Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Barrayar, Chapters 14 and 15

Welcome back to the Vorkosigan reread! Chapters 14 and 15 of Barrayar explore questions that have been haunting the comments thread for weeks. This section deals mainly with characters’ motives as Aral looks for ways to draw men to his side, and Vidal Vordarian looks for ways to turn up the pressure.

If you’d like to catch up on previous posts in the reread, the index is here. At this time, the spoiler policy permits discussion of all books EXCEPT Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen. Discussion of any and all revelations from or about that book should be whited out.

SUMMARY

Vordarian’s War continues. Human resources trickle out of Vorbarr Sultana to Aral’s headquarters at Tanery Base at a steadily increasing rate. Aral works to coax the space forces to take a side. Meanwhile, Vidal Vordarian forces a rump session of the Council of Counts to declare him Prime Minister and Regent for Princess Kareen. He accuses Aral of killing Gregor and announces his engagement to Kareen. When Vaagen arrives from the capital with news that Dr. Henri has been killed and Miles’s replicator taken, Cordelia, Bothari, and Drou defy Aral and plan a rescue mission.

COMMENTARY

The question of who will do what and why dominates this section, from Aral and Codelia’s opening conversation over a meal to Drou’s offer to Kou of a chance at field combat. Aral starts by explaining why he is keeping Gregor in hiding. I’m keenly interested in what everyone is fighting for.

As always, Aral is fighting for law and order. As Regent, Aral is sworn to maintain a power structure that Gregor can inherit, whole and entire, when he comes of age. He’s also sworn to ensure that Gregor reaches adulthood. The war represents something of a negative performance review for Aral—chaos in the midst of the order he sacrificed a Vorhalas to maintain, a harsh consequence for missing any opportunities he might have had to strike at Vordarian earlier. He has to win, to set things right and to keep his oaths and his life, and to prevent a cascade of retribution and vengeance. He fears that Barrayar does not have another Emperor Dorca the Just in his generation. Decades from this point, Cordelia will note that the popular memory of Aral as a heroic leader strips him of his humanity and makes him a symbol. Aral is sacrificing a little humanity here as he tries to make himself a symbol of justice. It’s not the first time. Those earlier sacrifices were more agonizing—this time, he believes in the cause.

My affection for the heroic vision of Aral makes it hard for me to fully understand Vidal’s motives. I imagine him waxing his mustache and surrounding himself with a phalanx of hostages in the palace while Cordelia et al are riding through the mountains. If he wants something beyond personal power, he hasn’t made it clear. He claims he will avenge Gregor, who he claims Aral has murdered. I read this as an effort to flush Gregor out of hiding so that Vordarian’s forces can capture him. A truly competent usurper wouldn’t need to be told where his emperor is. At this point, Vordarian is fighting for survival. At the Emperor’s Birthday, Kareen and Cordelia talked about the risks of power—Cordelia talked about the risks with Vordarian. But he seems to have missed the memo. Vidal thinks that power is only dangerous for Aral. A more realistic evaluation of the risks involved might have encouraged him to play his cards closer to the chest and plan his opening moves better. I’m not sure which was the worse mistake: Showing his hand to Cordelia who tipped off Illyan, or failing to kill Aral before sending his men for Gregor. Those were both pretty bad days for him, though. He needs Aral to make some mistakes. Hence the raid on ImpMil.

Barrayar’s military forces are suffering from uncertain loyalties. Whoever wins will be in command, but until someone is clearly winning committing to a side has potentially serious consequences. Unit cohesion and the chain of command dictate their decisions up to a certain point. Vordarian’s hostage-taking suggests that families constitute a second set of bonds and loyalties that may over-ride oaths and orders.

Kareen’s situation is similarly uncertain. In having himself declared her regent, Vordarian proposes to make her more than she is—Kareen has no claim to the throne in her own right. She is not, as far as I know, a descendent of Prince Xav. In declaring himself Regent for her, Vordarian lays claim to her lack of formal political power. All she can offer to his cause is the idea of himself as a man working to assuage a mother’s grief. That could be of great symbolic value, particularly if Gregor could eventually be proven dead. While Vordarian tries to use her for his own ends, Kareen needs to carefully weigh her actions in light of her situation and her goals. Some of Aral’s staff are critical of her apparent inaction, but if Jolly Knolly can’t figure out which side to declare for with his years of tactical experience and staff to field his phone calls, I can’t imagine how Kareen is supposed to. Cordelia’s evaluation of Kareen is more sympathetic, in part because Cordelia feels that she and Kareen share the same goal—survival, for themselves and for their children.

Piotr is another voice for the forces of law and order, with an extra helping of tradition on the side. I have no patience for the claim that he’s a relic of an era when Barrayar’s technological backwardness spelled certain doom for people with disabilities. Partly because he was born after the Time of Isolation, and partly because, here on Earth, people with disabilities have lived and thrived and made valuable contributions to their communities even when we were far more technologically primitive than we are now. Cordelia sees him the same way I do, and his attitude catalyzes her move to assemble her team.

Drou is fighting for Kareen, not because she is the Dowager-Princess, but because her life is worth something. Bothari is fighting for his daughter Elena by fighting to end the war in the Emperor’s favor. Cordelia has spoken with the Emperor’s voice since Aral assigned Bothari to her before they fled with Gregor. Bothari might also be in it for the rush. Kou’s involvement is accidental.

Next week, we’re going for the Pretender’s head!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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