Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold

ShardsofHonorShards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Diarmuid Verrier

…or, if you like, Shards of Honor, is the first novel published in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’d come across her name several times on this blog, and seen that she’s won a Hugo award an outrageous four times. Apart from that, though, I knew nothing about her or her works.

So, what’s going on with Shards of Honour? (Spoilers follow, if you’re concerned about that sort of thing.) At the outset, Cordelia Naismith, head of a survey expedition from Beta Colony (a liberal democracy), is stranded on an otherwise uninhabited planet when the rest of her expedition is attacked. Uninhabited, that is, but for those that did the attacking – a troop of Barrayarans (a militaristic empire). She winds up joining forces with a lone Barrayaran – Aral Vorkosigan – and they work together to cross the dangerous terrain back to the Barrayaran base. This plot, and the militaristic-exploratory world it is set in, seemed to me like something straight out of a Star Trek screenplay.

Cordelia helps Aral wrest his command back from some treasonous officers, is proposed to (there’s nothing like fighting off alien spiders together to forge a close bond between people quickly, I guess), gleans a bit of useful information about Barrayaran military objectives, and skedaddles back to Betan space in no time flat.

In the second section of the book, set months later, Cordelia leads a sneaky one-way mission past Barrayaran picket lines to get essential tide-turning technology to the besieged planet of Escobar. Why a survey officer should be the one to lead a military expedition is not clear, but it does get her back into the hands of Aral. While a prisoner on the Barrayaran flagship she manages (with a little help) to defeat a rather broadly drawn de Sade-type commander (why is an interest in S&M so often shorthand for villainous?), then waits with Aral while she and he watch the mission of conquest fall apart following the succesful delivery of the technological assets.

In the third section, after being welcomed home as a hero following the collapse of the Barrayaran offensive, Cordelia suffers from some psychological ill effects from her time as a prisoner of war. She rapidly alienates the Betan authorities, which includes kicking the Betan president – Steady Freddy – in the balls. (In a recurring joke, every character who mentions the president quickly claims that, “Well, I didn’t vote for him!”.) Her superiors learn of her relationship with Aral, and come to the conclusion that she must be a subconsciously programmed sleeper agent working for the Barrayarans. Though short, I thought this was the strongest section of the book. It reminded my of the hopelessness and unreason of Kafka and the surreal paranoia of Philip K Dick. Cordelia’s mental state deteriorates as every claim she makes that she wasn’t brainwashed seems only to make the authorities more convinced that she was. She eventually escapes, and finagles a ride to Barrayara, where she (her PTSD miraculously disappeared) and Aral live happily ever after (…or so we would be content to assume if there weren’t a whole series of books telling us what happened next).

I enjoyed this book quite a lot and read it over just two days. The universe isn’t particularly evocative, but the different factions are as effective as they are in, say, Star Trek at allowing the writer to describe archetypal social/philosophical positions and present conflict between them. The intrigue and political side of things is done very well, and the action in the book is pretty decent too. The prose is generally plain, but is leavened by the occasional bit of humour, some bright metaphors, and the odd phrase or old saying that is slighly off the beaten track. The characters too, particularly the two protagonists, are well drawn. However, while Cordelia is smart, proactive, and kick-ass she’s nowhere near as compelling as Aral Vorkosigan, who is a powerful miltary commander and a strategic genius; and an amazingly wealthy aristocrat with a little bit of angst and a tortured past. Actually, though the trembling heart stuff is kept to an admirable minimum, this conjunction between relative Plain Jane and slightly-damaged, but oh-so-desirable aristocrat reminded me slightly of Twilight (I guess this is a standard romance trope, but Twilight is the current cultural touchstone for romance, so that’s what I thought of). Don’t let that comparison put you off though! Yes, it’s a bit fairy tale, but the love stuff here was done relatively reasonably, with a light touch, and, importantly for those wanting their fix of SF, was very definitely secondary to a tale of swashbuckling interstellar conflict and intrigue.

