Review of Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold
Shards of Honour
by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of those series I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And, in fact, I read Cryoburn last year for the Hugo Awards voting. Going back to the beginning and reading the series in order has been a task long overdue, so let’s get this party started.
I love space opera. Technically speaking, Shards of Honour and its sequel, Barrayar, which I read in omnibus form, is probably more planetary romance. It is the first of a two part story of Cordelia Naismith falling in love not only with Aral Vorkosigan but with the planet of his birth, Barrayar. Cordelia leaves everything she knows behind to be with Aral—not that the alternatives are much better, thanks to her celebrity but suspect status after her participation in the defence of Escobar.
So, since I love space opera, Lois McMaster Bujold had a home-field advantage here. I love the intrigue that goes along with this type of science fiction. Because, let’s face it: if humanity does spread out among the stars one day, this is what we’ll be like. We’ll be divided and insular, petty and always bickering. Empires are difficult—as Barrayar demonstrates—and politics and diplomacy in the vacuum of space are always swift and unforgiving. The reactionary culture of Barrayar and the progressivist nature of Beta Colony both seem like possibilities for space colonies in the far future. Bujold also deals with the question of why Barayar doesn’t just go settle an uninhabited world ripe for the picking: the network of wormholes connecting all these worlds is what makes them valuable.
Shards of Honour doesn’t really deal with the Barrayar–Beta politics, however, except through the interactions of their embodiments in Aral and Cordelia. Ever since their first meeting on the surface of that survey world, two things are obvious: firstly, they are meant to be together; secondly, they will forever be the symbols of their upbringings—so I’ll leave you to guess what their union means for Barrayar.
Which brings me (finally) to my opinion of—and problem with—Shards of Honour. Cordelia and Aral are forced together by circumstance … and then he proposes marriage. Like you do. It is the ultimate contrived setup; Cordelia doesn’t fall in love with Aral so much as end up thrown together with him enough times to decide she might as well marry him. Everything about this story is so driven and obviously constructed towards getting Cordelia to Barrayar and married to Aral Vorkosigan, and it really frustrates me. I’d like to just embrace this book and love it unconditionally, because I love the characters … but I can’t ignore what is, if not lazy, extremely indulgent plotting.
Cordelia is an awesome main character. She’s smart and determined. She knows what she wants and will stick to her guns until she gets her way. In many ways, Cordelia is the perfect interface between Beta Colony and Barrayar. While she represents the non-warrior, curious nature of the Betan culture, she is actually far more of a warrior than most other Betans we see in this book. She might not always carry a gun and salute, but Cordelia is a tactician. She can scheme, and she can act and react with the best of them. It gets her out of trouble (and, yeah, into trouble) numerous times.
As much as the setup between Cordelia and Aral frustrates me, I like Aral too. Bujold does a good job making him a complex person. The Betans call him the Butcher of Komarr. He is the ultimate scapegoat and monster—until Cordelia meets him and discovers that, while he is Barrayan, he is a reasonably nice guy. For Aral, it’s all about doing what is honourable—but unlike some of his comrades, who allow the excesses of their aristocratic upbringing to corrupt them, Aral is all about his duty to the empire.
In many ways, it’s that conflict between personal gratification and service to one’s government/nation that underlies all of Shards of Honour. Cordelia essentially betrays Beta Colony to be with Aral (though she might not see it that way). Aral has to make some tough decisions about his personal loyalty in order to do what he thinks is right for the empire. And the biggest question, the conflict that this book ultimately resolves, is whether Aral and Cordelia can be together and be loyal to their own personal ideals as well as Barrayar. Beta Colony and Barrayar end their war before Cordelia marries Aral—I wonder what will happen next time war starts up?
Shards of Honour is a good novel on its own, but it is one that begs for more. I’m happy I read this as part of the omnibus. The transition into Barrayar is seamless. This really feels like the prologue to the latter book, which is where Bujold gets down and tackles the really interesting ramifications of Aral and Cordelia’s interstellar romance.
Intrigue and romance, war and murder and the conflict between honour and personal desire … Shards of Honour hits all the right notes for an interesting story. Oh, and there are spaceships and wormholes and nerve disruptors as well! Science fiction in name and set dressing, this is really just an action-adventure novel and a romance story wrapped up into one. It’s well worth reading—but don’t stop here.