out on the planet and the UR becomes one of the hostages.
The start of the book is pretty leisurely with Cordelia trying to figure out Barrayaran culture and getting to know the dowager Empress Kareen and her five-year-old son Gregor. The poor boy is already a pawn in political games but he isn’t spoiled or coddled. Kareen is also a pawn, but she knows it and she’s determined to protect her son and herself. Some of the recurring characters in the series are introduced here: Cordelia’s bodyguard and a very good friend Droushnakovi and Lady Alys Vorpatril who is Cordelia’s guide in the Barrayarn culture and etiquette. It was also a bit strange to see how Aral’s father Count Piotr treated Cordelia before the soltoxin attack. He was one of her guides to the Barrayaran mindset and very kind towards her. Then, after the attack his attitude changes completely, which is sad.
I’m an unabashed fan of Cordelia: her anthropological attitude towards the Barrayarans, her wry humor, and her fierce loyalty to her family. She’s also ruthless when she has to be, to protect her unborn son in any way she can. She’s very resourceful but that could be because she’s grown up in a society where she could be whatever she wanted to be. She doesn’t know that on Barrayar she should be constrained by her gender, and so she isn’t. Of course, being the wife of the most powerful man on the planet helps, too.
Aral is also one of my favorite characters ever. He’s an honorable man who was put into a very dishonorable situation in “Shards of Honor”. Here, he’s still loyally serving his Emperor as a Regent to a five-year-old Emperor. He has every intention of serving well and giving the empire back to Gregor when the time comes, but his enemies are convinced that Aral will take over. So, they launch an attack first.
Both Cordelia and Aral are good people, trying to do the right thing with circumstances and culture which is making it very hard.
I also adore the secondary characters. Count Piotr has lived a turbulent life, earning his Generalship during the fight (with horse cavalry!) against the Cetagandan invaders, making the transition to space flight, and seeing Mad Emperor Yuri kill his wife and eldest son. He surely knows how bloody Barrayaran wars can be. Lieutenant Kou who was wounded during the previous war and has to walk with a cane for the rest of his life in a society where cripples are expected to kill themselves. Cordelia’s bodyguard Drou who would have made an excellent officer, but who lives on planet with males only military. She always thinks that she isn’t as good as the “real officers” because of her gender. And tortured Sergeant Bothari who was used and abused by men with the power to do so.
The book has lots and lots of lovely passages:
“You should have fallen in love with a happy man, if you wanted happiness. But no, you had to fall for the breathtaking beauty of pain”
“Check your assumptions. In fact, check your assumptions at the door.”
“What a strange mix Barryar was: at one moment homey and familiar, the next terrifying and alien.”
“Suicidal glory is the luxury of the irresponsible. We’re not giving up. We’re waiting for a better opportunity to win.”
“I don’t want power. I just object to idiots having power over me.”
“Betan experience [with URs] suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.”