Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

cordelias_honourCordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)
Review by Megan AM

I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second-most nominated, and second-most winning, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit in with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, it explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (ie, bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards of Honor and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

Barrayar
In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps TV and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards of Honor and Barrayar is just a lot of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards of Honor and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold

ShardsofHonorShards 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.

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.

Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold

ShardsofHonorShards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold (1986)
Review by Adam Whitehead

Cordelia Naismith, commander of a survery ship from Beta Colony, is marooned on an uncharted planet when her vessel is attacked by Barryarans. Naismith is captured by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the infamous Butcher of Komarr, and taken on a gruelling cross-country journey to his base camp. However, Vorkosigan himself is facing a prospective mutiny led by an ambitious junior officer and both Beta and Barrayar are about to find themselves on opposing sides of a bloody war.

The Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most famous ongoing works of science fiction in the United States. Comprising (so far) fifteen novels and numerous short stories and novellas, the series has won four Hugos (including three for Best Novel), been nominated for another six and has won an additional two Locus Awards and two Nebulas. The series has sold more than two million copies for Baen Books in the States, but is almost unknown in the UK. Repeated attempts to publish the series here have failed, usually due to low sales and indifferent reviews.

Reading Shards of Honour, I have to reluctantly adopt the traditional British stance of not seeing what all the fuss is about. The book starts off well enough, with an adventure storyline featuring two people (and a severely injured third) abandoned on a planet and having to work together to survive. These sequences, though indifferently written, are interesting enough and Bujold reveals an interesting amount of character through the actions of Cordelia and Aral. Unfortunately, what she doesn’t do is provide them with any chemistry. When Cordelia realises she is attracted to Aral, and Aral reciprocates those feelings, it kind of comes out of nowhere. When (spoiler alert!) they are eventually rescued, the book descends into a montage of Cordelia being captured, released, re-captured, escaping, being almost-raped (the lazy go-to jeopardy trope for any female character in peril, naturally) and so on for a good hundred pages or so. Due to the stodgy prose, mechanical dialogue and somewhat stilted character reactions, none of this is particularly exciting.

Things perk up a little bit towards the end, with the revelations of the extent of a supporting character’s psychological trauma and a subplot about a bunch of unborn babies in exowombs (the result of war rapes) having to be forcibly supported by the fathers who conceived them both being intriguing, but these are very minor elements that arrive rather late in the day.

Shards of Honour has moments of interest, but overall is stodgily-written and unconvincingly-characterised. Still, it’s a first novel and not one of the most well-regarded in the series.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.