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GUEST REVIEW: Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Dear Jane,

067157828601mzzzzzzz.jpgI would not describe myself as a science fiction fan-and not because I haven’t tried it. Thanks to my college habit of taking only classes that met Tuesday-Thursday, I’ve read the whole SF canon, everything from Left Hand of Darkness to Snow Crash. And while I didn’t hate it all (Because, really, who could hate Dune?) literature about dystopian feminist/fascist/droid-ruled/war-mongering societies just doesn’t get my blood pumping. And, though I have nothing against space operas in theory, many “composers” seem so besotted with the nifty little worlds they’ve created they forget details like characterization and lucid plots. But last January, in a post about genre labels, you mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books as a series often embraced by romance readers. I needed something to read, so I gave them a shot.

Cordelia’s Honor is the first installment in the Vorkosigan series, but it reads like a stand-alone novel. It also reads like one of the best damn books I’ve ever owned. It’s primarily SF, but the relationship thread is very strong and the book ends with a HEA, so it more than satisfied my romance needs. Even better, the lead couple, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, are actually great people. With all the Mary Sues and Too-Stupid-To-Lives masquerading as heroines, all the Jackass-Alpha-Males and Self-Centered-Brooders offered as heroes, I often settle for merely tolerating my main characters. But Cordelia and Aral are different. For starters, they’re Grown-Ups. They do not play dumb relationship games or pull stupid stunts that endanger themselves and others. They’re intelligent and competent. They respect each other. It’s all so refreshing!

Aral, from the empire planet of Barrayar (imagine a really cut-throat and futuristically-equipped Regency England) is an aristocrat and a soldier in command of a starship. Cordelia, hailing from the progressive Beta Colony, is a scientist in command of a survey expedition. In the beginning, anyway. A lot happens in this book, more than any sane person would attempt to summarize (in fact, I believe this was originally published as two separate and complete novels.) And it’s a really good story. But, for me, this book succeeds because Bujold concentrates not on the universe she’s created, but the people living in it.

Vorkosigan returned from the forward pilot’s compartment, and slid in beside her. “Are you doing all right?”

She gave him a nod. “Yes. Rather overwhelmed by all these herds of boys. I think you Barrayarans are the only ones who don’t carry mixed crews. Why is that, I wonder?”

“Partly tradition, partly to maintain an aggressive outlook. They haven’t been bothering you?”

“No, amusing me only. I wonder if they realize how they are used?”

“Not a bit. They think they are the emperors of creation.”

“Poor lambs.”

“That’s not how I’d describe them.”

“I was thinking of animal sacrifice.”

“Ah. That’s closer.”

She also does a terrific job of showing all this SF strangeness through Cordelia’s eyes, a point of view that most can relate to.

She gathered Dubauer and followed him aboard Vorkosigan’s ship. It smelled different from her survey ship, colder, full of bare unpainted metal and cost-effective short cuts taken out of comfort and dà©cor, like the difference between a living room and a locker room.

But Aral and Cordelia themselves are the main reason I’ve read this book three times since January. They’re the kind of characters that keep you coming back for more. They’re honorable and wise-even in the face of enormous challenges. They have an inspiring but realistic relationship. And their humor saves them from stuffy paragonhood.

“Don’t worry. You’re not going to have to carry me. I’m one of the fittest men in my command.” He limped on. “Over forty.”

“How many men over forty are there in your command?”

“Four.”

Or try this part, in which Cordelia insists her bodyguard-the only female to hold such a position on the entire planet-be allowed to participate in the weekly sparring competition among their otherwise exclusively-male security detail. Aral goes to arrange it with the referee, Lt. Koudelka (aka “Kou”).

Cordelia could not hear what they said to each other, across the garden, but supplied her own dialogue from gesture and expression, murmuring, “Aral: Cordelia wants Drou to play. Kou: Aw! Who wants gurls? Aral: Tough. Kou: They mess everything up, and besides, they cry a lot. Sergeant Bothari will squash her-hm, I do hope that’s what that gesture means, otherwise you’re getting obscene, Kou-wipe that smirk off your face, Vorkosigan-Aral: The little woman insists. You know how henpecked I am. Kou: Oh, all right. Phooey.[...]“

The rest of this series follows the adventures of Cordelia and Aral’s son, Miles, with Cordelia and Aral making periodic cameo appearances. The “Miles books” have very little romance, but I was so hooked after reading Cordelia’s Honor I didn’t care. I recommend this book to all romance readers, even if your preferred flavor is Scottish Highlander or frontier sheriff. Give it a try. Grade A.

