Cordelia's Honor - Lois McMaster Bujold Space. The final frontier. (...) Betan Astronomical Survey ship Rene Magritte's mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. Cue the freaky music.

Sorry, but the Star Trek opening was just right there in the back of my mind the entire time I read "Cordelia's Honor." Wow! This was truly a space opera (and I don't mean that in a pejorative way) - lots of melodramatic action, romantic conflict between two protagonists of different cultures, exotic worlds with indigenous scary creatures and extraordinary characters of almost mythic proportions. Cordelia's Honor is an omnibus containing two novels -Shards of Honor, and Barrayar- chronicling how the parents of Miles Vorkosigan meet, fall in love, and begin the Vorkosigan Saga. There's no way I can summarize the plot of these two novels succinctly so I'm just going to write a little about what I liked and what I didn't like.

First, I love that this is a character-driven book. Sure, there are alien creatures and space travel and a clash of two cultures, but both books revolve around the characters of Commander Cordelia Naismith and Captain Aral Vorkosigan. Cordelia and Aral are thrown together in a fight to survive and slowly get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, fall in love, and struggle to find common ground that will let them be together.

Aral Vorkosigan's, the "Butcher of Komarr", a bloody sobriquet bestowed because he is blamed with the massacre of prisoners of war, gives Cordelia pause at first. Even though he is undeserving of that descriptor, Aral has lived a very violent life since age 11. At 13 he helped to extract justice on the emperor who assassinated his mother and brother. Aral snapped the neck of his second-in command who actually had the Komarrans executed. When he discovers his wife was unfaithful, he killed both men she had affairs with. So, his hands are not clean by any stretch of the imagination. Aral is a very dark hero, older than most heroes at 44, and not particularly handsome. Nor does he tower in height over all other men as so many romantic heroes seem to do as well as "stocky" in physique. And he is apparently bisexual, having had at least one affair with another man. His sexuality, however, is not tied to a dark tormented past or parental abuse or some strange psychological imbalance. It just is a part of him, and Cordelia doesn't have hysterics or feel threatened when she discovers this. Acceptance. What a concept, huh?

Cordelia Naismith is an astrocartographer and commander of an exploratory ship whose home planet of Beta Colony is the antithesis of Aral's Barrayar. Barrayar is militaristic, almost Spartan in nature while Beta Colony seems to be a very tolerant, democratic, liberal society and very technologically advanced. Much more so than Barrayar. Coming from a society that views most things in shades of gray rather than black and white, Cordelia doesn't understand (or like very much) the militaristic Barrayaran society. She is very independent, and older at 33 than most heroines. Even better, Cordelia is no wilting miss who needs rescuing every other page by Aral. What I loved most about her was the way she looks at a crisis/situation, works through a solution, and executes it. She is intelligent and savvy and a great strategist.

Though the relationship between Cordelia and Aral develops gradually, it maintains a beautifully touching and endearing quality that had me completely engrossed and is believable because of those subtle nuances. When Aral proposes, he is as uncertain and nervous as any young man popping the question for the first time. Not once did Aral act like an alpha arsehole, and there were at least a couple of times that he was given the opportunity. I loved that the conflict and tension stemmed primarily from internal factors - their differences in culture, beliefs, and personalities.

Despite the central ideas of honor - lost and regained - and the path to redemption, there were moments sprinkled throughout to lighten the dark themes. For example, Aral tells Cordelia that he is "one of the fittest men in [his] command." And as he limps away, he adds: "Over forty." Cordelia fires back by asking how many men over forty are in his command. "Four," he replies.

Cordelia struggles with the rules of Barrayaran society and its confusing illogical "double standard of sexual behavior." She tries to make a list of do's and don'ts so she won't embarrass Aral. Like: sex cannot be discussed in front of unmarried women or children, some subjects can be joked about but cannot be discussed seriously, young men can say anything in a group of other young men but not in mixed company, and heaven forfend that a couple might benefit from sex therapy. Aral finds her list amusing.

"Is that what we really look like to you? I like your Rule Seven. Must
keep it in mind. . . I wish I'd known it in my youth. I could have
skipped all those godawful Service training vids."

"If you snicker any harder, you're going to get a nosebleed," she said
tartly. "These are your rules, not mine. You people play by them. I just
try to figure them out."

"My sweet scientist. Hm. You certainly call things by their correct
names. We've never tried . . . would you like to violate Rule Eleven
with me, dear Captain?" (311)

There were a couple of times in Barrayar related to Count Vordarian's uprising and palace coup that felt draggy, as if nothing seemed to be happening. When crises arose, I had come to expect that either Aral or Cordelia would act. Instead they were separated for a week with lots of internal handwringing and THINKING, and even when they are united, there was a long period with very little action.

Cordelia's Honor is wonderful and surprising and best of all left me wanting . . .more. More about Barrayar. More about Beta Colony. More Aral and Cordelia. More Bothair and Kou and Dhrou. And definitely more about Miles Vorkosigan. I realized quickly that I would be investing time and money to find and read the rest of the Vorkosigan Saga, a rather daunting task of 15 or 16 novels and novellas, and I'm really looking forward to it with much pleasure.