Shards of Honour (1986) is the first novel published in Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan Saga. It’s not the first book in terms of the internal chronology, but I was recommended it as a good place to jump in, and it’s certainly true that you don’t need any background information to enjoy the book. It has taken me ages to review it – not because I didn’t like it, but because I absolutely loved it and have had trouble articulating why. I’m still not sure I’ve got it, but let’s start with a quick synopsis and go from there. Commander Cordelia Naismith is in charge of a Betan science vessel that is surveying an unfamiliar planet. Unbeknownst to them, not-technically-enemies-but-definitely-not-allies the Barrayans have chosen this as a battleground in a war that’s just about to kick off with a third party. She is taken captive by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, notorious across the galaxy as the “Butcher of Komarr”! Oh no! But is notoriety necessarily fact? Why is he seemingly quite normal? And alone? And suspiciously handsome? These are all qualities Naismith finds intriguing and unsettling in roughly equal measure.
This is a fast-paced, immensely readable, and plot-driven space opera. It’s stuffed full of political intrigue, high-stakes fight scenes, and spaceships. It is also populated with believable characters, which is essential in science fiction of this type. If you are writing a pew-pew-type space opera, especially one where the reader does not have the worldbuilding and backstory of a previous instalment, you have to have the characters carry it in terms of plausibility. The main characters are Naismith and Vorkosigan, who are particularly well-drawn, but there are a few other standouts scattered throughout the novel as well. Although it’s in third person, the main perspective we get is that of Naismith. There are some sections concerning Vorkosigan when the two are separated, but we get much less of a look inside his head than hers; when the narrative is with Vorkosigan, we get a much more show-don’t-tell approach, with his actions clearly demonstrating what’s going on in his head. I enjoyed both halves of the story equally, which is very rare.
Since I so frequently spend my reviews complaining that a romance was unbelievable, cheesy, or had been needlessly shoehorned in, let me go out of my way to say that I loved the romance in this book. See? I’m not made of stone. I’m just very picky. Although Vorkosigan and Naismith are attracted to one another almost from the off, the book takes its time to build up a relationship of respect and camaraderie before there is any real indication of romance. Also, even once they do acknowledge their feelings for one another, it’s not as though their responsibilities and commitments go out of the window. The romance is integral to the plot without overwhelming it – it needs to be there for a host of reasons, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. It’s a relationship between grown-ups rather than overgrown teenagers, and I loved it for that more than for anything else. Vorkosigan and Naismith are both middle-aged by the standards of their individual societies, and their behaviour accords with that. Their common sense doesn’t fly out of their head just because they’re drawn to each other.
One of the biggest ways Bujold uses the romance is that the worldview differences between them are substantial and important. They have to be dealt with as the plot goes along – which then acts as a window into their respective cultures, and perhaps a way of understanding why their two nations do not get along (two planets? two species? I was never completely clear on that and assume it will become clearer as the series goes on). For example, early on, one of Naismith’s men gets gravely injured in a terrible accident involving a nerve disrupter – a cruel weapon that renders the victim alive, but pretty much only able to breathe, process food (but not feed himself), and possibly shuffle on foot with support to stay upright. She and Vorkosigan are both appalled at this incident. Vorkosigan offers her his sharpest hunting knife so she can end her crewman’s life with dignity. He intends it as a mark of respect – recognising the command of a fellow senior officer, and allowing a foe to die with honour in battle. She is horror-struck by his offer – the very idea that her officer’s life is worth less just because he’s hurt! She wants to save him and bring him with them, even though they have to travel 200km on foot with very minimal rations. They butt heads and it takes a long time for them to each see that the other person is trying to treat the injured man with the most honour possible due according to their own set of cultural values. (The reason I’m not giving any detail about the man here is because I think it constitutes a spoiler – it’s not because there’s no detail in the novel; the injured man isn’t simply used as a get-to-know-you activity for the protagonists).
