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Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsLois 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, culminating in a Best Series Hugo in 2017, the first year the category was offered. 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. It’s the distant future, and humanity has for all intents and purposes colonized all of creation. The story begins when Cordelia Naismith, 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 in a state of war as 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 making their way to where they can be rescued, the two form a bond of mutual respect. Cordelia learns Vorkosigan’s violent reputation is undeserved. He is indeed a man of integrity, of honor, who treats even his enemies with respect. He 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 was 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, and his honor may never recover.

Shards of Honor is character-driven space opera, and Bujold’s skills at character development are very much up to the task. Most impressive is the utter lack of sentimentality or melodrama present in the romance she builds between her protagonists. The scene where Vorkosigan proposes to Cordelia charms us 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 that reads like a bonus short story grafted onto the main narrative. It serves to give readers a brief, unexpected glimpse of the consequences of the story through other characters’ eyes, and it’s unusually effective. 

Some 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 sort of Hollywood-inspired emotional button mashing that Bujold manages to avoid in her love story. There’s one “turning the tables on the captor” scene that requires a lot of the folks around Cordelia to be conveniently stupid, as well as a distressing scene where Cordelia finds herself on the verge of experiencing a ghastly sexual assault, which she faces with a bit more stoicism than I found convincing. Yes, it takes skill to jerk your audience’s emotions around with this kind of ease — though from a storytelling perspective, it seems like manipulation, and a writer with Bujold's talents shouldn’t have to resort to that.

Shards of Honor is, in the end, a strong debut for Bujold, a fine space opera, and an exciting way to establish the backstory of what would become one of SF’s most enduring fan-favorite space operas. It was followed (in the series’ 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.