Final rating? On the classics/important reads side of things, it’s a 3, but on the potboiler/enjoyable reads side, it’s a 5. That said, I don’t think you would ever try to read this novel as a stand-alone classic – instead it provides insight into an author (perhaps slightly less well known now than in her heyday) whose overall oeuvre may one day be considered “important”. Certainly, as one of relatively few women authors of SF, and one who’s won four Hugos at that, I’m hopeful that this will turn out to be the case.

This review originally appeared on Consumed Media.

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City of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley

cityofsorceryCity of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1984)
Review by Diarmuid Verrier

This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read MZB’s Avalon books when I was in my early teens and remember enjoying them. What, I wondered, would I make of her sci-fi?

A preliminary note from the author positions it as a standalone novel. However, I’m not sure I agree with this claim. Almost all of the characters have complex and involved back stories and inter-relations, and the world itself has a social structure that is very different from our own and essential for understanding people’s motivations. If you read the book as part of a sequence, this would all be fine. Of course, this was not the case for me. I had to struggle through rather a lot of awkward, and frankly inefficient, info-dumping in the first few chapters, and I still felt that I was missing something at various points in the book. None of this stopped me from appreciating the central thrust of the narrative, which involves a group of women journeying towards a mysterious city that may or may not exist, but I do think a lot of the content that relied on events and characters from previous books could have been cut without damaging the plot unduly, making it easier for a newbie like me to get up to speed.

The Darkover world is as former colony of Earth. The two worlds were separated for millennia, before being reunited relatively recently (presumably the first book in the series deals with this). In the meanwhile, Earth has continued to rely on high technology (including the space travel that allowed them to return to Darkover), while Darkover has returned to a mediaeval level of technology. On the plus side, they’ve also figured out how to unlock their latent psychic powers (this mix of sci-fi, a fantasy world, and psychic powers just screams “1980s” to me for some reason). There’s also strict and conservative gender role segregation. The exact nature of how society works is quite unclear (based on the information in just this novel) – there seem to be a number of dominant lineages within which particular psychic powers inhere, and ubiquitous lesbian relationships that exist parallel to procreation-orientated bonds. In this book, all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are women, making it even harder to appreciate just how men and women interact in this society.

The focus on gender roles, and the preponderance of women characters in the book make it (and the series overall) a valuable contribution to a generally male-dominated genre. I certainly found many aspects of plotting and characterisation refreshingly different from what I’m used to. Foremost amongst these was the sense of camaraderie on the journey between all of the women. There’s a theory that suggests that when women are presented with stressors they respond by strengthening social bonds (“tending and befriending”). The amount of care and love demonstrated by the characters for one another here, as they have to surmount challenge after challenge, would never be seen in a group of male travellers. There’s a scene where the group “hugs it out”, another where one character spontaneously gives a little gift to her lover, and a (sensible but generally unnoted) obsession with bathing. The “womanliness” of the book comes through in other ways too. For example, at one point one of the women curses another: “I hope the headman’s wife goes into labour tomorrow with an obstructed transverse birth!”. I found this pretty peculiar – awkward and artificial sounding and grotesquely vicious – but, again, not something that one would expect to read in any other SF novel.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are all flawed (often arrogant or smug), but generally likeable once the book gets going; the world, and the focus on gender issues that’s built into it, is interesting and refreshing; and the set pieces – the fights scenes and the perils encountered on the glacial mountains – are lively and convincing. My main problem is that, though presented as a standalone novel, it is anything but. Even well into the book, you are presented with details that are unexplained and given no context (Camilla has six fingers? Vanessa has animal eyes?) leaving the reader feeling somewhat adrift. More importantly, The book is all journey and no destination. The characters only really meet the antagonists of the novel in the last 50 pages, and only reach the eponymous City of Sorcery at the very end. The book finishes just when it feels like it’s getting started. It would be like calling The Two Towers (the middle volume of The Lord of the Rings) a standalone book. I would be happy to return to the world of Darkover, but, next time, I’ll treat it for what it is – a progressive series.

This review originally appeared on Consumed Media.