I stumbled across Bujold the same way I did Elizabeth Moon, by looking up lists of people’s favorite sci-fi series and authors. The first book of hers I picked up, more or less at random, was Ethan of Athos. It was exceptionally fun to read, so I was keen on delving further into her “Vorkosigan Saga,” of which Ethan of Athos was a tangentially related side story.
Cordelia’s Honor is an omnibus that collects two novels together under one cover. The first, Shards of Honor, is straight up space opera, telling the story of Cordelia, the middle aged (finally!) captain of a science vessel. While exploring a planet, her small group of scientist-soldiers find themselves under attack by soldiers from the planet Barrayar, known for their fanatic commitment to all things military. It turns out that the attack on Cordelia and her people was nothing but a ruse to cover a politically motivated mutiny among the Barrayan officers. Their captain, long a thorn in the side of many due to his commitment to being honest and honorable, has been left for dead along with the remnants of Cordelia’s expeditionary force — which consist of Cordelia and one other officer, irreparably crippled by a Barrayan nerve disrupter.
Cordelia and the Barrayan captain, Aral Vorkosigan, form an uneasy alliance as they struggle to reach a secret Barrayan supply cache. Cordelia learns a few things. First, that the planet is crawling with predators. Second, that Barrayar intends to use it as a staging area for the invasion of a nearby system that is allied with her own people on Beta Colony. And third, that Aral Vorkosigan is awesome. By the time they reach the supply depot, the two adversaries have fallen in love. Fending off blood sucking airborne jellyfish will do that for ya. Once Vorkosigan settles up with the officers who betrayed him, he brings Cordelia aboard his ship with the intent of returning her to her people — unless he can convince her to become Lady Vorkosigan. The discussion is cut short when her own crew stage a reckless but successful rescue mission.
Shortly thereafter, Cordelia finds herself in the middle of the war between Barrayar and Escobar. Although successful in her mission to divert Barrayan forces long enough to allow a convoy carrying weapons to Escobar through, Cordelia is captured and once again finds herself in the company of Barrayans, including some familiar faces. Unfortunately, it also includes the new face of a admiral who idolizes the Marquis de Sade and likes to use Betan and Escobaran prisoners as guinea pigs in bizarre and brutal sexual assaults. Just as this whole part of the book is starting to get really uncomfortable, Aral Vorkosigan appears once again. Once the dust settles, the two discover their feelings have not changed. Aral renews his offer of marriage, which Cordelia says she’ll consider. She loves the man but isn’t wild about the thought of living on a mad planet like Barrayar.
At least until she returns home to Beta Colony and discovers she has become both a political pawn and the subject of much debate. Military psychologists are convinced that her lack of utter revulsion at the thought of Barrayans is symptomatic of her having been mentally manipulated and reprogrammed, possibly to even act as a one-woman sleeper cell. By hook or by crook, they intend to wrench the tinkering from her mind. Cordelia’s primary fear is that her relationship with Aral and one of his men, the mentally unstable Bothari, has made her privy to a fairly gigantic secret regarding the Barrayan emperor and the Escobaran War. Unwilling to betray Vorkosigan, and irritated by the pushy nastiness of the military psychiatrist assigned to her, she decides to flee her home and take the Barrayan up on his offer.
Bujold’s greatest strength as an author is her ability to make you care deeply for her characters. Cordelia and Aral both fully realized characters, believable and very easy to like. Although Shards of Honor has plenty of action to keep you reading, it’s the characters that make the book so great. Even the supporting cast is well developed and complex. No one int he story is perfect. All are flawed. Some deeply, disturbingly so, even among the good guys. The interplay of characters becomes even more important in the second novel, Barrayar, which is largely a political thriller that sees Vorkosigan become the steward of the Barrayan government when the old emperor dies before the new emperor is old enough to ascend to the throne.
The new assignment puts Aral in the cross-hairs of conniving politicos, would be assassin, and possible agents from an enemy planet. Although it doesn’t contain the planet-spanning space opera and adventure of the previous novel, Barrayar is still a great read, with plenty of tension, lots of action, and a great finale. Amid the chaos, Cordelia struggles to protect her soon-to-be-born son, Miles, from the forces looking to do her husband harm. I think it would appeal to fans of fantasy as wella s sci-fi (acknowledging that there is already a big cross-over), as much of what we have here plays out like a medieval political thriller, but with flying cars and laser guns.
Together, the two novels weave the origin story of Miles Vorkosigan, who would become the central figure in the author’s long-running “Vorkosigan Saga.” I had a blast reading them, and they’ve gotten me excited about continuing my journey through the saga. next up is another two-novel ominbus, Young Miles. Really looking forward to it. The Vorkosigan Saga is shaping up to be one of my all-time favorites, a perfect blend of expert character writing and two-fisted romantic adventure.