Editor’s note: This is Marion’s review of Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice. Kat’s comments about Barrayar and Stuart’s review are at the bottom.
Do you like fancy military uniforms? Shiny spaceships that blow things up? Brooding aristocrats with hulking stone castles and dark secrets? Snappy comebacks and one-liners? Voluptuous women warriors? Swords and secret passages? Surprising twists on standard military tactics of engagement?
If you answered “Yes” to three or more, check out the VORKOSIGAN SAGA. Lois McMaster Bujold started this series in the mid-80s. The VORKOSIGAN books start out as space opera, even having maps of the various planets and star systems with those so-convenient wormholes linking everyone together, and convincingly add a stratified, highly mannered aristocratic society on one of the principal planets. Later books have become more sociopolitical while still set against a dynamic interplanetary background.
The main character of the series is Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is a smart, physically damaged character with a lot to prove. He is an aristocrat, a crown prince and a highly skilled covert operative. He is a risk-taker and when he makes mistakes, they are profound. Sometimes he is a fool, but usually, when it matters, he is brilliant.
Shards of Honor and Barrayar introduce us to Miles’s parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. In the midst of an interplanetary war, Cordelia, a native of the Beta colony, raised in a tolerant, sexually open, egalitarian, high-tech and seriously bureaucratic society, clashes with and ultimately falls for a warrior-prince from a rigid, military, patriarchal one. Shards of Honor tells the story of their meeting. Cordelia disregards the shock of her home planet and its nanny-state government, marries Aral and moves to Barrayar. In Barrayar, we observe the mutual culture shock that follows. Women have some power on Barrayar, but they do not have equality. The Vor is an elite of families charged with running the planet, and Aral’s family is classic Vor. Aral has as much committed the unthinkable with this marriage as Cordelia has. His father in particular is disapproving of what he sees as a misalliance.
Cordelia soon learns that there are many cliques, coalitions and conspiracies, and that Aral has enemies, some of whom would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between Aral and his new wife. At a formal reception, a new acquaintance, catching Cordelia apart from her husband, tries to inject some venom:
He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth quirked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”
Barrayar quickly leads us into a political coup and an assassination attempt on Cordelia and Aral, with a disastrous impact on the newly pregnant Cordelia. The damage to her unborn child does not stop her from fighting at Aral’s side, and her woman-warrior skills even win over her father-in-law at the end. Aral becomes the Regent for Prince Gregor, a physically perfect six-year-old destined to be emperor.
The Vor (and all the people of Barrayar) worship racial purity and physical strength, and are terrified of mutation, for reasons that are clearly and credibly delineated in the back-story. Cordelia’s baby is born with brittle bones that shatter at the slightest impact. In a society that values physical perfection, this is a serious drawback. Miles represents both a genetic failure — even though his weaknesses are not genetic — and his society’s worst fear. While the brittle bones can be dealt with medically, Miles Vorkosigan is the opposite of what a Vor lord is supposed to be, and he and his father both know it.
In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles, at 17, has just failed the physical exam for the Imperial Military Academy. Despondent, he goes on a family trip to Beta. In short order he rescues an on-the-skids jump-ship pilot, co-opts a mercenary fleet, styles himself “Admiral Naismith” and saves the underdogs in a nasty civil war, pausing long enough to suffer pangs of unrequited love and jealousy over his childhood playmate Eleni and pick up a Barrayaran military deserter who is a genius with engines.
It appears that Miles is a flippin’ genius at strategy and tactics (years of dodging the neighborhood bullies at home?) but his real gift is that of inspiring loyalty and getting people to work at their maximum capacity, or beyond it.
One of the best things about the early Miles Vorkosigan books is the idea that the bluffing, one-upping, dueling, raygun-toting, make-it-up-as-I-go hero is four feet tall and has bones that will crack if he sits down too hard. He talks as fast as a guy on his seventh energy drink, and like William Ryker on Star Trek, he never met a female alien he didn’t like. There is real darkness in these books, though. In the first two, rape is deployed as a weapon of terror, with some reverberations into later books. At times, the humorous, straightforward prose seems disrespectful of the serious nature of the plot, but no one will doubt Miles’s determination to make things right, even when he’s making mistakes.
