Weeping for her enemies: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor

Kate Nepveu mentioned Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga as a series where the quality increased as they went on, and the more I thought about that the more I felt like reading them, and as today is a “mostly horizontal” day, I spent the morning with Shards of Honor. As Shards of Honor is now published as the first half of a book called Cordelia’s Honor, with Barrayar as the second half, and as plotwise Barrayar is the second half of the story, even if it was written a lot later when Bujold had become much more accomplished, I had intended to spend this afternoon reading that and then do one post on the whole story. But as I put Shards of Honor down and realised I had to get out of bed anyway, I thought it might be interesting to consider it alone, and as a very unusual beginning for the series. And then it occurred to me that it might be interesting to re-read the books in publication order, which I don’t think I have ever done.

Shards of Honor was Bujold’s first published novel. It introduces the universe in which all the books in the series take place. Otherwise, it couldn’t be less like a standard first novel in a series. The main character (of the series) isn’t even born and this is about how his parents met. Major events happen which do cast their shadow a long way, but here they are mostly interesting in the context of Aral and Cordelia, who are minor characters in most of the subsequent books. This totally isn’t a case of writing something and following it with more of the same.

What’s really good about Shards of Honor, what totally grabbed me about it on first reading and on every subsequent read, is the character of Cordelia. The book is written in a very tight third person in Cordelia’s point of view, and Cordelia is a wonderful character. She’s empathic and practical and she’s from no-nonsense egalitarian Beta colony. She is the commander of the exploration starship Rene Magritte, when on a newly discovered planet she encounters the aggressive forces of Barrayar. The universe is just sketched in compared to the way it is developed later, but it’s already interesting. The plot provides enough events to get from one end of the book to the other. The writing is nothing like as good as Bujold has got since, but it’s very absorbing. The other thing that’s notable is the emotional depth she manages to get in to this space opera plot. It’s not so much the romance (though the romance is actually very sweet) as the genuine ethical dilemmas. Again, this is something where Bujold improved by orders of magnitude, but even here in this first novel she had enough to hook me completely.

I said that the background of the universe is only sketched in, and that’s true. Everything she says later is reasonably implicit in what’s mentioned here, but an awful lot isn’t mentioned. The phrase “the Wormhole Nexus” isn’t used. Jackson’s Whole is mentioned as a name, and the Cetagandan war, but no other planets except Escobar, Beta, Barrayar and Earth. There’s nothing—and there should be nothing—about how the ships are powered, but the pilot we see does have implants.

Shards of Honor is about the specific contrast between Beta and Barrayar, and Beta and Barrayar a generation before we mostly know them. For Beta we have Cordelia, female, a theist, competent and practical, an explorer, whose weapon is a stunner. For Barrayar we have Aral, male, an atheist, a militarist, a romantic, who has seen someone killed because he only has a stunner. (“How did they kill him with a stunner?” “They didn’t. They kicked him to death after they’d taken it away from him.”) Aral is practical too, but with a completely different kind of practicality. Of course they fall in love—and Bujold does it rather well by not dwelling on it. Beta here is democratic—except that nobody admits to having voted for the president. Malefactors are treated with therapy, which seems very enlightened until Cordelia is threatened with therapy that will peel her brain like an onion looking for the seeds. Barrayar is feudal and militaristic and has been having a problem with political officers and a Ministry of Political Education. Ezar, the dying emperor, gets rid of that but at a terrible cost.

The immediate contrast between Barrayar and Beta is one of the things that does prefigure the rest of the series. But it’s surprising how little of what I know about Barrayar is mentioned here—there’s no mention of the Time of Isolation, no mention of the poisonous native vegetation, or the radioactivity of Vorkosigan Vashnoi. Also, we barely see Piotr. All of those things are clearly there, to an eye who knows to expect them, but they’re not explicit. Bujold has always said she reserves the right to have a better idea, but there’s remarkably little retconning or contradiction—just more information, as things become fractally more complicated as you get closer to them. When Cordelia mentions interrogation drugs, I’m pretty sure Bujold had not yet thought up fast penta, but when she has her allergic reaction to Dr. Mehta’s drug it prefigures Miles’s idiosyncratic reactions to fast penta even so. Similarly, Jackson’s Whole may just have been a name when she wrote it, but what I know about it from the later books fits in without a twitch.

I mentioned the emotional depth. The depravity of Vorrutyer and Prince Serg, and the explicit minimizing of that evil compared to Ezar’s plan is very impressive. But most interesting of all is Bothari, who is a monster, but an entirely three-dimensional one even here.

There are a number of things that are quite intentionally set-up for later books. What they are setting up is not Barrayar but The Warrior’s Apprentice, which takes place eighteen years later but is what she wrote immediately next. Arde Mayhew is the pilot who takes Cordelia to Escobar, Vordarian is mentioned, Aral’s Regency, and Aral and Cordelia’s hope for children. Shards of Honor has a happy ending, I suppose. Aral and Cordelia are married, Aral is Regent, nothing bad has happened yet. Very few people would turn from that to poor Miles breaking his legs again as he fails to get over the obstacle course. But that’s why Bujold is such a terrific writer, and was, even at the beginning of her career.


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