So here’s my guide to reading the Vorkosigan series.
My basic recommendation is to read the entire series in internal chronological order (not publication order) starting with Shards of honor. Falling free is technically the first book chronologically but it could be inserted anywhere since there are no characters in common with the rest of the series.
The thing is, that’s lot of books and I know quite a few people who actively refuse to read long series, and more than one person who avoids reading sequels in the vast majority of cases.
So what should you read if you’re interested in the series but don’t want to read absolutely everything?
Honesty as much as there is a coherent character arc, the books are largely self contained. With the exceptions of Mirror dance, Memory, and A civil campaign you could pick up almost any book with no knowledge of the series and do okay.
But that’s not necessarily the “best” way to go about it, as which books you’ll enjoy the most really depend on what you want to get out of it.
If you want to read the series but just want the “core”, or if your genre tastes run to the more military, then you should read:
- The warrior’s apprentice
- The Vor game
- “Borders of infinity”
- Brothers in arms
- Mirror dance
You can do that with only 3 physical volumes: the Young Miles omnibus, the Miles errant omnibus, and Memory. So it’s a cost-effective way to experience the narrative arc that covers most of the series without requiring a significant time and/or monetary investment (if you’re buying them instead of getting them from the library).
If you’re more interested in reading books with a female main character then go:
- Shards of honor
- (Optionally) Komarr
The first two star Miles’s mother and Barrayar especially is absolutely great. Both are collected in the Cordelia’s honor omnibus. Komarr is still “about” Miles but it primarily told from a new, female character’s point of view.
If you prefer more romance-oriented tales with fewer spaceship battles go this way:
- Shards of honor
- A civil campaign
- “Winterfair gifts”
This only requires two books, Cordelia’s honor and Mile in love. Non-sf fans can skip the former and go straight to the latter, a Komarr is written more like a regency romance (à la Heyer or Laurens, not Harlequin or Austen) and A civil campaign is a straight up screwball comedy, the best one since His girl Friday. You could add Captain Vorpatril’s alliance after A civil campaign for another humorous romantic adventure that’s closer to The lady Eve than His girl Friday.
This leaves a couple of books out. It’s not that they’re bad, they just aren’t “core” to the series as a whole. They definitely have some things going for them though:
- Ethan of Athos – this one is great but isn’t heavily tied to the main arc of the series. It’s still worth reading and a solid recommendation for sf fans. Fans of the “lighter” C.J. Cherryh novels (e.g. Medchanter’s luck) should especially enjoy this one.
- Cetaganda – this one is about Miles, taking place pretty close to the same time as Ethan of Athos, but as I mentioned in my review it’s not integral enough to the series to be required reading. Good, but if you’re looking for books to cut in order to move on to other things this isn’t a bad choice.
- Falling free – this one is virtually a standalone in itself. It’s set several hundred years before the series proper. It’s much more of a “hard” sf novel, lots of discussion of space station engineering. It’s a great book on its own, just too different from the main series to recommend alongside it and not snarky enough for my taste. Perfect for Vernor Vinge fan but recommended for most.
- Diplomatic immunity – I barely remember this one. Set after A civil campaign it’s too forgettable to be core but I remember enjoying it anyways.
- Cryoburn – I think this one will be better in the future. Set significantly later than Diplomatic immunity, lots of things happen but the long-term impact has yet to be established.
So that’s my general guide. For starting points, there are basically three: Shards of honor, The warrior’s apprentice, and Komarr. Starting at any of those and moving forward in internal chronology should be a great experience regardless.
Ethan of Athos and Falling free are kind of the odd ones out. They focus on more minor characters so could really be read whenever. Captain Vorpatril’s alliance fits here too, but those planning on reading the series should wait until after A civil campaign to check it out.