Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1986
Series: Book 2 of the Vorkosigan Saga
The Book:
“Cordelia Naismith, of the democratic, scientifically-oriented Beta Colony, was heading an expedition to an uninhabited planet when disaster struck.  Instead of dealing with dangerous flora or fauna, the surveyors found themselves facing soldiers from the 'barbaric', militaristic society of Barrayar!  After what was meant to be a routine arrest turned deadly, Cordelia was stranded with a gravely injured colleague and the former Barrayaran leader, the infamous “Butcher of Komarr”, Aral Vorkosigan.
As they both learn to see past reputations and stereotypes, both Cordelia and Aral grow to respect, trust, and possibly even love each other.  But as Barrayar is poised to go to war with an ally of Beta Colony, what kind of relationship could the two of them possibly have together?” ~Allie
This is the 2nd book of the Vorkosigan Saga by internal chronology, and the 3rd that I’ve read (after Cryoburn and Falling Free).  In addition to my plan of reading the Vorkosigan Saga in order, Shards of Honor is also part of this month’s pick for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, formerly hosted by the now-inactive Dreams & Speculations blog, and picked up by Calico Reaction.  The actual challenge is the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor which contains both Shards of Honor and the next book in my Vorkosigan Saga reading, Barrayar.
My Thoughts:
Shards of Honor is the story of a romantic relationship, but the story is not what I would consider a conventional romance novel.  The principal leads, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, are not blinded by passion and they don’t really fall into each other’s arms.  Aral and Cordelia are both near middle-age, have established careers, and are aware of the unfortunate incompatibility of their two lives. They deal with their slowly growing relationship with practicality and responsibility.  Cordelia is not about to drop everything to go running after Aral, and Aral, with his horrific reputation, is realistic enough to know he would not be accepted in Cordelia’s world.  Their subdued romance is the thread that winds through all of the other events of the story. I enjoyed watching the circuitous path their lives took towards each other.
 While I did enjoy the plot, there were a few elements that seemed a little contrived.  First of all, there is the initial segment of the book, where Cordelia and Aral end up stranded together on an uninhabited planet. To put it into generic terms, two very different people are stranded in a hostile, isolated environment, where they eventually overcome learned prejudices and become friends/lovers. I feel like I’ve seen this plot device fairly often.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of episodes of Star Trek and at least 2 separate Gundam series that featured it. Admittedly, Bujold doesn’t follow the formula exactly.  A severely brain-damaged man accompanies Cordelia and Aral, and the two of them don’t exactly have the health, time, or energy for a whirlwind romance.   All the same, I thought that the plot choice did make their initial meeting and acquaintance feel a little forced.
The other major situation that left me rolling my eyes (good-naturedly) was Cordelia’s battle against therapists.  At that point in the story, she had been through some truly traumatic experiences, and she had acquired some gut-wrenchingly awful top-secret information.  Even so, her general attitude was, “Therapy is great for other people, but I’m fine!”  I think it would have made sense for Cordelia to genuinely be in need of therapy, but to hold back out of fear of revealing dangerous secrets.  Instead, the situation seemed to be framed as a completely un-traumatized Cordelia being driven to distraction by a handful of well-meaning but destructively overzealous therapists.  While it was mostly played for humor, I would have liked to see a more realistic conflict play the role that this situation ended up serving in the overall story.
While Aral and Cordelia’s relationship tied the book together, there’s a lot more to Shards of Honor than romance and therapists.  It ‘s a space opera, with all the politics, intrigue, and space battles that typically entails.  The pace is very rapid, there’s tons of action, and there’s plenty for both Aral and Cordelia to do.  They’re both very resilient, intelligent, and active characters, and they’re both constantly solving one crisis after another.  It seemed like a very tightly planned book—there was never a point where I felt the story dragged.  The characters weren’t incredibly complex, but they were strong enough to shine through all the battles and political maneuvering.  
My last impression of Shards of Honor is that it feels essentially like a set-up book for adventures to come.  Arguably, I feel this way because I know that this actually is the first book that sets up the universe where the famous Miles Vorkosigan will eventually have his adventures.  So far, I think this is the best place to start the series.  It introduces the reader to the cultures of Barrayar and Beta Colony, with some discussion of Komarr.  It also introduces Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, who will be Miles’s parents, in addition to other characters that I hope to see again.  I feel like the stage is set, many of the main players are introduced, and I am ready to dive into the rest of the saga!        
My Rating: 3.5/5
I think Shards of Honor is a great place to start the Vorkosigan Saga, but I might change my mind after I read the rest!  It introduces two major characters, the Barrayaran Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith from Beta Colony, and seems to give a good introduction to the universe they inhabit.  Aral and Cordelia’s relationship could be considered the main story of the book, but their romance is wound through an interesting tangle of military and political manipulations, space battles, and alien planets.  While a few parts of the plot seem a little contrived and most of the characters aren’t particularly complicated, the fast pace keeps up the tension and excitement throughout.  Shards of Honor was a very entertaining novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Barrayar has in store!

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