The main character of Bujold’s body of work is Miles Vorkosigan, born with a crippled body in a militaristic society where physical prowess is paramount, and clawing his way to recognition through the best assets he possesses – his keen mind and his ingenuity. Miles’ story, however, starts even before his birth with the meeting of his parents and then with the events leading to his… appearance on the scene, so here is where I will begin.
Shards of Honor is not only the start of the overall saga, but also Lois McMaster Bujold’s very first novel, and considering it again now, several years after my first encounter, I perceived some of its imperfections, while I also discovered a few of the elements at the root of future events, and appreciated their foreshadowing value – whether it was intentional or not at the time.
The universe depicted by Bujold is set in the far future, one where a good portion of space has been explored and colonized thanks to the discovery of a kind of shortcut called “jump nexus” which allows to breach vast distances in less time – provided you have access to a nexus, of course, so that proximity to one of these shortcuts can make or break the fate of any given planet, or subject it to the threat of invasion by less fortunate neighbors.
Cordelia Naismith is a commander in the Betan Survey: while she and her scientific team are exploring a new, uninhabited world, they are attacked by a party from Barrayar, a planet notorious for its aggressive stance, and Cordelia is captured by their commander, Aral Vorkosigan. Things are not as they seem, however, and more than her captor and enemy Vorkosigan turns out to be the victim of a mutiny prompted by his political adversaries, and an honorable man as well, contrary to the popular opinion about Barrayarans in general and Vorkosigan in particular, given his unearned moniker of “butcher of Komarr”.
While the two of them brave the dangers of an uncharted world, trying to reach the Barrayaran camp where Vorkosigan needs to reconnect with his loyalists, he and Cordelia get to know each other, and move from an uneasy alliance to a mutual respect that slowly morphs into reciprocal attraction. The vagaries of politics and war will separate and then bring them together again, and if the ultimate ending of such relationship looks somewhat telegraphed, their story feels real and solid – to the point that even my usual aversion to romance falls to the wayside, given the high believability of the way the relationship evolves and the maturity, in age and behavior, of Cordelia and Aral, which is a refreshing change from the usual fictional patterns.
Cordelia has always been one of my favorite Bujold characters, and here she shines on her own, and not just as Miles’ mother – albeit a very formidable one. The Betan commander is a practical, no-nonsense woman who can also exhibit a great deal of compassion; a shrewd observer with a keen mind both for science and politics; a fierce fighter when circumstances require it and a person with a quirky sense of humor. It’s easy now, with hindsight, to see where Miles gets his cleverness from, and there is a scene here in Shards of Honor where Cordelia resolves a problematic situation by being so verbally inventive that I found myself smiling because it felt like listening to one of her son’s most daring scams.
By comparison, Aral looks somewhat wooden and less defined, but on one hand this novel is very much Cordelia’s story and on the other we see a few glimpses of his past – with its own horrors and tragedies – and can understand why he’s less revealing of himself. Aral is the kind of character that grows on you, once you start to see behind the mask, although I wonder how much of it stems, now, from the knowledge I garnered in the course of the saga. The fact that both he and Cordelia are not young people – she’s in her early thirties and he’s in his mid-forties – adds to the feeling of solidness of these characters and the ease with which I grew attached to them.
Thinking back to Shards of Honor now, however, brought to light some elements that might have caused me to stop reading the series there and then if this had been my first Vor Saga book: luckily for me, I began with book 3 in the internal chronological order and got to know Miles first, so that going back later to learn about his parents “armed” me with the ability to overlook the flaws inherent in this story. The most annoying one comes from the depiction of the Necessary Bad Guy, a perverted sadist who enjoys torturing his victims – namely young and beautiful women – and tries to subject Cordelia to the same fate: first, the scene of a tied and helpless woman at the mercy of the evil antagonist, who delights in talking a great deal about the horrors he’s going to visit on her, reeks too much of a bad B-movie for my tastes. And second, putting the heroine in such a situation, only to be saved in extremis from the proverbial fate worse than death, is something of a tired trope, and it seems to contradict all that we learned about Cordelia up to that point – i.e. that she can save herself quite efficiently, thank you very much.
The use of the trope can be probably ascribed to the times (the book was first published in 1986) and to the fact it was a debut novel, which also must account for some uneven pacing and a few over-the-top developments (like Cordelia’s escape from Beta Colony when everyone believes her the victim of Stockholm’s Syndrome). Again, hindsight allows me to know that the author’s skills improved greatly over time, and to overlook the flaws common to debut authors.
In the end, reconnecting with Shards of Honor felt like time well spent, re-acquainting myself with this world and these characters and appreciating the complexity of Barrayaran politics that will take center stage in the next novel, Barrayar, which I remember as one of my favorites in the overall saga.