Editor’s note: This is Marion’s review of Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice. Kat’s comments about Shards of Honor and Tadiana’s and Stuart’s reviews are below.
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 (1986) and Barrayar (1991) 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 (1986), 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!
Cordelia Naismith is a terrific heroine and this is a wonderful love story and introduction to the Vorkosigan family. I am eager to learn more about them in the subsequent books.
I listened to Shards of Honor in audio format, read by Grover Gardner who does a nice job. At first I thought the choice of a male narrator was strange until I remembered that most of the VORKOSIGAN books are written from Miles’ perspective. Audio readers don’t like it when the narrator changes mid-series. so even though it feels a little odd to hear a man telling Cordelia’s story, it was probably a good idea to go with Gardner.
Marion and Kat clearly don’t love Shards of Honor (1986) the way I do, so I have to step up and defend it here. It’s one of those books that I love beyond reason and pull off my bookshelf every few years to reread, contentedly immersing myself in Bujold’s well-imagined world and the relationship between two characters I adore.
A bit of background: I started my VORKOSIGAN SAGA experience years ago when I grabbed A Civil Campaign (1999) off the library shelves, and was introduced to the very short, brilliant, terrifyingly competent and wildly adventurous Miles Vorkosigan. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that book was not the best place to start with this series; it assumes a lot of background knowledge about the characters and events in their lives and really isn’t characteristic of the series, with its focus on romance and social satire over adventure. I was a little mystified but interested enough to check out more books in this series from the library.
And eventually I ended up here, with Shards of Honor, and Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan’s first meeting. She’s the Betan captain of a surveying team exploring an uninhabited (she thinks) planet; he’s the commander of a Barrayaran military outpost on that planet. (Beta is extremely socially progressive; Barrayar has a rigid, traditional and militaristic society.) Their groups clash in a deadly meeting, and Aral and Cordelia are abandoned among the dead and wounded. They need to cooperate to survive. As they trek to Aral’s camp, running into deadly alien animals along the way and surviving on scanty rations, they gain respect for each other, and love starts to develop. Cordelia is loyal to Beta, however, and more, she can’t imagine living and raising a family in the paternalistic society of Barrayar. That and the conflict between their worlds pull her and Aral apart.
I totally fell in love with these two characters and their adventures, a mix of political intrigue and battles, both in space and on land, and between individuals as well as societies. Cordelia’s and Aral’s unusual romance went straight to my heart, and their respective moral dilemmas were heartrending. Shards of Honor might not be the best book in the VORKOSIGAN SAGA, but it’s the one most beloved by me.
I really liked the MILES VORKOSIGAN SAGA when I first read it in high school over 20 years ago, having read through The Vor Game before heading to college and finding myself too busy to read much SF for the next two decades.
So as I got back into genre reading a few years back, I was surprised at just how incredibly popular and extensive the series had become. Back when I first picked up Shards of Honor as a Baen paperback with mediocre cover art (this is true for the entire series, I’m afraid, even the omnibus editions, which seems to be Baen’s preference for all their covers and not to my taste at all), I had no idea it would lead to such an impressive franchise over the next three decades and winning a stack of Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards and nominations along the way, including some excellent novellas like Mountains of Mourning.
As I think most SF readers know the storyline quite well, I’ll just say Shards of Honor is the story of how Miles’ parents, Betan captain Cordelia Naismith and Barrayan commander Aral Vorkosigan, fall in love despite being on opposing sides of an interplanetary conflict. Despite it being Bujold’s first published book, it’s written in polished but unadorned prose, well suited to the mature personalities of the two main leads. It manages to be both a character-centric military SF adventure that focuses on military and personal honor, loyalties, betrayals, and complex political schemes, while also featuring an unlikely romance between from two individuals who are deeply committed to maintaining loyalty to their sides, even when their own sides are politically fractured and treacherous. The audiobooks are narrated well by Grover Gardner. It’s always nice when the same narrator handles an entire series — they know the characters and add their own flavor in depicting them.
Military-SF and romance are strange bedfellows, but Bujold writes so naturally that it works, and lays the background for how Miles’ parents met and fell in love amidst military intrigue, space battles, and even a close call with a sadistic Barrayaran commander. While this book is not as polished as later books in the MILES VORKOSIGAN SAGA, it sets the stage well and delivers a very character-centric military SF adventure, itself an unusual accomplishment. There is also an unexpectedly poignant coda called Aftermaths — I didn’t quite realize where it was going until the very end and it hit me hard, exploring the tragedy of space battles and war that is rarely considered in military SF.
Below we present the author’s preferred reading order which is in order of plot chronology, not publication.