Review of Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I think it’s a privilege to be able to revisit a piece of work a second time and have the opportunity to not only enjoy the work again, but to see it and appreciate it in a totally new way. Time grows ever more precious the older we get, and especially when we balance work with our personal responsibilities. So when I get sucked in a book I had already read, I know for a fact it won’t be a damned waste of my time.
On my second rereading of this book, I can reaffirm that Lois McMaster Bujold is a true master of the craft, and Shards of Honor is a shining testament to her humanity and skill. She weaves a brilliant story with effective characterization, thoughtful pacing, intelligent dialogue, intelligent plot, well, intelligent everything.

Okay, some backstory. I finished this book 3 years ago, while I was seconded in Geneva for work. I accidentally started reading it when I got back to my hotel room after dinner the first night. 2 frantic reading days later (after work hours, of course), I came up from one of the most enjoyable reads in recent memory.
It’s hard to explain how I feel about this book to people who don’t normally read science fiction. Oh, I didn’t mention it? Shards of Honor is science fiction. But it’s not all hyperdrives and parsecs, and lightsabers and intergalactic alien war, with plotlines thick and dripping with genre stereotypes.
Shards of Honor tells the story of Cordelia Naismith, a researcher from Beta Colony (which is analogous to a far future Earth) who got mixed up with a complex plot to dispose of a prominent military commander from Barrayar, Captain Aral Vorkosigan in a routine mission. Caught up with the events, Cordelia embarks on an adventure that turns out to not only affect them both personally, but uncover a conspiracy so fiendish and meticulously planned that fates of both their worlds hang in the balance. It’s a love story, but laced with plenty of political intrigue, and a good spread of adventure and action.
See how difficult it is to explain – already the premise sounds very stereotypical of scifi. It’s not helped by my stereotypical summary. The difference is in reading it. If you’re looking for the sort of Star Wars/Star Trek like feel of space opera, look elsewhere. This is intelligent stuff. This is popcorn-like addictive, yet not popcorn-like in substance. You have to pay attention.
Bujold masterfully melds intergalactic politics, with cleverly laid out characters each with their own motives, and spins them together in a stupendous plot. It helps her to have two driven, flawed but ultimately very interesting leads.
A major theme in this book is an exploration of moral and honourable (or lack thereof) actions the various characters have to take in the face of the realities of war. Are responsibilities merely an excuse, or a burden? Is it acceptable to sacrifice lives for the greater good? What sort of circumstances must arise to justify such an action, and at what cost? Cordelia explores her own motivation, and sees the reasons from the host of people she encounters in her adventures.
And the epilogue to Shards of Honor has to be one of the best epilogues I have ever read, period. Go and read the book to get to the epilogue, and tell me it isn’t one of the most amazing moments in reading you have ever experienced.
Shards of Honor is one half of 2 books, the other being Barrayar (both books are being sold in a single volume now called Cordelia’s Honor), and marks the beginning of Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga (oh, and Barrayar won the Nebula and Hugo, and I can tell you that it thoroughly deserved the accolades). These two books are the only ones centered around Cordelia Naismith; the subsequent novels focuses on Cordelia’s and Aral Vorkosigan’s immensely interesting son, Miles Vorkosigan. The Miles Vorkosigan series of books are no less intriguing than the Cordelia books, with a notch or two up in the adventure quotient, and seeing that Miles is not your average son with a normal childhood (I won’t spoil it for you), the Miles stories are high with witticism and humour.

Bujold had written the books in such a manner where it isn’t really necessary to read them in order, but as with anything that has a chronology, it helps if you do. I personally started on Bujold with a Miles Vorkosigan book entitled The Vor Game. Cheesy title, but an awesome reading experience.
So if you’ve not had the pleasure of reading Bujold yet, even if you aren’t a science fiction reader, consider this a hearty recommendation.


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