Regards,

Elizabeth

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

Guest Reviewer

21 Comments

  1. Darlene Marshall
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 09:01:40

    Shards of Honor, the first part of Cordelia’s story, is always on my short list of best romantic novels. But don’t sell Miles short (heh) in the romance department. If you read the series up through A Civil Campaign, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best courtship books ever. It will also make you laugh out loud, and get a clue of what life would be like if Georgette Heyer wrote science fiction.

  2. Charlene Teglia
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 09:02:46

    I loved this. Loved, loved, loved. It was originally published in two volumes as Shards of Honor and Barrayar, but however you read it, it is magnificent reading.

    And is it wrong that I love the way she breaks up the meeting with the head?

    I love the whole Vorkosigan series, and everything else she’s written.

  3. LesleyW
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 10:26:17

    The Vorkosigan series has to be one of my favourites. Cordelia’s Honor brings a new definition to the phrase – I went shopping. Although some people find it controversial I love Cordelia’s response to the bisexual comment.

    I’d agree with Darlene though, there are romantic moments in the following books that deal with Miles – though you do have to wait for him to grow up, as the first couple of books deal with his childhood. A Civil Campaign is one of the few books that reduced me to tears of laughter, to the point where I had to put the book down.

  4. msaggie
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 11:33:04

    Thanks for the superb review – Cordelia’s Honor is an excellent introduction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing for new readers. It was the first Bujold book I read, and prior to that, the only sci-fi books I had read were the Dune series. The difference is really in the characterisation. Both Aral and Cordelia are such a great couple – and Bujold does more showing than telling about how they feel about each other. The Miles books are all good, and should be read in sequence as we follow Miles’ life from the precocious teenager to the adult – and there are other romance threads running through the series – e.g. involving Kou, and in the next generation, Kou’s daughters, as well as Miles’ own romance which starts in Komarr and is followed on in A Civil Campaign. Cordelia’s Honor (and for Ekaterin’s backstory, Komarr) and A Civil Campaign are highly recommended for all romance readers.

  5. Angie
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 13:20:21

    Yesyesyes! :D Bujold rocks truckloads of socks, from her wonderful characterizations (and yes, I love her dialogue) to her absolutely believable relationships to her awesome worldbuilding. And as others have said, Miles gets his share of romance; A Civil Campaign is a classic comedy of manners.

    Make sure you catch the shorter stories as well. “The Mountains of Mourning” is a gem, and IIRC won the Hugo that year. It was well deserved.

    Charlene — I love that scene too. “I paid too much for it,” always makes my eyes sting.

    Lesley — her response there was perfect. [nod] I could just picture the look on that jerk’s face. :) The bit of dialogue is short and sleek, all showing and no authorial intrusion, but in addition to being a good plot point and a great characterization marker for the two people speaking and the one spoken of, it also does more to underline some of the major cultural differences between Barrayar and Beta Colony than several paragraphs of exposition would have.

    Angie

  6. Patricia Briggs
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 17:07:47

    When I grow up, I want to write like Bujold. I love them all, although there are some truly inspired bits — The Head in Barrayar, the engulfing mud in The Vor War. Halfway through the Warrior’s Apprentice when you realize that Mile’s little vacation to Grandma’s has grown into something . . . rather more than anyone could imagine. Terrific characters, great plots and awesome writing: Bujold rocks. Now I have to go hunt up all my Bujold books . . .
    Yum

  7. Shannon C.
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 21:40:49

    Count me as another Bujold fangirl. I liked Cordelia’s Honor well enough, but I adore the Miles books to distraction.

  8. Nicole
    Dec 24, 2007 @ 22:13:18

    Oh, love these books. They’re now putting them out in chronological order with the short stories mixed in, so I’ve been reading them that way.

  9. Amanda
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 10:45:00

    I have been digging through Bujold’s backlist ever since reading The Sharing Knife: Beguilement. She is one of those rare authors who make me want to read everything they’ve ever written. I haven’t yet tackled the Vorkosigan series just because I don’t know where to begin. It didn’t help that her wikipedia entry just said, “There is considerable debate among readers as the best order to read the Vorkosigan series.”

