by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 31, 2020
Edits and Addendum on February 27
1. Shard's of Honor / 2. Barrayar
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Shards of Honor was Bujold's first published novel, although it might not have been the first she had completed. A later one, which I'll get to soon, was accepted by Baen, and on its strengths she was able to get a three book commitment. Shards was nominated for Locus and Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial awards, in both cases for Best First Novel. The latter award is voted on by members of the annual Balticon. It introduced Cordelia Naismith from Beta Colony, the captain of a Betan Astronomical Survey ship. Her crew is exploring a newly discovered planet when their base camp is attacked by forces from Barrayar, although she later learns the attackers were a rogue force attempting a coup against their commander, Aral Vorkosigan. It's back in print on its own, but for a while it was paired with its direct sequel, Barrayar, under the title Cordelia's Honor, which you may be able to find used. [A purchase through any of our links may earn us a commission.] The second book won a Hugo in 1992, and I'll add comments about it soon, which is the reason I gave this page the collective title.
It is a strong debut, with intriguing characters and situations, well-paced, and quite a bit of action packed into a little more than 300 pages. But it's not without its faults. Number one in that category is how quickly Cordelia falls in love with Aral. That might not have been so worrisome if she was younger and less experienced, easily impressed with the manliness of the Barrayaran soldier. But she's not a flighty ingénue, she's in her mid-30s, with at least one major romantic relationship in her past. It does make sense she would be impressed with the honorable way he treats her, as well as how he handles the men under his command, both those loyal to him, and those who wish him harm. Aral also admires her honorable traits, but again, his revelation of when he fell in love with her seems too premature. Both had previously had negative attitudes towards the other's governmental and military institutions. She had also heard of him before, in a negative context, so it seemed odd she would so readily accept his side of the story. Both the first and second times they encounter each other she ends up his prisoner, yet they work together and develop a mutual trust, which confounds associates on both sides. A romantic relationship should have been developed over a longer period of time, at least into the second book, rather than have them married and expecting a child by the end of the first one.
That's my only complaint. Otherwise it's an exciting adventure of war and intrigue, of tactics and weapons, feints and subterfuge. And in the end, diplomacy, concessions, regrouping, with an alteration of perspective between the two powers. Actually at least three powers, since the short-lived war was between Barrayar and Escobar, with Beta Colony siding with Escobar, helping the cause with some remarkable new technologies. I've only read a few of the Vorkosigan books so far, and I don't know much about the background on the genesis of Bujold's universe, but just based on common names it seems Barrayar was settled by Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Escobar by Spanish and/or Latin-Americans, with Beta Colony comprised of British and North Americans. Descriptions of the societies of each seem consistant with that, and later books will feature other colony worlds, with already a few hints about them. The first book that caught Baen's attention featured Cordelia and Aral's son Miles, so they might have requested this one to show the previous history, and not knowing the series would grow to the many volumes it has become, she may have felt the need to streamline their romance. Anyone partial to romance in their SF won't see any problem with this, and perhaps I shouldn't either. I do recommend it, and look forward to more adventures with the Vorkosigans.
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As mentioned above, Barrayar won a Hugo in 1992, along with a Locus, and was also a finalist for both the Nebula, and a Seiun in Japanese translation in 2001. It had originally been serialized in the July-October, 1991 issues of Analog. Even though five years separated the publication of the two books, this starts off almost immediately after the conclusion of the first.
Not previously detailed about the first book: Barrayar was a conservative, military-centric society, with frequent infighting among the various royal houses. Aral Vorkosigan was among his family's few survivors of a previous coup attempt when he was eleven. During the war with Escobar he also had to contend with a similar situation. After the war Aral returned to Barrayar, and while not retiring from his position, he intended to remain inactive, maybe even drinking himself into oblivion. Cordelia had other ideas. She had been ostracized from her family and community, suspected of being a turncoat, possibly a spy for Barrayar. She managed to escape Beta Colony, and turns up at the Vorkosigan country estate, ready to start a new life with the man she loves. The first book ended with them married and expecting a child, although their dream of a quiet family life is shattered with the impending death of the Emperor, because Aral is chosen to be Regent to the Emperor's grandchild, five-year-old Gregor.
Gregor's father had been among the rogue faction Aral fought at the tail end of the war, and it is apparent there are many who would have preferred someone other than Aral as Regent. Cordelia is caught up in the intrigue, repelled by much of the political and social machinations of Barrayar, but convinced Aral is the man to solve the problems. After several assassination attempts, Cordelia's instincts point toward the most likely suspect, but that is not confirmed until later. One of the most harrowing and emotional events in any book I've read comes when their unborn child is affected by one of the assassination attempts, via a toxic gas grenade. In Barrayaran logic, the heir to a family's estate is just as much, if not more, a target as the parents. Luckily there had been a technology acquired during the war, something previously unknown to Barrayar, that of external fetal gestation replicators. Five months into her term, Cordelia undergoes emergency surgery to remove the fetus and placenta, to be placed in a replicator, the better to monitor its development, and to hopefully introduce the necessary chemicals to counteract the toxins.
So much action follows, most of which I don't want to spoil. A full-fledged coup is attempted, with one loyalist fortunate in escaping with Gregor. Aral scatters his forces, sending several of his most trusted with Cordelia and Gregor, while he tries to make it to what he thinks is a loyal spaceport base. If he can get the support of the space forces his chances of squashing the coup will be much easier. Cordelia has many of her own adventures, both before and after she is able to reunite with Aral. Striking out on her own without Aral's knowledge, she attempts a heroic rescue, aided by only three others. This isn't just about action though, it's also about some quieter, personal moments. Cordelia had been repulsed by the patriarchal nature of Barrayar, with the few allies she had gained mainly being women. The few men drawn to her was due to the way she helped them with personal, traumatic events. Emotions, trauma, PTSD, and disabilities, both physical and mental, are explored in compassionate ways. Due to her successes, it's safe to say Barrayar is lucky to have Lady Vorkosigan. She may even be able to alter the perceptions of Aral's father Piotr, so that he may be able to accept a grandson with many physical challenges ahead of him.
This was the second time reading these, although it had been over twenty years, and I think I liked them even more this time. However, I could not shake my mental image of who should play Cordelia and Aral if these are ever adapted for the screen (and why have they not?). Of course, Clancy Brown is too old for Aral now, but he's still there in my head as I read. Unfortunately, the actress I first thought of is deceased, was already gone the first time I read it, but that was due to an old movie I had seen around the same time. No, I won't name her, since it probably wouldn't make sense to anyone else. Many would say Carrie Fisher would have been perfect, if the films had come in the early 90s, but she would have thought it was too close to her Leia persona. As for the books, the world-building is strong, although not as original as I would have preferred. It's more like an historical novel in the way the societies are presented, with Barrayar an outdated feudal society, with Beta Colony a more progressive one, with science revered and individual autonomy respected. Barrayar is steeped in tradition, backwards in terms of science, but they had been isolated for a long period prior to this. Imagine the US vs Russia prior to World War I. But character is where these books shine. Aral proves that even the most repressive society can improve if only the right people are in charge, and Cordelia is sure to improve the lot of women. She is headstrong, resolute in her convictions, loyal to those she deems worthy of her trust, and loyal to them in return. There is only one event's logic I might quibble over, but then again, you know what they say about a woman scorned. There is even more to fear from a mother scorned. Cordelia and Aral are the perfect parents to nurture Miles, and I'll get to his early adventures next month. Four stars for Shards of Honor, hampered only by its streamlined romance, but a solid five for Barrayar, well deserving of its awards, and for its continued influence over the space opera sub-genre.
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