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Book cover art by Alan Gutierrez (left).
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan space operas are among the most popular series fiction in all of SF, with no fewer than three of them winning Hugos and one earning a Nebula — and it all began here. Shards of Honor is a love story about two adversaries drawn together in a time of war and crisis when they come to recognize in each other a shared sense of that elusive quality reflected in the title. Set in the distant future when humanity has for all intents and purposes colonized all of creation, the story begins when Cordelia Naismith, the commander of the civilian Betan Expeditionary Force researching an unnamed but climatically very pleasant planet, meets Aral Vorkosigan, the captain of a war cruiser from the imperialist planet of Barrayar. Cordelia's team has been attacked by the Barrayarans, and at first her reaction to Vorkosigan is naturally hostile. Barrayar and Beta are not, after all, in a state of war so far as she knows.

Cordelia soon learns that Vorkosigan is as much a victim as she is. A group of his men have mutinied; the idea was for Vorkosigan to get killed in the attack on the Betans. Vorkosigan, who already has a checkered reputation as a war criminal, has been a vocal opponent of a proposed Barrayaran invasion and annexation of the world of Escobar. His enemies, among whom is the prince, would like him out of the picture.

In the days Cordelia and Vorkosigan spend together finding their way to where they can be rescued, the two form a bond of mutual respect. Cordelia learns Vorkosigan's violent reputation is undeserved; that he is indeed a man of integrity, of honor, who treats even his enemies with respect. Vorkosigan even goes out of his way to help Cordelia care for one of her wounded crewmen, when most enemies would have abandoned or killed him outright. In the ensuing months, as the war between Barrayar and Escobar progresses and Beta is forced to choose sides, Cordelia finds her own sense of honor tested as she realizes that her government at home is every bit as willing to treat her like a pawn as is Vorkosigan's. And the political machinations on Barrayar go even further than she realized; the pretext for the invasion of Escobar hits much closer to home for Vorkosigan, in a way from which his honor may never recover.

Bujold's skills at characterization carry the day here, and a good thing, too, as this is primarily a character-driven story. (A nice change of pace for space opera, where the stories are most often plot-driven.) Most impressive is the utter lack of sentimentality present in Bujold's development of the budding romance between her two protagonists. There is never any one romance-novel moment where they hurl themselves into each other's arms overcome by passion or any of that crap; indeed, the scene where Vorkosigan proposes to Cordelia charms because he's as nervous as any callow young man might be. But as both characters are more mature than your average action heroes — she's over 35 and he's over 40 — their approach to falling in love is believably muted by lives of hard experience and past tragedy. It works because it's understated.

There's also an interesting epilogue; it reads like a bonus short story grafted onto the main narrative, but as it serves to give readers a brief, unexpected glimpse of the consequences of the story through other characters' eyes, it's unusually effective.

Other elements of Bujold's story here don't pass the plausibility test quite as well. The scene where Cordelia realizes her home world has become a prison from which she must flee is filled with the kinds of Hollywood-inspired scenes of emotional button pushing that Bujold managed to protect her love story from. (Including one "turn the tables on the captor" scene right out of a movie that requires a lot of the folks around Cordelia to be conveniently stupid.) There's also a bit where Cordelia finds herself on the verge of experiencing a ghastly sexual assault, and she faces it with a bit more stoicism than I found convincing.

But on the other hand, it takes skill to jerk your audience's emotions around with this kind of ease — although from a storytelling perspective, it seems like the kind of lazy manipulation a writer with Bujold's talents shouldn't need to resort to.

Shards of Honor is, in the end, a fine debut for Bujold, a fine space opera, and a fine way to establish the backstory of what would become one of SF's most enduring fan-favorite space sagas. It was followed (in the saga's chronology, not in the order of publication) by a Hugo-winning sequel, Barrayar. In 1999 Baen reissued both books in an omnibus edition titled Cordelia's Honor.