That discussion – about what a meaningful life is, essentially – sounds like it would either be trite or pointless philosophising. Actually, though, I thought the whole question of honour, what it means to live and die and love with honour – which, as the title suggests, is one of the main themes of the book – was dealt with in a compelling way through the various machinations of the plot. The immense respect that develops between Vorkosigan and Naismith ends up being what complicates their relationship. They are on different sides in a war, after all, and sometimes if one works as a senior officer in the military, one ends up placing one’s beloved in peril in the process. Neither of them asks the other to sacrifice their job or their country for the romance. It reminded me of this quote from Gaudy Night, which – despite its manifold faults – remains one of the few love stories that has really stayed with me.
More generously still, he had not only refrained from offers of help and advice which she might have resented; he had deliberately acknowledged that she had the right to run her own risks. ‘Do be careful of yourself’; ‘I hate to think of your being exposed to unpleasantness’; ‘If only I could be there to protect you’; any such phrase would express the normal male reaction. Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved, or any woman, ‘Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should’. That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him.Gaudy Night, DL Sayers
There is no equally quotable section from Shards of Honour, because Bujold doesn’t have paragraphs of beautifully-written introspection the way Sayers does, but it’s certainly the same theme coming through. Naismith and Vorkosigan respect one another well enough to realise that the other person has reasons to continue in a role and a world antithetical to their own. I found the way the author handled this fascinating, and it was so much more interesting to me as a conflict than the type of misunderstandings and miscommunications that typically dog romance stories. It allows both characters to feel fleshed out. Similarly, the way Bujold deals with the “Butcher of Komarr” thing is really thoughtful. You can’t just have someone say “oh, my victims are making it all up” and be instantly believable. Naismith gets Vorkosigan’s version of the story in snatches, and has to weigh it for herself and decide what she thinks. The same goes for the reader, I guess – Vorkosigan’s story is plausible, but the reader is never asked to accept it wholescale without thinking. Obviously, given that I’m talking about how good the romance is, I decided I was pro-Vorkosigan in the end, but a different reader might decide Naismith was a much less reliable source.
There is some depiction of and discussion of sexual assault as a weapon of war, which I thought was handled well. Most of the actual assaults occur off-page, and its inclusion seemed to me to be warranted by the themes of the book – it was chilling without being gratuitous or graphic. I think it can be difficult to handle these issues respectfully but without being heavy-handed – here, it feels important, but it’s incorporated deftly and doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the story. It didn’t feel like it was inserted simply to raise stakes, but because the novel as a whole is about respect and honour – something that is is almost an inherent casualty of war. We also get a look at the way a culture that encourages male soldiers to sexually assault women might get formed, how it impacts the individual perpetrators (who may have been intentionally brutalised to make them ready to brutalise others), as well as men in the system who experience the same system but ultimately don’t succomb to the same behaviour. To include that without ever minimising the experiences of the victims is, I think, a skilled and insightful bit of writing that would not be out of place in a much more “literary” novel.
The main issue that I had with the novel was the sense of time passing – or not. There were multiple occasions where I would think that a day or two had gone by in the narrative, max, and then get a few pages further along and discover it had been weeks or months. I think this may be a side effect of the fact that I flew through this in a day, and perhaps was not paying sufficient attention to the fine detail of the writing because I was simply enjoying myself so much. When I read the other novels – and I will certainly read the other novels! – I’ll try to keep track of time more intentionally. Maybe that way I’ll be less startled.
One of the biggest compliments that I feel I can give a plot-driven novel like this is that I absolutely expect to reread it in the future. It remained immensely enjoyable while touching on all these deeper issues, and I think that’s rare. I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series – there are sixteen novels and novellas, as far as I can work out. What a treat to read something I loved so much and then realise I have fully fifteen more books to read! Perhaps there will even be more, as the most recent novel was only published in 2016, so there’s still the possibiltiy that the author will return to the universe. She has multiple other recent series, as well – assuming the rest of the Vorkosigan Saga lives up to this one, I can easily see that I will have lots more of Bujold’s work to explore over many years.