  10. Nicole
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 11:04:18

    Amanda, I just started with Cordelia’s Honor and then went into reading the stories in chronological order as the omnibuses have been. So far it’s worked just fine. Young Miles is the one after CH.

  11. LesleyW
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 12:41:05

    Amanda,

    In Borders of Infinity it lists the books in chronological order according to Mile’s age. As Nicole said, this is the way I chose to read them. Some of the short stories from BOI fit in at different times. Below is my reading order. (BOI meaning short story from Borders of Infinity)

    Cordelia’s Honor, The Warrior’s Apprentice, Mountains of Mourning (BOI), The Vor Game, Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos (Ellie Quinn is the protagonist not Miles), Labyrinth (BOI), Borders of Infinity (BOI), Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaign, Winterfair Gifts (short story in Irresistible Forces anthology), Diplomatic Immunity.

    There’s also another novel Falling Free which takes place 200 years before Miles is born, but set in the same universe.

    Probably my favourite arc of the series is from Brothers in Arms to A Civil Campaign. With ACC being my favourite book of the series.

    Lesley

  12. Amanda
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 13:30:43

    Thanks for the advice, ladies. I’ve wanted to dig into this series for months now. I put myself in the library’s queue for Cordelia’s Honor today.

  13. Morgan R.
    Jan 12, 2008 @ 16:02:39

    Somebody recommended this book to me and I just finished – it definitely lived up to the recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading more books by this author, but I hope they’re just as good.

  14. Gary Jordan
    Jan 15, 2008 @ 01:07:25

    If anyone is trying an all-inclusive list, they have to add Bujold’s “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” from the NESFA Press. It takes place on Earth after Beta Colony is established and before “Falling Free”.

    Also, “Winterfair Gifts” was published as part of an anthology called “Irresistable Forces” with Jo Beverly, Catherine Asaro and three others… and is now available in one of those omnibus editions, called “Miles in Love”, which contains “Komarr” (Miles meets his true love while investigating a disaster), “A Civil Campaign” (Miles courts his intended, but forgets to mention it to her?) and “Winterfair Gifts” (The tale of Miles’ wedding – but that isn’t the main plot!)

  15. Rose W.
    Jan 15, 2008 @ 23:37:45

    I read this book on your recommendation and loved it! Thank you.

    Both the male and female leads are flawed human beings, but I instead of wanting to slap one of them out of frustration, I was cheering them on.

  16. J
    Jan 16, 2008 @ 00:16:17

    I’m sorry to intrude, ladies, but I just found this link on one of Ms. Bujold’s publisher’s web pages and had to check it out. :)

    And I’m also one of the contributors to that Wikipedia debate about order.

    Hand’s down, I would recommend either starting with Cordelia’s Honor, or with the KomarrA Civil Campaign pair (which is finally coming out in reprint format as a omnibus novel in the next couple of months.

    The former is well represented in the discussions here already. The latter … well, I have bit of a tale to tell. Though I cared for her deeply, my marriage to my late wife was less than perfect, due to competition with a fellow named Mr. Beer, and occasionally his friends Mr. Wine and Mr. Bourbon, not to mention their cousin Cigarette. Nothing during that period captured my frustration better than Komarr, and particularly the scene where Ekaterin is interrogated by the police. Conversely, I was never able to convince my wife to read the novels unti A Civil Campaign, when I handed her the dinner party scene…she immediately took the book and went and read the whole thing.

    Aral’s honor speech. “Naked” in the attic. Miles’s apologetic letter after insulting Ekaterin. THE couch. Pym’s dry sense of humor, and Ivan’s “hidden depths.”

    I believe that four hundred years from now, Lois Bujold will be honored as the Shakespeare of the early space age for her turn of phrase.

  17. My First Sale by Lois McMaster Bujold, She Got By with a Little Help From Her Friends | Dear Author: Romance Book Reviews, Author Interviews, and Commentary
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  18. Amanda
    Apr 25, 2008 @ 08:37:53

    Just wanted to come back and say THANK YOU for the recommendation of Cordelia’s Honor as the one to start with in the Vorkosigan series. I’m about to start “Memory” now, and have been highly recommending Lois McMaster Bujold to everyone who asks what I’ve been reading lately.

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