Shards of Honor/Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold

256px-Welpe_2011 (1)

By Sigismund von Dobschütz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t really like the artwork on these books, so here’s a picture of an adorable little puppy.

I wanted to hate this book, just so I could call it Sharts of Honor, but my ambivalence toward this series is bereft of any emotion strong enough to justify the effort of a scatological insult. Actually, I really wanted to love these two novels, just so I could identify with the legions of Lois McMaster Bujold fans who buoy her consistent status as the second most nominated, and second most won, author of Hugo Best Novel Awards.

But, alas, I remain unimpressed. I’m sorry, Bujold fans. Once again, I am just not cool enough to fit with the in-crowd.

Bujold advises Vorkosigan newbies to begin the series with Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991), which is sometimes combined into the 1996 omnibus Cordelia’s Honor. This advice goes against publication order, but both novels center on Cordelia Naismith, the mother of the great Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of other books in Bujold’s series. Cordelia’s stories act as an introduction to the world of Barrayaran politics, and provide a non-spoilery background for the uninitiated.

Shards of Honor
Shards of Honor is the better of the two novels, at least at first. Best described as adventure-romance, Shards explains the circumstances behind the unlikely romance of independent off-worlder Cordelia and her future husband, military and political powerhouse Lord Aral Vorkosigan. Abandoned by a military coup, enemy captain Vorkosigan takes Cordelia as his hostage and they trek across an unfamiliar planet toward his hidden cache of resources, towing along Cordelia’s severely injured subordinate (ugh, this poor sod). Vorkosigan schemes his way back onto his ship, and Cordelia’s prisoner-like status evolves, causing Cordelia to question her loyalty to her own planet. Warring and scheming bring the two together again, and they fall in love!

The Good: It begins with an exciting and imaginative romp across an unexplored planet, which brings us flying, blood-sucking jellyfish, and six-legged scavenger beasts.

The Bad: It gets a little Twilighty in the second half when Cordy gets a bad case of Conduct Disorder and practically drowns her therapist, manipulates a naive newsman, and hijacks a postal rocket… just to get to the man she loves. Not only is this behavior obsessive and codependent (i.e. bad for feminism), but it is inconsistent with the character’s established behavior.

The Ugly: A terribly uncomfortable, and seemingly unnecessary, group rape/torture attempt occurs somewhere in the middle of the book. (Shame on you, Bujold, for falling on this trite plot device.) In fact, it seems every major character in Shards and Barrayar has some dark, sexually abused past, as if that’s the only method Bujold knows to add depth to her characters.

In Barrayar, Cordelia and Aral are married, and Aral is named Regent to the child Emperor of Barrayar. Cordelia finds herself estranged from her surroundings, no longer a celebrated captain, and stuck as a bored and pregnant housewife on an unfriendly planet. She befriends some new characters, and dips her toe into the strange, unwritten customs of Barrayaran society. At the same time, Aral’s controversial appointment attracts violence, Cordelia’s pregnancy is threatened, and their relationship is tested by another coup.

The Good: Ummm, this half of the omnibus won the 1992 Hugo Award… somehow.

The Bad: The story’s structure hinges primarily on contrived, cliched scenes, such as going into labor in the middle of a street battle. Awkward, expository dialogue is used to explain the knotty political maneuverings on Barrayar.

The Ugly: Heroine Cordelia comes off as selfish and impetuous as she manipulates her staff to risk their jobs, their lives, and Vorkosigan’s attempts at peace, in order to rescue her unborn, high-risk fetus, while neglecting the status of other innocent hostages imprisoned in the same building.

The Unexplained: I can’t quite grasp Barrayaran technology. The Time of Isolation is over. They have rocket ships, they jump wormholes, they fight with pulse stunners. So why do they still behead criminals with axes? Shouldn’t they have lightsabers, or something?

