Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

(moderate spoilers)

The original start of this review was me accusing Bujold of crimes against her readers for having only one book with Cordelia as a lead. There are, of course, two. But bear with me. I’m a newbie to the Vorkosigan saga; that’s why I’m reviewing Shards of Honour after all. Rest assured I will be familiarising myself with the rest of the series quite quickly.

Now, not everyone recommends starting with Shards of Honour. At least they didn’t to me, with many suggesting Warrior’s Apprentice which does of course feature Miles himself. But I decided with an author of Bujold’s quality, I wanted to see how she grew from book to book, and was unbothered by messy chronology.

I very nearly regretted that, actually. My first foray into this book, a few months ago, resulted in my eyes glazing over from the technological talk and trying something else. Fortunately, I came across the chapter for this book in Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book Great? and felt inspired. Very inspired. Readers, I tell you, find someone who cares about you like Walton cares about Vorkosigan, and also read her book.

Although now that I’m done, I suspect I also care about Vorkosigan like Walton cares about it.

Yes, yes, I suppose I should actually talk some about the book.

Shards of Honour is a space opera romance about two resourceful and honourable captains, Cordelia and Aral, who are on different sides in a war. It is a romance of a particular type. Told entirely through Cordelia’s viewpoint, most of the book’s narrative is taken up by the war, as is a lot of Cordelia’s internal thoughts too. There is little pining, no explicit scenes. But fate keeps throwing them together and their love for each other is evident in the vast majority of the actions they take – as too is loyalty to their own cause and culture. They will help each other, but romantic love is not the be all and end all of their lives by a far shot.

The result is a book of two interweaved strands; that of a war, and that of a conversation between two intelligent, charismatic individuals whose every word plays out on multiple levels. That is a great way to get my attention right there.

And when you execute it this well?

This was Bujold’s first published novel, something that has me shaking my head given it is executed very well. I’ve seen people say the series gets better and better but, from my weird vantage point of having read most of Bujold’s fantasy work from later in her career but having only just seen her Sci-Fi work, I am mildly questioning how much of that is Bujold getting better, and how much that’s the accreted emotional impact and of the series getting laid at Bujold’s door, as this stacks up very well to Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls.

The latter possibility certainly makes sense to me as it feels like Bujold’s superpower here is depth. Not how deep she goes into the story and background, but how many layers she adds in. The densest layer, in many ways the foundation for everything else, is the cultural conflict between Cordelia’s home of Beta and Aral’s Barrayar. Beta reads a good deal like the modern west, democratic and liberal as long as you don’t poke around in the engine too much. Barrayar is feudal and militaristic, in flux between those who hold to honour codes and those who dispense with them.

This conflict is mostly explored through Cordelia living among Barrayans, often as a prisoner; she spends more time among them than she does among Betans, and Aral spends virtually none among Betans. It should also be noted that Aral is often quite critical of his own culture (although nowhere near as critical as Cordelia); it’s a one-sided conflict, looked at from one angle. But it’s mainly about Aral and Cordelia feeling out their differences as similar people with different frameworks. Could there have been an even deeper book for more viewpoints, more looks at Beta? Yes, but also a more unwieldy one. I’m happy with the tight focus on Cordelia and Aral and what matters to them.

Because they’re a delight. Depth isn’t Bujold’s superpower, it’s great dialogue between intriguing characters. That they’ve got so much to talk about is part of it, but I could listen to Cordelia and Aral discuss how to decorate their front room, nevermind find the best way from incipient disaster. People looking for tempestuous passion will be disappointed; they are warm, occasionally sharp, often restrained. This is the romance of people who believe personal isn’t the same as important and who have their share of scars to boot.

Dealing with those scars is something where I think Bujold did get better over the years. Caz and Ista are far more connected with theirs than Cordelia and Aral, from whom they are rather background. There’s some sharper phrasing too, and while it’s a little thing to me, I think some aspects of the cultures feels clunky in a way it wouldn’t later. But the connection with the darker sides of the personality is the big thing for me. This book is super charming and fun, and not without grimness, but it lacks the full swing and power of what I’d associate with late Bujold.

Nevertheless, I just said it; it’s super charming and fun. I can see this being a book I return to many times.

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