Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Martin Wisse
Chronologically Shards of Honor the earliest story in the Vorkosigan series, with the exception of Falling Free. It is also the earliest published novel in the series and was based on an idea Bujold had for a Star Trek story. In the original story, the roles of Aral and Cordelia would’ve been played by a Klingon warrior and a Vulcan scientist; you can still sort of see the traces of this in the published book.
Cordelia Naismith is the captain of a Betan Planetary Survey Mission investigating a newly discovered planet, when her expedition is attacked by a Barrayaran force. She’s stunned and when she comes to she’s alone with the leader of that force, Aral Vorkosigan, left behind for death by his own internal enemies. They negotiate an uneasy truce to try and survive on a hostile planet to reach a survival cache left behind by the Barrayarans. After a long and ardous trek they reach the cache, but something unexpected has happened in the meantime: they’ve fallen in love.
Their problems are only starting at that point, as Aral has to deal with the mutiny amongst his crew, which is led by his political officer, while Cordelia has to make sure the rescue attempt by her own ship’s crew actually succeeds, without handing over Aral to the mutineers again. Cordelia manages to solve both problems at once, both knocking the renewed mutiny on its head and escaping with all her people from Aral’s ship, the first of Bujold’s Competent Women.
Cordelia gets away, Aral gets his ship back and both think they will never see each other again. Two months later Cordelia finds herself commanding a slow freighter on a supply run to Escobar – an ally of Beta Colony – which has been invaded by the Barrayarans, from the very system Cordelia had been exploring. Her ship is a decoy, meant to draw the Barrayaran guards away from the wormhole and the real supply ships. Unfortunately, Cordelia and her crew get captured in the process, which should not have been too bad, POW treaties existing in the future too, had she not fallen into the hands of the psychopath commander of the invasion fleet, Admiral Vorrutyer, right-hand to Prince Serg. Vorruyter’s plan is to torture her by letting one of his soldiers rape her, something he has forced this particular soldier to do regularly. Things do not quite go according to plan as the would be rapist is Sergeant Bothari, Aral Vorkosigan’s old batman, who instead kills Vorruyter and helps Cordelia escape to Aral.
From this point on the Escobar invasion goes from bad to worse for the Barrayarans, as during the invasion of the planet the flagship is hit and destroyed, killing Prince Serg and the rest of the command staff, save for Aral, who was charged with planning for a possible withdrawal in case things went wrong. It’s only after Aral puts into motion the withdrawal once he has gained command that Cordelia understands that the invasion had always been meant to fail, in order to discredit Barrayar’s militarists and assassinate Prince Serg, in a plan cooked up by Aral and his emperor, to put all the bad eggs in one basket and then drop the basket…
The end of their second meeting once again finds Cordelia and Aral going their separate ways, Aral back to Barrayar to resign his commission, Cordelia back home to a hero’s welcome she feels undeserved. The details of Barrayaran treatment of prisoners, especially female prisoners has become public knowledge and Cordelia has become a symbol of resistance for having killed one Barrayaran monster, Vorruyter, and having been in the power of another, Vorkosigan. She can’t convince anybody, not even her own family of the real truth, nor is able to expose the secrets behind the failed invasion as that would lead to civil war on Barrayar. In the end, her unwillingness to play the role of hero expected of her makes her suspect and she has to flee Beta Colony to avoid being put into psychiatric care. She of course goes to Barrayar and Aral, gets him out of his funk and marries him, but with the death of the old emperor they now have to accept their biggest challenge: take on the regency for the emperor’s grandson and Prince Serg’s son, Gregor, only five years old.
Shards of Honor, as its title indicates revolves around honour: both Aral’s more straightforward notion of his duty to country and emperor and Cordelia’s personal honour. Time and again she could have withdrawn from Barrayar’s and Aral’s internal problems and just done her duty to her own country, yet she choose the harder road each time. Honour will be a dominant theme throughout the Vorkosigan series, together with family, here slightly less prominent. Yet there are hints of how important Bujold finds family here already, in Aral and Cordelia’s loyalty to sergeant Bothari, which goes beyond what they own him for him saving Cordelia from torture, but also with Lieutenant Koudelka, wounded during the Escobar invasion and threatened with retirement on a world not kind to anybody with a physical disability, genetic or otherwise, who Aral takes on as his personal secretary. For Bujold family is important and naturally extends not just to people you share blood with, but those that are bound to you through other ties. Bothari and Koudelka have made sacrifices for Aral and Cordelia and those make them not just friends, but part of their family.
One other theme also has a presence here, but would be more important in later books: the influence of galactic technology on Barrayar. As said, the Barrayarans, not just the sadists like Prince Serg or Vorruyter had been raping female prisoners of war. At the end of the book they get the bill in the form of seventeen uterine replicators containing the offspring of Barrayaran rapes, saddling them with their care rather than their victim mothers. This sort of thing is why I call Lois McMaster Bujold a hard science fiction writer, because she thinks about the impact MagicTech would have on real life, rather than use it solely as props in an adventure story.
This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.