Reading trumps T.V. and movie viewing because it affords us the luxury of exploring characters’ internal thoughts and motives, but that’s not the case with the Vorkosigan series. Bujold cheapens the reading experience by sacrificing perceptive, insightful narration for back-and-forth, expository dialogue. Shards and Barrayar is just A LOT of standing around and talking, which might make a good television, but it robs the novel of any emotional and psychological depth.

Despite the many, many weaknesses of these two novels, both Shards and Barrayar have moments of exciting storytelling, and some readers may be able to overlook the lazy technique and selfish protagonist. This is best recommended for SF readers who lean politically Right, where Cordelia’s religious and pro-life philosophies can be appreciated.

17 thoughts on “Shards of Honor/Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. Here’s a serious question. When an author writes about a character’s inner state, are they violating the “show, don’t tell” rule?


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think writers can convey the inner state of their characters through narration, without saying “He felt depressed.” It is an art, though, but writers like Le Guin and Octavia Butler are masters at this. The reader knows what their characters think and feel, even though the writer never really tells you.

      With Bujold, I’m complaining about something like this (not a direct quote):

      “Well, you know how Grandfather has hated me my whole life because I’m short and weak?”

      “Yeah, it’s depressed you your whole life.”

      “Well, now he suddenly likes me because he thought I was going to be an officer. I’m so frustrated that he’s going to be disappointed in me.”

      That happens on every page! That history and emotion could be conveyed in a much more artful way. Blegh!


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Putting the burden on your characters to tell everything is also breaking the rule. Interactions with tense body language and brief, awkward dialogue could convey everything I wrote above. Just like in real life.


  2. All good points. I was curious to hear you elaborate on your review.


  3. Anton says:

    I read these two a while ago, and I apparently was not impressed enough to continue with the series (though that’s not always an indicator, I’ve abandoned plenty of series before for no reason other than laziness). I also read somewhere once that Warrior’s Apprentice is a better place to get sucked in mostly because it’s just a better story. I’m not a fan of adventure-romance stuff, and definitely not a fan of ‘Twilighty’ bits.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’m glad you agree. Even my stubbornness is no match for the Vorkosigan saga. I dumped Apprentice halfway through, just because I need some fresh air.


  4. […] I had anticipated, which means it was okay, not terrible, and way better than the books from her Vorkosigan series. (This is an example of why I am incapable of rating books using a number system.) Although […]


  5. I have to say the mentioning light sabers is ridiculous. How can a light beam go out a specifc distance and stop. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction.

    The first 3rd of Shards of Honor is very pedestrian science fiction, but Barrayar was great. It is unusual for sci-fi to be great becuse of the characters but Bujold is the first writer to do it as far as I am concerned.

    Bujold also has a scientific attitude about the science and technology in her stories. Most SF today is just glitzy but silly techno-exhibitionism. But most Bujold fans do not seem to care about the science in the stories. Research the reviews of Komarr.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The light saber comment was a joke. I am also not a big fan of Star Wars.

      I do stand by my confusion about a high-tech society that retains some unnecessary relics of a low-tech past. I get that Barrayar is brutal, but if they can jump wormholes, I would imagine they would have a less messy way to execute their criminals.

      I’ve read more Bujold since I wrote this review and I find her to be an overall pedestrian science fiction writer. She sticks by realistic scientific standards because of her famous father’s influence, but I find her space operas to be conventional and without substance.

      I agree that most recent science fiction is glitzy and without substance, which is why I tend to read more (and am more satisfied by) vintage SF.

      What other writers do you find most satisfying in the scifi realm?


  6. psikeyhackr says:

    Axes could be social nonsense like wearing swords in formal situations. Why do British judges wear wigs? But why don’t they have pocket computers and smartphones? Lightsabers are technological fantasies.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That is a very good point about the axes.

      (The lightsaber comment was just a joke. People who jump on that remark with “science” about lightsabers seem to be missing the big picture about Star Wars… which is very clearly about awesome cinnamon bun hair and levitating green dudes.)


  7. […] This review originally appeared on From couch to moon. […]


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