In Shards of Honor, the superb introduction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s many-volume Vorkosigan saga, Commander Cordelia Naismith, citizen of Beta Colony and head of a planetary survey mission, is down planet with a small team of scientists when they are attacked by the militaristic and highly aggressive Barrayarans. Caught by surprise, and with the other members of her landing party dead or dying, Naismith orders her out-gunned ship, still in orbit, to run for home, leaving her at the Barrayarans’ mercy. She is soon captured by a man with a fearsome reputation: Aral Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr, a man who ordered the slaughter of innocent civilians after they surrendered to his troops.
Vorkosigan, she soon finds out, is in the middle of a vicious political struggle within Barrayar. One faction sees this uncolonised planet as a strategic stepping stone on their way to expansion and dominance of their neighbours, the more peaceful Betans and Escobarans. The raid on the Betan scientists, which Vorkosigan had expected to be a straightforward and relatively peaceful capture of prisoners, turned violent when some of his own men used it as cover for an attempted assassination, and he is left for dead. He and Naismith embark on a 200 kilometre trek through native bush populated by aggressively carnivorous local fauna to reach a Barrayaran supply cache. If they are going to survive, they will have to work together. They do, and develop a mutual respect, sharing secrets over the nights’ campfires, and she learns he is not the coldblooded monster he is reputed to be. He is, in fact, a man of great personal honour, who gave his word to the prisoners at Komarr that they would not be mistreated, and was betrayed by a political operative who ordered the slaughter carried out in his name. He is now fighting a losing battle to keep Barrayar from engaging in a war it cannot possibly win.
Naismith and Vorkosigan are attracted to each other. (You did see where this was going, didn’t you? This is, after all, part of the Vorkosigan saga.) The only surprise is how early in the book their acknowledgment of the mutual attraction comes. But of course, an uneventful courtship doesn’t make for an interesting story, and Naismith’s crew reappears, against orders and in league with Vorkosigan’s enemies, to rescue their now very conflicted commander.
This is just the beginning of a wild rollercoaster ride as the two juggle demands of the heart with wartime duty to their respective societies and responsibilities for the lives of many innocent people on both sides. Naismith and Vorkosigan are adults, and act like it. Both are well-developed characters, fleshed out in dialogue, gestures, and actions. And Naismith is a terrific female character: an active agent with a strong personality and deep moral convictions.
I’m a late-comer to the Vorkosigan party. I don’t know how I missed out earlier on this science fiction classic, but now that I’ve read a few of Bujold’s stories, I’m eager to read more. Shards of Honor is space opera at its best: large scale, exciting adventure with high stakes, with moral dilemmas that reflect on contemporary society. The stakes here are high indeed, and the story contains adventure, heroism, colourful villains, and a clean, sweet romance. What more could one ask for?
The book ends with an epilogue titled “Aftermaths.” This short story dealing with consequences of the war was originally published separately and doesn’t have anything to do with the Vorkosigans. It’s an intriguing story on its own, but if you’re not prepared for it, it can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: war, violence, attempted rape, sadism, mental breakdown, and psychiatric misdiagnosis. (Hm, sounds rather awful, doesn’t it? But the tone is not grim dark, and the physical details are skimmed over. It’s an easier read than this list might suggest.)