Shards of Honor: Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★★

A Vorkosigan Saga Novel

It’s terribly brave to press a much-loved book on someone else, because then you feel somehow responsible for it. And what if the other person doesn’t like it?! I was surprised (and impressed) when James lent me this book from a series I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never read. All I knew about the Vorkosigan Saga was that it was evidently sci-fi. After reading the back, I thought I had it pegged. Plucky heroine on alien planet falls into the clutches of her enemy, the infamous Lord Vorkosigan. Obviously said heroine would be something like Ripley from Alien: tough, resourceful and determined. And Vorkosigan? Well, obviously, with a name like that he was going to be some kind of horribly overweight, slug-like sadist: a cross between Jabba the Hut and Baron Harkonnen from Dune. Hmm. I wasn’t that far off in my expectations for the redoubtable Cordelia Naismith, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Vorkosigan. This wasn’t at all the space-cadet shoot-em-up I’d been half-expecting. On the contrary, it’s a nuanced exploration of duty, honour and human compassion. And love.

It should have been a straightforward mission. Commander Cordelia Naismith is a non-combatant officer, accompanying a Betan botanical survey on an alien planet. When her base camp is attacked by enemies unknown, her team flee, leaving her alone with her seriously wounded botanist Dubauer. Well, technically, Cordelia’s not alone. But the only other fully-functioning human on this godforsaken planet just happens to be Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the notorious Barrayaran officer better known as the Butcher of Komarr. Only he doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Middle-aged, articulate and courteous, this man doesn’t fit the mould of unprincipled murderer. In fact, he’s been stranded by the very mutinying soldiers who took out Cordelia’s camp on their departure. It’s annoying, but if they’re going to survive, they’ll have to work together.

And so they set off, striking across hostile and uncharted territory towards a cache of supplies left for Barrayaran patrols, while Cordelia does her best to help the damaged Dubauer. As the days pass, she begins to realise that Aral Vorkosigan has been traduced by popular rumour. If he has a flaw, it’s in his stiff-necked honour and in the conventions of his home world of Barrayar. Officially, Beta Colony and Barrayar are enemies. But in this neutral place, bound together by hardship, Cordelia and Vorkosigan realise that they could come to admire one another. And maybe even more…

One of the things I liked about this is that it’s a love story which isn’t the slightest bit saccharine. Our two protagonists are mature, sensible people and they both know how they feel at an early stage. But how can love exist in a world where they are sworn to opposite sides in a conflict? And this is even before the story gets going, with venomous lifeforms, sadistic officers, political intrigue and daring escapes all coming into play. Not to mention the kind of moral dilemma between love and duty that I always enjoy, whether it’s in a book, a film or an opera. I might observe that Cordelia has a really unfortunate habit of getting captured, but in general McMaster Bujold does a lovely job of telling a very human story in the context of a dizzyingly rich wider world.

Some of you will know that I have a certain tendresse for honourable, misunderstood, aristocratic, middle-aged military commanders with tragic pasts (it’s a niche tendresse, I grant you). And so I lasted about five pages before developing a very predictable crush on the taciturn and tormented Vorkosigan. I’m very keen to read more about these characters, although it seems that the Vorkosigan Saga is a rather complicated beast. You can read it in one of two ways: by publication order, or by internal chronological order. I’m planning on the latter, mainly because other books follow other members of Vorkosigan’s family (I’m being deliberately vague there, to avoid spoilers), and I don’t think I’m ready to say goodbye to him and Cordelia just yet. So, next up will be Barrayar, which I already have waiting on my Kindle.

James also pointed out to me that Jo Walton did a reread of the Saga on Tor.com and that it’s one of the books featured in her collection What Makes This Book So Great, so as I get further into the series, I might read that to get her point of view on things. I’m sure her take on the books will be far more thorough and thought-provoking that anything I can offer here, so I’ll look forward to comparing notes with her. And, of course, a big thank you to James for introducing me to the Saga!

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9 thoughts on “Shards of Honor: Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. Melita says:

    I love this series. I kept reading recommendations for Bujold on rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup but I kept thinking, “military sf, bah!” She was even a hometown author although she had already moved to Minneapolis by the time I started reading her.

    When her publisher released the first few chapters of an eagerly awaited later book (A Civil Campaign), the number of messages on rasfw was crazy. We had fun dissecting every sentence.

    Now if you would just read the Thief… .

    • The Idle Woman says:

      OK, OK, the first thing I did after reading your comment was go to buy The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner, right?), so it’s on its way! I could do with a bit of swashbuckling adventure at the moment and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. So watch this space 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Not very much, Dehgg, as they’re only on that planet for a few chapters before the action goes all interstellar. So I wouldn’t come to this for the description of alien worlds – when I speak of ‘world-building’, I mean it more generally, in terms of the creation of plausible societies, politics, interrelationships and that sort of thing. Having said that, if reading about weird six-legged predators and vampiric jellyfish-shaped floating things sounds good, then those few chapters could be of interest 😉

      • dehggial says:

        Thank you 🙂 plausible societies and alien jellyfish are also interesting. I don’t know if you know about Spore but I used to love that game and would simply descend on random planets to visit (and abduct plants and citizens – also to uplift their societies), hence the interest in alien planet geography.

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    I really should catch up with this series, I think I’m like three or four novels behind…. I did read most of them, though, and did rather enjoy the series, even if I never quite got why so many people were so enthusiastic about it – it is fun space opera with a touch of military SF (in the earlier volumes) or Romance (in the later ones – can you say “Georgetty Heyer in Space”?) which does on some interesting issues on the way, but fairly superficially, and the writing and structure is very middle-of-the-road. I found the series…. nice and never felt more than lukewarm about it. Still, it undeniably is a pleasurable read, and I do wish you joy of it (not to mention am looking forward to your take on the other novels).

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello! Yes, there does seem to be something of a Team Vorkosigan out there (including at least three Dunnett readers, intriguingly), so I’m wondering what I will find as I continue. Everyone seems very excited about Miles. And yes, you certainly *can* say ‘Georgette Heyer in Space’ and that sounds rather wonderful, at least in my imagination. There’s definitely space for ‘nice’ in the world, and I’m looking forward to the next novel at least. We shall see. I’ll keep you updated 😉

  3. James Parker says:

    What a relief that you liked it! Thanks for a lovely review. I think the mis-selling of it is a great deal of the charm, in that I settled in for a Heinlein rip-off and ended up comparing it to Jane Eyre.

    I also think Bujold has a lovely lightness of touch with the way she introduces futuristic technology and other bits of the world, and she really measures the impacts of those gizmos (in this case the horrible nerve disruptors) without losing the pace of the story.

    Really pleased you enjoyed it – I think chronological is definitely the way to go, but (if you do get hooked/ can avoid skipping ahead to the regency romances, which start with Memory), try and drop back for Falling Free (the most traditional sci-fi one, and quite self contained) before moving on to Borders of Infinity.

  4. Joanna says:

    *Loved* this book. I think you’d like two of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy books too: The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. They’re both amazing, the latter notable for giving a love story to a middle-aged woman. I’m also enjoying her ‘Penric’ series of novellas (set in the same fantasy world) although the most recent one was a bit disappointing.

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