These early stories play with the theme of the outsider, with Cordelia in the first two as a literal outsider, and Miles having the more painful role of the person within the culture who doesn’t quite fit in. The early Vorkosigan stories, those with “Admiral Naismith,” can be read as Miles trying to find a place for himself in the universe.
The three early books should be read close together so that you understand the story of Miles, and why he drives himself so hard. The action is brisk, the characters are good, and there is quite a bit of funny dialogue. I quibble a bit at some of Bujold’s anachronistic word choices, but really, things are usually happening so quickly, and are so interesting, that I don’t get thrown out of the story.
A final warning; a Vorkosigan book is like a potato chip. If you start with these three, you’ll want to read more!
Another entertaining Bujold novel (I expect no less). Barrayar won the Hugo Award. This books shows us the culture in Barrayar, the Vorkosigan home planet, and explains how Miles, the protagonist of most of the VORKOSIGAN books, became deformed. The audio versions are excellent.
I really enjoyed the first few MILES VORKOSIGAN books back when I was in high school over 20 years ago, but somehow managed to miss Barrayar in 1991 as I got very busy with classwork and college applications, etc.
Now that the series has become so popular and extensive in the preceding decades, it’s fun to read one of the earliest installments, the story of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, two of the best characters in the military SF genre (admittedly not a niche I know very well), who in turn will give birth to Miles Vorkosigan, arguably one of the most beloved characters in the genre. This novel centers on the complex relationship between Aral and Cordelia, who upon returning to the militaristic planet of Barrayar end up become regent to the child emperor Gregor and Lady Vorkosigan, respectively. However, it is also about the origins of Miles, and though he only appears in a uterine replicator, much of the drama centers on his conception and battles over whether he should even be allowed to be born at all.
I hadn’t realized that Barrayar won many of the top SF honors in 1992, but by that time Miles Vorkosigan had become a major franchise with a dedicated fan base, so much of the pleasures of this back-story lie in fans discovering details of events that are referred to throughout the series. Not to say that the story doesn’t stand alone — its first half is a careful cultural study of the clash between Cordelia’s liberal and egalitarian Betan values and the hierarchical, militaristic, and rigid Barrayaran culture, particularly the vicious scheming and internecine battles among its military aristocracy. In the second half, Bujold throws Cordelia and Aral into the thick of a struggle for power and with betrayals at every turn as the story turns into a thrilling, breathless series of fights, infiltrations, narrow escapes, shoot-outs, and emotionally-wrenching decisions.
What makes Barrayar far more than a straight-up military SF adventure is that Cordelia is pregnant and much of the emotional weight of the story is driven by her and Aral’s conflicting thoughts on impending parenthood, which become even more wrenching when they narrowly survive a chemical weapon attack. Given the inflexible Barrayan military caste intolerant of any faults or defects, what kind of future would Miles have there if he were physically handicapped? In many ways, much of the story could be set in a 19th century Russian aristocratic drama with very little of the details changed. It’s a story of political intrigue, parenthood, culture clashes, and a very insightful and humanistic exploration of the military mentality, both its focus on discipline, loyalty, and lethal killing efficiency, and the psychological toll it takes on those who try to live by this code, particularly key supporting characters like Lieutenant Kudelka, female bodyguard Droushnakovi, and the mentally damaged Sergeant Bothari.
As many reviewers have observed, Bujold is a master of characterization, and the enduring appeal of the entire series lies in the fact that she makes us care about her characters deeply, so that we are caught up in their lives and internal struggles, while at the same time being treated to engaging, carefully-plotted military SF adventures. It’s quite a unique combination, and explains the host of SF awards the series has garnered. The audiobooks are narrated by Grover Gardner, and it is good to have a consistent voice for the characters throughout the series.
Below we present the author’s preferred reading order which is in order of plot chronology, not publication.