Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold
There are times when an afterword, something that many readers may not even bother to read, tells a lot about the character and intents of an author. In this case, the short afterword of this collection of two novels (Shards of Honor, the first novel of her Vorkosigan Saga, and her Hugo Award-winning novel Barrayar, its sequel) gives a lot of clues about the author as a writer and as a thinker. For one, she tends to owe a great deal of success to a certain genius for improvisation, similar to the one that she gives her hero Miles , who only shows up here as an unborn baby in most of the second novel and a small child in the second novel’s epilogue, as well as Cordelia Vorkosigan nee Neismith, the heroine of both of these two connected novels that together make up about 600 pages of thought-provoking and elegant prose. One also learns that she shares a tendency common to other writers (including me) to put her characters through the most difficult situations possible to test and refine their character.
In light of this divine providence aspect of her work, it is striking that so many of the characters of this novel (and the previous one of hers that I have read) are not really religious at all. This is all the more striking given the way that justice and mercy and rule of law and morality are such important matters to the largely praiseworthy characters described in these two novels, one of which centers on imperialism and the other of which centers on a civil war. If the author is not necessarily a believer, and if her characters do not appear to be theists, her novels are themselves remarkable for the way in which they show divine providence in action in a world shaped by free will and its consequences. The novels themselves are a hotbed of politics, personality studies (especially in relationship drama, something I am proficient in causing), and rather blunt explorations of naked ambition and somewhat deviant sexuality (including some rather frightful rapes and near-rapes, and lots of women and children dealing with death, loss, and extreme peril).
The first of the novels is the weaker of the two, being basically a boy-meets-girl story between two rather socially inept but decent people on different sides of a war of imperialism who come to a respect and love for each other over days spent seeking their common survival in a hostile environment. It is a good story, full of betrayal and the contrast between a somewhat primitive society of clannish rivalry and harsh economic inequality and a socialist nanny state with its exploration of sexuality and technology and its birth control, a bit too reminiscent of the “red” and “blue” America divide, but all the same it is still a worthwhile novel particular in its main characters in giving them a meet cute that allows them to talk about themselves and come to a respect for honorable enemies that turn into husband and wife (if only we could all be so fortunate in having honorable enemies). The end of the first novel, which brings the two leads together in marriage, is by far the strongest aspect of the story.
It is intriguing that the author states that her publisher was not originally very keen on having a sequel written to what was her worst-selling novel, but they apparently warmed to the idea of her novel once it won awards, or else the double novel that I read would not have been released. This novel is a much more gripping novel, with a dramatic civil war that leads to a fair amount of death as well as a certain amount of tactical and strategic genius on the part of both Aral Voskordian and his wife Cordelia. This particular novel is all about difficulties in courtship and romance (especially resulting from communication problems), stress between husbands and wives, and the dangers that children face in a dangerous world. I can relate, both for myself and many of the young people I happen to know. I also happen to know all too well in my personal life the paranoia that comes from a dangerous world, and the way that our fear robs us of friendships and comfort because we do not trust even those who are decent and honorable. My favorite scene from this particular novel happens to be towards the end, where Cordelia takes out a head and throws it on a table in dramatic fashion, showing herself to be a true Vor, whatever that means.
Although this collection of novels does have its flaws in terms of its moral worldview, which is perhaps best exemplified by its closing lines before the epilogue on page 583 of the paperback version: “Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.” Despite these flaws, though, it makes a compelling and highly relevant view of human life and relationships and complexity taken from a view under the sun, without any sort of pretensions in understanding the divine design for such matters. It is full of well-written characters and a dramatic plot that picks up quite a bit in its second half. This is enough for many people to appreciate such a novel greatly, and it deserves such appreciation, as it appears to have received from a wide audience, to date.