Editor’s note: This is Marion’s review of Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice.
Do you like fancy military uniforms? Shiny spaceships that blow things up? Brooding aristocrats with hulking stone castles and dark secrets? Snappy comebacks and one-liners? Voluptuous women warriors? Swords and secret passages? Surprising twists on standard military tactics of engagement?
If you answered “Yes” to three or more, check out the Vorkosigan Saga. Lois McMaster Bujold started this series in the mid-80s. The Vorkosigan books start out as space opera, even having maps of the various planets and star systems with those so-convenient wormholes linking everyone together, and convincingly add a stratified, highly mannered aristocratic society on one of the principal planets. Later books have become more sociopolitical while still set against a dynamic interplanetary background.
The main character of the series is Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is a smart, physically damaged character with a lot to prove. He is an aristocrat, a crown prince and a highly skilled covert operative. He is a risk-taker and when he makes mistakes, they are profound. Sometimes he is a fool, but usually, when it matters, he is brilliant.
Shards of Honor and Barrayar introduce us to Miles’s parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. In the midst of an interplanetary war, Cordelia, a native of the Beta colony, raised in a tolerant, sexually open, egalitarian, high-tech and seriously bureaucratic society, clashes with and ultimately falls for a warrior-prince from a rigid, military, patriarchal one. Shards of Honor tells the story of their meeting. Cordelia disregards the shock of her home planet and its nanny-state government, marries Aral and moves to Barrayar. In Barrayar, we observe the mutual culture shock that follows. Women have some power on Barrayar, but they do not have equality. The Vor is an elite of families charged with running the planet, and Aral’s family is classic Vor. Aral has as much committed the unthinkable with this marriage as Cordelia has. His father in particular is disapproving of what he sees as a misalliance.
Cordelia soon learns that there are many cliques, coalitions and conspiracies, and that Aral has enemies, some of whom would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between Aral and his new wife. At a formal reception, a new acquaintance, catching Cordelia apart from her husband, tries to inject some venom:
He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth quirked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”
Barrayar quickly leads us into a political coup and an assassination attempt on Cordelia and Aral, with a disastrous impact on the newly pregnant Cordelia. The damage to her unborn child does not stop her from fighting at Aral’s side, and her woman-warrior skills even win over her father-in-law at the end. Aral becomes the Regent for Prince Gregor, a physically perfect six-year-old destined to be emperor.
The Vor (and all the people of Barrayar) worship racial purity and physical strength, and are terrified of mutation, for reasons that are clearly and credibly delineated in the back-story. Cordelia’s baby is born with brittle bones that shatter at the slightest impact. In a society that values physical perfection, this is a serious drawback. Miles represents both a genetic failure — even though his weaknesses are not genetic — and his society’s worst fear. While the brittle bones can be dealt with medically, Miles Vorkosigan is the opposite of what a Vor lord is supposed to be, and he and his father both know it.
In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles, at 17, has just failed the physical exam for the Imperial Military Academy. Despondent, he goes on a family trip to Beta. In short order he rescues an on-the-skids jump-ship pilot, co-opts a mercenary fleet, styles himself “Admiral Naismith” and saves the underdogs in a nasty civil war, pausing long enough to suffer pangs of unrequited love and jealousy over his childhood playmate Eleni and pick up a Barrayaran military deserter who is a genius with engines.
It appears that Miles is a flippin’ genius at strategy and tactics (years of dodging the neighborhood bullies at home?) but his real gift is that of inspiring loyalty and getting people to work at their maximum capacity, or beyond it.
One of the best things about the early Miles Vorkosigan books is the idea that the bluffing, one-upping, dueling, raygun-toting, make-it-up-as-I-go hero is four feet tall and has bones that will crack if he sits down too hard. He talks as fast as a guy on his seventh energy drink, and like William Ryker on Star Trek, he never met a female alien he didn’t like. There is real darkness in these books, though. In the first two, rape is deployed as a weapon of terror, with some reverberations into later books. At times, the humorous, straightforward prose seems disrespectful of the serious nature of the plot, but no one will doubt Miles’s determination to make things right, even when he’s making mistakes.
These early stories play with the theme of the outsider, with Cordelia in the first two as a literal outsider, and Miles having the more painful role of the person within the culture who doesn’t quite fit in. The early Vorkosigan stories, those with “Admiral Naismith,” can be read as Miles trying to find a place for himself in the universe.
The three early books should be read close together so that you understand the story of Miles, and why he drives himself so hard. The action is brisk, the characters are good, and there is quite a bit of funny dialogue. I quibble a bit at some of Bujold’s anachronistic word choices, but really, things are usually happening so quickly, and are so interesting, that I don’t get thrown out of the story.
A final warning; a Vorkosigan book is like a potato chip. If you start with these three, you’ll want to read more!