Lois McMaster Bujold,
the Barrayar series

In her Barrayar series, Lois McMaster Bujold has produced some of the best space opera ever written. These works are far from your average plot-centric science fiction, for these books center around deeply drawn characters and a culture so thick you could slice it with a knife. The social aspects of the books outweigh the action-packed space adventures, and the cultural differences between the worlds mirror much of what our nationalities must balance in order to get along.

Take, for instance, the differences between the home worlds of two of the main characters from the first two books. Aral Vorkosigan comes from a world of heavy government intervention, of strict social classes, where fear of differences leads to infanticide when there are mutations. There is Big Brother watching over your shoulder at all times, and the world is filled with bullet-proof safety glass. A man's word is his bond, and it means so much to a Barrayaran to keep his word that he is likely to be willing to kill in order to keep it. A sense of honor and duty is deeply instilled in all Barrayarans, and they swear oaths to their superiors, and the superiors in turn swear oaths to protect and assist their liege men.

The men spend their lives picking the proper uniforms for the occasions, and women are not allowed to have military careers. Contrast this with the Betan Cordelia Naismith, who comes from a background where women are equal to men, there is almost no class consciousness, and the geneticists on her world have gone out of their way to develop mutations that will build special skills or adaptations for planned races. This combination of characters creates a wide-open canvas for painting the pictures of cultural clash and misunderstanding. What a background for a set of space stories!

(Reader beware: It is impossible to discuss a long list of sequential books such as these without giving some of the plot elements of the earlier books away. Although I have tried to avoid giving away too much, if you don't want to know anything about what occurs in the books before you read them don't read any further.)

After the book entitled Barrayar, the main characters change from Aral and Cordelia to their son, Miles. Miles has the questionable advantage of having been raised by a die-hard, conservative Barrayan and a liberal Betan. The result is a fascinating mix of emotions that he quickly learns to deal with by essentially splitting his identity. His problems are greatly enhanced by his physical deformities, caused by a toxic poison bomb aimed at his parents while he was still in the womb. The gut reaction of Barrayarans to physical deformities is so great that Miles spends a great deal of his life trying to compensate and to prove himself. His own grandfather tries to kill him on multiple occasions, because it is unthinkable to have a mutant in his family. As if this isn't enough, he has to overcome the assumption (from almost everyone he meets) that he has only gotten as far as he has in life due to nepotism, from his father's high-ranking position in the Barrayaran government. The result is a highly-likable, mixed-up, hyperactive, and extremely smart kid, going out to make a name for himself in the world, while remaining loyal to his home Barrayar, even though it appears that very home wants to eat him alive.

Bujold has a gift that is extremely rare in writers; the ability to write characters so life-like that the reader becomes convinced they are personal friends, while also being able to write a gripping and believable plot. She is an expert in both plot and character, where the two are seldom paired together for any writer. Add to this the amazingly real world of Barrayar, which has a very Eastern European feel to it, like an old-time Russia mixed with a more modern Soviet government. The result is fiction so well-rounded that it defies genre categorization, despite being set in space. These are books you'll have trouble putting down, they are so exciting, so challenging, so thrilling.

If you haven't read these outstanding books, now is the time to start. You will find yourself caught up in a universe of rich culture and heart-wrenching politics, and you will respect and even fall in love with the characters before you know it. Below is a list and very brief description of all of the Barrayar-related books, in chronological order within the story-line. I would recommend reading them in this order, with the exception of Falling Free, which is really a separate entity within the same universe and can be read at any time. By all means, start with Shards of Honor to get the full background of where the characters are coming from.

Falling Free (Baen, 1988)

What happens when you breed a race of children designed to work well in free-fall, and they all begin to come of age? This is the story of one man's fight to free a race of genetically designed slaves from their bondage.

Shards of Honor (Baen, 1986)

A love story across enemy lines, this book tells of the less-than-auspicious meeting of Betan astrocartographer Cordelia Naismith and Barrayaran Captain Aral Vorkosigan at the first strike of war. Starting out as captor and prisoner, but building towards a healthier relationship, the two find they must first see their respective worlds through a bloody and treacherous war before coming to any true understanding of the nature of their relationship. This book tells the story of the war, the struggles, and the politics from both sides, with dynamic results.

