…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 the Science Fiction Mistressworks 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.
She 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; 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 (out of 5)? 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 heydey) 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.