We have so few examples of female military leaders on Earth that only science fiction offers a glimpse of what it will be like when women are leaders during wartime. And that's one of the many reasons you'll get sucked into Lois McMaster Bujold's classic novels Shards of Honor and Barrayar (now collected into one volume from Baen called Cordelia's Honor). They're a realistic picture of a woman, Cordelia Naismith, who becomes a military leader - and who has to juggle that responsibility with her ethics, as well as a burgeoning love affair and eventual marriage to a man who is her planet's sworn enemy. Oh and just to make things more complicated, Cordelia's husband Aral Vorkosigan comes from planet Barrayar, whose culture does not welcome female leaders of any sort.
Cordelia's Honor collects the first two books in the Vorkosigan Saga chronology, and Bujold has said that they represent her effort to describe what it's like to be a mother. Except in Cordelia's world, mothers protect their children by infiltrating an enemy installation, masterminding espionage plans, and deftly killing the bad guy before stuffing his head into a shopping bag from a fashionable women's clothing store.
Jo Walton has described Bujold's novels as a combination of military SF, space opera, romance, mystery, political thriller, character studies, and just about everything else. And it's true - the genre of the Cordelia novels is as pleasingly complicated as its heroes.
Cordelia begins as the captain of a science vessel whose mission is to explore new worlds and catalog the life she and her crew find there. But a surprise attack on her camp on a planet she thought was unpopulated throws her in with Aral, the captain of a military ship from Barrayar. He's the victim of a complicated power play by forces who oppose his family's position of power in Barrayar's feudal hierarchy. And Cordelia's competence under pressure helps them both make it to safety, at which point Aral confesses his love for her in a moment that feels as awkward as it does touching. Tough she's intrigued by his oddly formal proposal of marriage, she winds up aiding him in the battle to retake his fleet instead of getting romantic.
And so their relationship develops. They come together as comrades in arms long before they consummate their slow-simmering love. The second novel, Barrayar, is all about why Cordelia reluctantly decides to leave her home on the liberal, feminist Beta Colony to join Aral among militarized patriarchs on his home planet. Bujold is at her best in this part of Cordelia's story, because she manages to explore what it's like to become a wife and mother while also retaining a sense of power and equality with her husband - a tough thing to do in a society where women are regarded as second-class citizens.
While Cordelia and Aral develop as characters, Bujold also brings the world of Barrayar to life vividly around them. There are also a number of supporting characters we get to know better, and who we come to identify with only uneasily - just the way we do with real people who are brave and damaged at the same time.
One of the running themes of both novels is how to take power while also burdened by disability. Cordelia's disability is her gender in a world ruled by men, but she's also surrounded by characters with other disabilities: Aral's most trusted officer, Koudelka, suffered a neurological injury in war that's made it difficult for him to walk; and Cordelia's bodyguard Bothari is a borderline psychopath who barely keeps his violent tendencies in check. When Cordelia's son Miles is born at the end of the novel, we discover that he's going to grow up with many physical disabilities too - he has a bone disorder that will leave him short and frail in a culture where male leaders are expected to be strong and tall. (This becomes a big issue for Miles in the next novel, The Warrior's Apprentice.)
What makes the Cordelia novels a pleasure to read is that they manage offer a profound story about the strength that lies within apparent weakness, and they do it without ever slackening the breakneck pace of the action. There is never a dull or prolonged moment in these books. The instant we've reached a quiet beat or philosophical insight - and there are plenty of these - you'll turn the page to discover that someone has set off a bomb or a plot has been hatched to overthrow the government. And then you'll find yourself rushing pell-mell after Cordelia and her ragtag band of heroes, whose honor and inventiveness always win the day. Though not without a tough fight.
If you're looking to dig into some classic science fiction this weekend, you could do no better than to read Cordelia's Honor. It's available in a $5 e-book edition from Baen Books.