Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: "Shards of Honor" by Lois McMaster Bujold

This was the only reasonable cover
I could find. The worst offenders
are displayed for your amusement
below the cut.

When Commander Cordelia Naismith's survey expedition is massacred in a Barrayan attack. Stranded in an alien wilderness, she joins forces with the enemy: Admiral Captain Vorkosigan, left for dead by a mutiny within the Barrayan forces. The history of war between their cultures is long and ugly--but the partnership forged over their long trek to safety is stronger still.

Now a prisoner of the Barrayans who rescued Vorkosigan, Cordelia is divided between her duty to her people and her personal loyalty to the man who crossed a planet with her. Intrigue and treason threatens Vorkosigan from his own people. Meanwhile, the survivors of Cordelia's crew team up with the mutineers in a desperate attempt to rescue her.

As far as the warlike Barrayans are concerned, the astrocartographer is no threat: she's no fighter, she's a woman, she's an unarmed prisoner. From where Cordelia stands, though, she holds the power of life and death: for herself, for Vorkosigan, and for both of their ways of life.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
The copy of Shards of Honor that lies beside me is collected in an omnibus edition, with the less-than-promising title Cordelia's Honor and an even more unfortunate (not to mention nonsensical) cover illustration. It suggests a certain quantity of heaving bosoms to be found within. Perhaps some swooning. The word "ravish," repeated often, with a seductive gleam in the speaker's eye.

  The cover of the version I'm
reading. I don't know what
y'all are wearing here.
I do not want you to be misled, dear reader. This book contains approximately none of these things. It's a high-speed sci-fi action-adventure that reminds me a lot of Star Trek. (In a good way.) If anyone swoons within these pages, it's probably from blood loss or poison.

Let me emphasize the "high-speed" part of that description. The book clips along at a breakneck pace. The writing is very focused and very sparse, with little in the way of internal meditations or descriptions. That style makes it feel a little dated (hence the Star Trek reference.)

Don't let that sound like a deterrant. The book is marvelous fun to read. In as little as three pages, the entire game plan changes--over and over again.  There are schemes within schemes, hatred and loyalty mingled in a way all but impossible to predict. The rapid devolving of all  expectations for the story will keep readers on the edge of their seats, as it kept me on mine. The protagonists are the instigators of most of the plot twists, rather than the victims. My admiration for their cleverness played a huge role in the high rating of this book.
"We may as well rest here until dawn. I'll take the first watch. Do you still want to bash my head in with a rock?"

"Not at the moment," she said sincerely.

"Very well. I'll wake you later."
As one might imagine from the description, the book is 100% about Cordelia and Vorkosigan. They stand as spokesmen for their respective cultures, but also as deviants. The story focuses on the unraveling of their lives as they move through a treacherous universe. Each must learn the rules the other lives by and decide which of their own rules they are willing to break.

There follows a great deal of discussion between them about duty and honor, and what happens to the soul when the two are in opposition.
"I've always tried to walk the path of honor. But what do you do when all choices are evil? Shameful action, shameful inaction, every path leading to a thicket of death."

"You're asking me to judge you?"

"Someone must."
The book poses a seemingly clearcut theoretical divide: the Barrayans are macho warmongering glory-hounds, and the Betans (Cordelia's people) are impractical defenseless tree-huggers. Part of the fun of this book is watching Bujold break down both stereotypes.  I applaud the villainy done by the Betan psychologists even while I flinch at it. Once someone assigns you the diagnosis of "repressing," there's really no way to win!

A very Star Wars:
Extended Universe
At the moment when Cordelia steps into Vorkosigan's role and makes use of everything she learned from her captors, I stood up and applauded. I can't call it a "plot twist" so much as "irrevocable character turning point." Whatever it is, it's lovely.

Despite its sparse description, the book met my weird "grody" requirements. After days of hiking on starvation rations, with no shelter or gear, Vorkosigan and Cordelia are as gross as you'd expect; wounds get infected; antiseptics run out; they get tired and sleep in chairs while the world spins on around them. On a psychological level, the toll is also realistically high. The section with Cordelia among the Betan psychologists was jaw-droppingly horrible to read about, and leaves her so mentally spun-around that she exits with a stutter.

Here we have the most accurate
character depiction... and a lurid
pink sky. What?
I don't share Bujold's opinion that the extremely disturbing! and unexpected! assault scene in the middle of the book was necessary for character development. Putting Cordelia at the mercy of true Barrayan villains isn't required to make Vorkosigan any more admirable by contrast--from the very start, his behavior is so coldly professional that the reader knows he poses no carnal threat to Cordelia without it needing to be stated. Moreover, Cordelia doesn't need to prove her resourcefulness by overcoming a rapist--at this point in the book, she's already outwitted a shipful of enemies in fine style.

My displeasure with that particular plot point faded slightly over time, as the wider-ranging impact that particular villain and his ilk had on the plot became more apparent. Still. It's needlessly jarring, given that the rest of the book is conducted on Austenesque levels of propriety. (My roommate can vouch for this, having heard me yelling "Will you just kiss already!" more than once.)

The so-called Vorkosigan Saga is apparently long-running and famous; I know nothing about the rest of it. What I do know is that Shards of Honor, taken by itself, is an intelligent and emotionally engaging sci-fi swashbuckler that no one would be ashamed to have on their shelves... no matter how terrible the cover is.

I look forward to reading the sequel Barrayar (the second half of the omnibus) and seeing what new shenanigans Cordelia and Vorkosigan can get up to together, and what new havoc they can wreak on interplanetary politics.

"Ugh, covers are hard. Let's just
throw text on it and call it a day."

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