Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Barrayar, Chapters 16-18

This is a very exciting week in the Vorkosigan reread. I started this blog post with no real idea how close I would get to Vordarian’s head before time and space suggested that it would be prudent for me to submit this blog post and start work on the next one. This is how I roll. If you’ve ever wondered about the reasons for the uncertainty about the chapters covered in next week’s blog post, it’s because I’m working it out as I go. They let me do this. #blessed.

(Also, Chris Lough showed me a graphic he made but did not use for the Horse Lover’s Guide to the Vorkosigan Series, and it is EPIC, I promise that you are jealous.)

As you probably figured out from the title, I got to chapter 18. I’m so glad. I like to think I’m a gentle, peace-loving person, but I prefer my pretenders headless.

The question of what Cordelia’s son is worth—and what children are worth, in general—continues to be a focus of this section. For Piotr, and reportedly for some other Barrayarans, the question of Miles’s worth is complicated by his medical problems, the full extent of which cannot yet be known. Cordelia and Aral have made it clear that Miles’s worth as a human being with dignity and potential is not a question for them. They have disagreed over the matter of whether or not he constitutes an acceptable strategic sacrifice—not because of his medical condition but because of the potential costs of his rescue. In addition to my usual restatement of the spoiler policy (No Gentleman Jole spoilers until The Vor Game), I would like to remind everyone of my comment on last week’s post. Barrayaran culture is pretty messed up, ya’ll. As human beings who live in a culture that is messed up in its own ways, we don’t need to find our way clear to a sympathetic understanding of Barrayaran brutality. Or of our own! Brutality sucks—We can be critics!

Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan once took a recent victim of severe TBI on a 200 km hike through uncharted wilderness equipped with only two sleeping bags, a stunner, and a knife, with only oatmeal and blue cheese dressing for rations. She’s on her way to rescue her son from the people who think he’s disposable. It’s tempting to look at this section as a stereotypical “enraged mama bear” narrative. It certainly fits well with many conventions of that genre. It is also combined with an extended exploration of the things parents do for children—the sacrifices they make, the care they provide, and the pain they can inflict.

Kou’s parents are first up. Kou has been a little close-mouthed about his dad since forever. Cordelia has assumed that this is because of some painful and tragic rift between father and son, but actually it’s because Kou’s dad was a grocer. If you had forgotten how seriously Kou takes social standards, please direct your attention to his adorably prissy description of Bothari’s brothel as a forgotten-but-historic landmark that is now “a sort of inn.” Being the son of a grocer is not a good thing for a Barrayaran military officer. I’m intrigued because an affiliation with retail is also a disqualification for a suitor for a young lady of gentle birth in Regency romance novels. Poor Kou must have spent hours lamenting that girls will think he smells of the shop. Until now! His food service expertise is vital to the success of Cordelia’s infiltration of the capital district. Kou’s dad, never before seen, is redeemed from his embarrassing links to trade almost before he’s been shamed, by his son’s knowledge of the black market. Kou’s mom, we learn, would like him to find a nice girl and settle down. Cordelia overheard her vid letter on the subject. Cordelia is ruthless—she brings this up while trying to set matters to rights between Kou and Drou.

Kou explains that, once he finds a lovely young lady and doesn’t grievously offend her by being a self-centered git, his parents would send a go-between and pay for the wedding. No word on how Barrayaran orphans handle their romantic relationships. My suspicion is that this is yet another unfortunate reflection of Barrayaran brutality—if your parents die before you’re married, it’s difficult to participate in the expected rituals. At some point it will become acceptable for clients to send the Baba on their own behalf; Alexei Vormoncrief will do it in A Civil Campaign. I hope most people are more realistic about the likely response from their intended than Alexei is. Mention of the Baba pulls Drou’s father into the conversation as well. He’s a very respectable veteran, which is just one more reason that Kou is jealous of Drou. She has everything he lacks, except, you know, male privilege. Kou has difficulty recognizing how big a deal that is on his home planet. He’s on quite the journey of discovery in this book.

Kou and Drou’s reconciliation is an interlude in Alys Vorpatril’s story. Her husband Padma’s death is a tragic consequence of Vordarian’s Pretendership, reminding us of why we fight. Padma is found, interrogated and killed shortly after Vordarian declares himself Emperor. Padma has inadvertently given his unborn son the gift of a price on his head; Vordarian is out to find and kill the descendents of Prince Xav, just like Yuri planned to. Cordelia and her crew can’t save him, but their intervention rescues heavily-pregnant Alys.

Alys’s condition—she’s in labor—triggers a series of revelations about Bothari’s family. The roots of Bothari’s madness lie in the nightmare of his childhood. Bothari doesn’t know who is father was. His mother was a prostitute who sold her son to her customers. She also taught him everything he knows about midwifery. In addition to his problematic bedside manner, I have some criticisms of Bothari’s management of a patient who presents at 42 weeks gestation with symptoms of gestational diabetes and fetal macrosomia. I don’t think the lithotomy position is effective in facilitating delivery in the presence of a high risk of shoulder dystocia and I disapprove of his efforts to maneuver the fetus. But I’m just a history teacher whose Google degree in obstetrics is almost ten years out of date now, never mind the centuries in the future when Bothari’s mom taught him everything she knows. I’m sure her standards of practice were up-to-date because midwifery appears to be a highly competitive sector in the caravanserai economy. Everyone we meet there does some midwifery. Granted, that’s, like, one whole person. Even Bothari thinks the caravanserai is unusually deserted.

With Koudelka detailed to exfiltrate Alys and newborn baby Ivan, Cordelia continues to the palace with Bothari and Drou. Bothari is here for the guns, and Drou for the drains. She guides them into the Palace where their first challenge is their accidental encounter with Vordarian and Kareen, who are sleeping in Emperor Ezar’s bedroom. Even in his sleep, Vidal puts optics first. Kareen is curled in a corner, just barely not falling out of the bed. Drou feels that Kareen has sold out, but Cordelia points out that she sleeps like a prisoner. Cordelia is really excellent at considering Kareen’s moves in light of her stated motive of personal safety. Kareen’s decision to attack Vidal with a nerve disruptor is really not something Cordelia had predicted, though.

Gregor’s shoe pushed Kareen to open defiance, but I believe Vidal’s comments about the sons she would bear in the future—to replace the one she had already sacrificed so much to protect—took her over the edge. Vordarian is very much like Piotr in his suggestion children are interchangeable. Kareen is very much like Cordelia in her belief that this is bullshit. Although Gregor the Hostage is not present, Cordelia and Kareen trade sons here. Kareen told Cordelia what she needed to know to bring her son home safely, and Cordelia assured Kareen that her son would come home safe too. After that, Kareen had no reason not to sacrifice herself. Kareen’s situation must have been increasingly intolerable to her over the months of the Pretendership, and her despair at ever finding peace and safety is evident when she grabs the guard’s weapon. Kareen is done with being True Vor, and she’s decided who she wants to take with her on her way out.

Cordelia’s journey to rescue her son is also her journey to becoming the person who can say “Bothari, execute this man for me, please.” She’s given up the part of herself that rejects violence; This is part of her sacrifice for her son. All of Cordelia’s discussions with Drou about combat and killing hold Bothari up as a necessary evil—a monster who can kill without reservation. This is the second time Cordelia has asked him to. Even Bothari must face consequences eventually, not because of his actions but because of his incomplete memory wipe. After everything he’s been through, would Bothari welcome a session with Dr. Mehta, or would he just drown her in the fish tank?

Drou carries Miles’s uterine replicator out of the burning Residence. Cordelia takes Vordarian’s head in a bag. Next week, we end this war.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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