I first read Shards of honor in 2012, after several years of resisting the Vorkosigan saga because it looked too much like the David Weber Honor Harrington novels. Bad cover art is a great way to keep me away from books, and the cover art for the Vorkosigan books is overwhelmingly terrible. I kept hearing about how good they were, so one day while at the library I decided to check the series out. When seeking out a new author, I have a tendency to immediately read the earliest book available. I do the same thing with music. This probably means I miss out on great authors whose first novels were somewhat weak, but I’ve tried to keep that in mind to avoid this problem.
Brief plot description
(This should be mostly spoiler-free; I’m not revealing anything here that isn’t within the first chapter or two)
Shards of honor is a hybrid space opera/romance novel, about a ship’s captain who finds herself stranded on an unexplored world in the middle of a warzone. Forced to cooperate with a notorious war criminal from the other side, they attempt to survive long enough to get off planet and return to their homes.
So how is it?
First of all, Shards of honor is a first novel, and it shows. The characterization is strong, but it feels at times like the world-building is a little thin. That being said, this is a great novel and a great start to what is probably my favorite series. Bujold is a master at genre blending, and manages to write books that appeal to fans either genre.
Like C.J. Cherryh and Urusula K. LeGuin (two more of my favorite authors), Bujold focuses on the way science and technology impact culture. Bujold examines the way advances in medical technology can cause drastic societal changes. This is further emphasized by her settings: Barrayar is a feudal empire just emerging from a lengthy period of isolation from the rest of the galaxy, a backwater struggling to modernize. Jackson’s Whole is the anything-goes libertarian bastion of unregulated and unethical medical experimentation. Beta Colony is the ultrasophisticated liberal paradise, sexually liberated with a high standard of living. None of these settings are cardboard cut-outs, however. Barrayar is less horrific than it might appear, Jackson’s Whole houses some deeply passionate characters, and Beta Colony’s enlightened culture blinds them in some ways.
The great strength of Bujold’s writing is her characterization. Books are entirely character driven, and each major plotline is caused by a decision somebody made. The chain of cause and effect is highly visible, which makes suspension of disbelief much easier. For a lesser author, this might lead to predictable plotlines. Bujold avoids this trap because her characters display reasonable intelligence, in a way very few other authors ever manage. Too often, when an author wants to write a “smart” character they simply surround them with incompetents. The other common option is the Star Trek approach, especially in Science Fiction, where the character’s intelligence is demonstrated with a continuous stream of fictional jargon. Bujold manages to write intelligent characters whose intelligence is demonstrated by their problem-solving skills more than the deficiencies of others. No character is an expert at everything, they all have believable strengths and weaknesses, and even “unintelligent” characters have their own skills and value. Bujold writes characters of more depth than any other author, SF or otherwise, that I can think of, with the possible exception of C.J. Cherryh.
The whole package is further improved by her sense of humor (so few authors can write entertainingly silly characters in otherwise serious books without detracting from the overall tone) and the sense that she deeply cares about all of these characters.
There are some other interesting thematic currents in the Vorkosigan saga, but none of them are particularly prevalent in this book. I’ll be discussing them as they come up.
Profoundly deep characterization
A compelling story
Blends genres in an interesting way
Establishes a background for one of the best SF series of all time
A first novel with occasional hiccups.
Worldbuilding is a little thin.
The plotting is deeply rooted in the traditions of 1980s SF
Despite the deep characterization, the plot on this installment is fairly standard and doesn’t deviate from genre conventions in any significant way
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys space opera, and to open-minded fans of romantic fiction (but not necessarily “romance novels”).
I have recommended it several times, generally to women in their 40s-50s who enjoy feminist SF and epic fantasy, and they have all reported enjoying it. One individual read this and the next three books (in internal chronology) in less than two weeks. I also recommended it to a man in his early 20s who likes classic SF but generally doesn’t care for SF written after 1980. He didn’t end up reading it, but enjoyed some of the later books in the series.