Monday, August 20, 2012

Review of "Barrayar" by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having read and enjoyed Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion for its quality prose and strong if not traditional storytelling, I thought to delve into her (arguably) more famous sci-fi work, specifically her ongoing Vorkosigan series.  I read Barrayar, her Hugo and Locus Award winning novel from 1991.  Though an attempt was made to include tropes less commonly used in sci-fi, the overall pedestrian nature of the storytelling and ho-hum prose left more to be desired.  Comparing the novel to Hyperion, the previous non-Bujold winner of the Hugo, an immense gap can be seen in quality.

Seemingly written by a different author, the only element The Curse of Chalion and Barrayar have common is their fairy tale undertones; rainbows and flowers for all at the end.  Otherwise, the flowing, relaxed prose that buoyed Curse is nowhere to be found in Barrayar.  Events, emotions, and thoughts related fast and terse, scenes move quickly with little attention paid to connecting background elements of the story’s reality.  Likewise, there is not the same quality of storytelling.  Though fairy tale through and through, Curse had an original plot device which Bujold slowly unpacked to the novel’s benefit.  Evil lords, altruistic heroes, royal kidnappings, blaster fights, space ship crashes, daring escape plans—all related in less than subtle fashion, Barrayar instead reads like a technical manual of DIY sci-fi.

Points should be awarded for intent, however.  Bujold does try to include themes less typical of the genre, including inequality of gender, sexual abuse of minors, pollution, sexual taboos, handicap discrimination, military brainwashing, abortion, capital punishment, and perhaps most of all, the inhumanity of biological warfare.  Book after book has been written on the ethics of these subjects, but Bujold donates only a paragraph or two to each amidst action and plot development.  One of the themes may culminate the story, but overall each attempt at literary dignity receives such light treatment that it’s difficult to think of Barrayar as being a thematically charged, and therefore serious work.  Random and digressive stabs at theme do not automatically make a work poignant, the attempt failed.

Character orientation as overt as can be, suffice say there’s not a spot of gray amongst the people populating Barrayar.  Darth Vadar re-clothed takes on the role of villain in less than spectacular form while the hero Cordelia simultaneously knows the latest fashions and how to kick ass, a super rigid stick of morality driven straight up her… all the while.  The pity card played and played hard, several important characters beg for sympathy based on their various predicaments and physical problems.  The forced, less-than-natural feel Bujold imbues their situations with serves to pull the emotional punch rather than allow the reader feel any strong sense of empathy, however.  Making all of this worse is that the dozen main players are introduced at breakneck speed in the first twenty pages, a paragraph each of description, not a moment existing for the reader to catch their breath and let events and dialogue cement an image of them individually. 

In the end, Barrayar is run of the mill genre fiction with an attempt at moral profundity.  The storytelling feels a result of a do-it-yourself sci-fi kit, all subtle emotion drained in the process—despite the intent obviously being the opposite.  In fact, replacing the main characters’ names with Luke, Leia, and Han Solo and the book very easily could have been a Star Wars spin-off.  With its kings and regents, coups and regal assignation attempts, evil lords and lightships, space opera needs no better example.  Suffice to say, anytime the reader encounters a character “replying tartly”, they should be wary…


  1. I liked it more than you, I think, but yes, this isn't the same author as in Curse of Chalion--or later in the Vorkisagn Saga. This is one of her very, very first books--only the second or third--and it shows. I think the series gets much more interesting once Cordelia's son Miles becomes the protagonist and narrative point of view in succeeding books. He's a bit like a cross between Horatio Hornblower and Martin's Tyrion.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I also have Diplomatic Immunity on my shelf. Published in 2002--more than 20 years after Barrayar but only a year after Curse of Chalion--it will hopefully be a more refined read. I think McMaster Bujold is a positive voice in sci-fi, just not sure Barrayar is representative of what she's capable of in the genre. Again, thanks for stopping by my blog. (As you can see, not many do. :)