Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga, #7) - Lois McMaster Bujold image
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

Two books from Bujold’s epic sci-fi series, The Vorkosigan Saga, won the Locus Sci-Fi Award in the mid-90s. Barrayar in ’92 and Mirror Dance in ’95. Despite being published just a few years apart, within the chronology of The Vorkosigan Saga, the two stories fall at opposite ends of the spectrum – Barrayar is (chronologically) book two of the series, and Mirror Dance is book nine: Barrayar focuses on Cordelia at the time of Miles’ birth, and Mirror Dance focuses on Marc (Miles’ clone-brother) as a grown man.

I think it was the names that made me initially sceptical. Vorkosigosioisi-whatsit, doesn’t exactly trip off your tongue, nor does Bararayarra. The covers looked so cheesy I thought they’d attract mice quicker than bookworms…

Oh, I was such a fool! I loved Mirror Dance. It was heaps of fun! As I mentioned in my review of that book – I love long series (big fan of Discworld and Dresden Files) – so the idea of quality sci-fi series had major appeal to me. I got excited. I would’ve gladly ploughed straight into Barrayar next, but I’d already ordered my next batch of books beforehand, so I had to blitz through Brin’s Uplift Saga trilogy first. Then I faced a dilemma – Barrayar or Speaker for the Dead? I felt confident that Bujold would deliver, but I hadn’t yet given Card a chance – oh what a pickle!

I read Speaker first, and it was good enough to stop me itching for Barrayar. But I had my happy-face on when we eventually got our time together!

Someone should have warned me though – this is the story of how Cordelia, pregnant with Miles, gets hit with a ‘Soltoxin’ bio-warfare grenade in the midst of a civil war. Her and Aral (her husband) get the antidote and are fine – but not the baby. This is the book that explains Miles’ stunted growth and ‘mutie’ appearance in later books. This is not the ideal book to read when your own wife is heavily pregnant with your first child!

Or maybe it is. Bujold has a couple of kids and from her writing I feel confident that she’s a great Mum – Cordelia certainly is. I think I empathised with Cordelia more than I could have before facing parenthood myself. I was trying to push my life in a new direction, to build for a family and future - and Cordelia is struggling to adapt to a new planet and culture as she plans for her family. Some of the echoes struck deep, and sometimes that made me uncomfortable. I loved Mirror Dance as amazing, fun sci-fi. I was expecting more in that vein here – I wasn’t expecting to feel worried and aching inside.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that my best experiences with books are when they live up to and exceed my expectations. When they’re not what I expected, when I feel blindsided or ill prepared, I sometimes struggle to enjoy the immersion as much. This is one reason I used to be so cautious with new authors.

Barrayar is a tremendous book. A thoughtful start, building to a gripping, page-turning climax; a wonderful grasp of characters and a tightly plotted scenario. Really, it should be a 5-star read.

But because it made me feel stressed, because it made me worry about my baby – how I would feel if there was something wrong with him, something they’d missed in the scans, something they couldn’t foresee ‘till he was born – I kept jarring myself out of the story and can only give it 4-stars.

I’ve since continued to read (and very much enjoy) The Vor Game, and was recently given another three Vorkosigan books for my birthday – so I shall definitely, enthusiastically, be continuing with the series.