Remember how, with Falling Free, I said that the book was in full crisis by 25%? Shards of Honor gets there by the second page.
How do I even begin to talk about these two books? I drank up Shards of Honor and Barrayar with more enjoyment than I’ve read any book in a long time. Yes, I liked the other Bujold books I read this year, but these two were different. I fell in love with the characters so quickly, and not just the heroine, Cordelia Naismith. Every minor character, even the main villain in Shards of Honor, is so carefully and lovingly detailed that you can’t help but feel empathy for them, even though they’re mad or monstrous by turn.
Let me take a step back. When readers talk about the Vorkosigan Saga, they’re usually referring to the Miles Vorkosigan books. I knew that Shards was about Miles’ parents, but I didn’t realize that Barrayar continued their story as well. So I’m going to talk about the two books as one story, the prequel to Miles’ own storyline (which I still haven’t read).
Cordelia Naismith and her survey crew have the happy job of exploring new planets and documenting their native wildlife. When they run into a group of soldiers in the midst of a coup d’etat, Cordelia ends up as a prisoner to Aral Vorkosigan. Vorkosigan is from Barrayar, an enemy to Cordelia’s own Beta Colony, but as they trek through the unknown planet, Cordelia realizes they’re more similar than she could have ever guessed.
I know, I know. This sounds like any old romcom situation that you’ve seen a dozen times. What sets Cordelia and Aral apart is that their conversations are both hysterically witty and painfully introspective. They are both older (well, Cordelia is only in her early thirties, but the book makes it clear that this is considered a little old to be unmarried), but have been burned by past relationships. As the story goes on, they end up in the midst of war, of death, of truly horrifying scenes of bloodshed and insanity, but through it all is a tiny bead of hope that comes from their relationship.
There’s a scene toward the end of Shards, when Cordelia is back on Beta Colony. The war is over, everyone mistakenly thinks she’s a war hero, and to her horror, her government thinks that Vorkosigan has brainwashed her into thinking she loves him. Let me make that clear: a nurse laughs at the idea of Cordelia ever falling in love (at her age!), and especially with a man like Vorkosigan (even older, and stern, and not that handsome). Laughs at a woman who has faced down tragedy with courage and leadership, and makes her feel small for ever hoping that she could still marry someone and find happiness.
That’s not usually how the climax before the characters finally get to be together goes. To be fair, characters like Cordelia and Vorkosigan don’t usually get to take the main stage. That’s what really pulled me in about these books. I believe that the value of fiction is that it places you in the head of people whose lives you would never otherwise get to see. I have my favorite character tropes as much as anyone else, but I still love it when an author is able to surprise me and make me see the world from a viewpoint I would never consider.
Even better, their story doesn’t stop when they get married. Because believe it or not, there can still be conflict and room for growth after two people get married (though most stories would have you believe otherwise), and Bujold does this masterfully in Barrayar, where we get to see Cordelia really shine as a leader, a wife and a mother. Can you tell I liked these books? I did. Because the characters grew, and grew, and went through more challenges that made them grow even more. Cordelia never gets to take the easy way out, or let someone else make a hard decision for her.
That’s all I really want from my fiction. Deep character development in fantastic settings with some spaceships thrown in, please and thank you.
That’s it for January’s books. But wait! you say. You’re posting this on February 20! I’m actually pretty on track in terms of my reading schedule, but writing these posts takes longer than I expected. Probably because I’m reading these stories and then so in awe of what Bujold has done that my short descriptions of them seem like a complete joke.
Anyway, I’m done with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and should have a post up shortly. In the meantime, read Shards of Honor and Barrayar, if you haven’t already.
Shards of Honor
When Cordelia Naismith and her survey crew are attacked by a renegade group from Barrayar, she is taken prisoner by Aral Vorkosigan, commander of the Barrayan ship that has been taken over by an ambitious and ruthless crew member. Aral and Cordelia survive countless mishaps while their mutual admiration and even stronger feelings emerge.
Cordelia Vorkosigan’s plans for a peaceful married life are shattered when a poison gas attack, intended for her husband Aral, leaves her ill and her unborn child damaged. Resisting enormous pressure to abort her son, Cordelia struggles to keep her unborn child–transferred to a uterine replicator–alive while thwarting plans by a ruthless opponent to murder the young emperor and assume absolute power over all of Barrayar. Once again Cordelia displays her courage and her remarkable combat and leadership skills.