Barrayar (Baen, 1991)

Cordelia and Aral are ready to settle down and have a real relationship, when politics get in the way. With Barrayar facing a civil war, Aral must work to protect the young emperor, but will it be at the cost of his own son? This gripping tale leaves the reader with a healthy respect for the politics of Barrayar, a mother's love, and Bujold's amazing writing.

Cordelia's Honor (Baen, 1996)

This is a compilation of the two books listed above, Shards of Honor and Barrayar.

The Warrior's Apprentice (Baen, 1986)

Grabbing a chance to show his friend Elena a bit of his mother's homeworld, Beta, Miles makes a trip to visit his grandmother. In an effort to impress Elena and stir up some excitement, Miles seizes control of a fleet of spaceships, but will it cost him the lives of those he loves? I strongly suspect this is the first one Bujold wrote as it is action-packed, exciting, and fascinating, but the writing seems less deep and confident.

The Vor Game (Baen, 1990)

Miles has finally reached his dream of becoming an ensign in the Barrayan military, only to be assigned to Camp Permafrost with a crew of misfits. His goal is simple, to avoid defying authority for six months, thus earning ship duty. The punishment only gets worse when he finds himself under house arrest for following his moral conscience. Life begins to look up when he finds himself on another exciting adventure with the Dendarii Mercenaries, when who should he run into but his old enemy from Camp Permafrost, and he learns that his Emperor has gone missing. This book won a well-deserved Hugo Award.

Young Miles (Baen, 1997)

This is a repackaging of The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game, along with one of the short stories from Borders of Infinity.

Borders of Infinity (Baen, 1989)

This one is a collection of three short stories of Miles' adventures. This is an outstanding collection. I consider the title story to be the best short story I've ever read.

Cetaganda (Baen, 1996)

Miles finds himself serving as an Ambassador on an almost-hostile planet, during the funeral ceremonies for the Empress of Cetaganda. Can Miles put together the pieces of a mysterious puzzle and make some sense of the events going on around him before he finds himself framed for crimes against the state? Cetaganda is a mystery of political proportions, set in a rich and foreign culture. Fascinating.

Ethan of Athos (Baen, 1986)

Athos is a secluded planet of men, who have purposefully cut themselves off from any contact with women. When they are suddenly faced with a genetic problem that will destroy their ability to procreate, they feel desperate measures must be taken. One doctor, Ethan, finds himself sent on a mission to obtain new genetic material before it is too late, but it means he must face the devil's minions -- women! He is in for a shock of his lifetime with the first woman he meets, Elli Quinn, sent from the Dendarii Mercenaries to track a very mysterious shipment. The two form an uncomfortable and unlikely alliance to solve what proves to be a very complicated problem.

Brothers in Arms (Baen, 1989)

A planned brief stop for repairs and much-needed funds finds the Dendarii Mercenaries stranded on Earth, waiting for the check to come through. With no funds and no information on where the missing funds could be, the Dendarii must take on small jobs to make ends meet until the funds come through. Meanwhile, Miles finds himself struggling to come to grips with his two personas, that of Admiral of the Dendarii and that of Lord Vorkosigan in the Barrayan Service. Confusion reigns when the Dendarii take a contract to kidnap none other than Lord Vorkosigan. And then there's the issue of a possible clone. Complex, convoluted, and inspiring all describe this one.

Mirror Dance (Baen, 1994)

Miles' clone brother Mark, struggling to find his own identity, finds he has to impersonate Miles one last time in order to accomplish his greatest goal in life. Only his plot goes awry, and Miles' attempt to rescue him leads to disaster. Mark finds he must pick up the pieces of his shattered life, discover who he really is, and go in search of his missing brother Miles. Bujold creates an outstanding in-depth study of persona and character, and the way sibling rivalry can direct our lives in this amazing book.

Memory (Baen, 1996)

Miles learns that hiding the lingering injury from his last adventure can have dire consequences when he finds himself booted out of the Barrayan Service. As he struggles to come to grips with a life he never planned, he finds himself the prime suspect in a murder attempt on his former boss's life. What else can go wrong?

Komarr (Baen, 1998)

Sent to the neighboring planet Komarr, Miles must help sort through the wreckage of a disaster from a space accident. The question soon becomes,was it really an accident, or a political strike of some sort? And if it was intentional, who's responsible? I'll admit that this one may be my favorite, perhaps because it shows Miles finally coming to grips with who he is, and how to deal with that. A delightful book.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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