If You Like Lois McMaster Bujold hosted by Elizabeth
We are starting a new series called “If You Like” which will be hosted by various readers, authors and bloggers of Dear Author. The purpose of the post and the comments is to explore what we like about a particular iconic author and what other authors have books like the iconic author. Elizabeth penned this awesome entry regarding Lois McMaster Bujold.
If you would like to host an “If You Like” post, please email me at Jane at dearauthor.com
If you like Lois McMaster Bujold –
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most acclaimed authors in speculative fiction still writing today. Her first book Warrior’s Apprentice was published in 1986 and she’s published 20 more books since then. Her latest book,The Sharing Knife, Volume Four: Horizon comes out the beginning of next year. (I can’t wait!) She’s been nominated and won scads of awards- multiple Hugos, Nebulas and one World Fantasy Award for best novel. With her large and diverse backlist Prolific is her middle name.
Warning: There are spoilers in this post
Lois McMaster Bujold currently has three ongoing series:
- Vorkosigan Saga is an extensive SF epic primarily following the exploits of the diminutive but indomitable Lord Miles Vorkosigan. These are probably her best known works to date. The first books involve Miles’ parents Aral and Cordelia (Shards of Honorand Barrayar both found in Cordelia’s Honor ). The most recent book, Diplomatic Immunity, has Miles unraveling a plot aboard a space station while awaiting the birth of his twins. There are about a dozen books and short stories in between. Bujold is currently working on a new book involving Miles.
- Chalion books are set in a fictional universe loosely based on Spain in the 15th century at its unification. Chalion books are heavy on theology, and the gods play an important part in the threads of all the books: the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son and the Bastard. The series features stand-alone books with a different protagonist for each. In each book one of the 5 gods is offstage pulling the strings. Bujold has said she would like to write one book for each of the five gods in the theology, so far she has only written three: The Curse of Chalion for the Daughter, Paladin of Souls for the Bastard and The Hallowed Hunt for the Son.
- The Sharing Knife books are fantasy novels set in a world loosely based on the country south of the Great Lakes in North America with technology roughly equivalent to the 1800s, minus explosives and gunpowder. The tensions between Lakewalkers and Farmers is reminiscent of the early culture clashes between settlers and Native Americans. In these books the romance takes front and center more than in any other Bujold. Dag is a Lakewalker, member of a nomadic, magician-warrior clan. Fawn is a farmer girl who ran away from home and right into Dag. There is a wide age gap standing between the two, but more than that, a deep-seated bigotry from both their kin that Lakewalkers and farmers do not marry. The whole world is telling Dag and Fawn they can’t be together, but the two of them forge their own way by holding strong to each other.
The Spirit Ring was a stand alone fantasy novel set in Italy that dealt with metallurgy and necromancy. It reads almost like a YA book. The hero and heroine are only 17 and 15 respectively, and they have somewhat immature perspectives. There’s a more cooperative resolution than in most of her books, in that the hero and heroine’s work to save the day is supplemented by contributions from the book’s minor characters. A warning: there is more violence than one would expect in a young adult book, and lots of corpses onstage for the action, as well as one incident of infanticide early in the book.
I started reading Lois McMaster’s books after reading reviews on this blog and at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I’d heard her name before, but my interest in Lois McMaster Bujold wasn’t really piqued until SBTB gave The Sharing Knife: Beguilement a rave review. I didn’t buy the book then but it stuck with me, and this year when I got my first ever library card, I saw a copy of Beguilement on the shelves and checked it out on a whim. Boy, am I glad I did! In a few short months I have devoured her backlist and discovered a new auto-buy author.
Setting (era): Diverse
Her time periods range widely. The Vorkosigan Saga is set in a hi-tech universe approximately 1000 years in the future with wormhole technology, babies grown in replicators outside their mothers, along with typical SF standbys likes stunners and holographics. The Spirit Ring is set in a fictional Italy in the 1500s. Chalion is set in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. The fantasy world of The Sharing Knife feels more like the American frontier (complete with riverboats and straw hats).
Setting (geographic): Also Diverse
One of Bujold’s greatest strengths is her world-building. Her worlds go "all the way to edge of the page" as she puts it. She firmly fixes her settings in your mind without info-dumps or "As you know, Bob-" dialogue. And variety is her specialty. If you can think of it, chances are she’s set a book there: cities, boonies, back roads, lakes- in the Vorkosigan books alone you get rolling foothills, mountain caves, underground cities, arctic military bases, space stations, bio-domes-On and on. She’s also got this way with words, simple but so elegant. Here’s an excerpt from her latest book The Sharing Knife, Volume Three: Passage:
The valley of the Grace spread out below them in the gold-blue autumn light. The river seemed to have put on her party dress, her banks and bending hillsides a swirl of color: scarlet and purple-red, glowing yellow, bright brown. The water reflected the azure of the sky, save where it broke into a sparkling shoal, necklace to the dress. Brooches of boats slid upon the water- a distant keel, a broad, blunt ferry- with a girdle of flatboats pulled up along the farther shore."
But it’s not just about the landscape.
I used to believe an author only had one real, fully-formed, intricate world inside them. (Like Anne McCaffrey- her Dragonrider books are incredible, intricate and so well-developed. Unfortunately, in her other books the world-building is depressingly lackluster). Bujold has disabused me of this notion. Every world she creates is fully-formed and functional, perfectly inhabitable by the reader. The theology, the culture, the politics, and the history of the place-whichever place- are instilled so deeply on every page it’s like an immersion course, you could almost do anthropological studies on a Lois McMaster Bujold world. Her real brilliance is that she can do this without overwhelming the reader, and never once have I felt one of her world-building details was out of place or inorganic to the world. It’s a little hard to explain, but to me it sort of feels like if I was plunked in the middle of one of her books I could look all around me- up, down, sideways- and everything would be there, would be real. Forks on the table, paintings on the wall, manure in the streets, socio-political conflicts dating back centuries, etc, etc- One of my particular favorites is the religion in Chalion. It’s so logical, so seamless and legitimately real right down to the way they salute they’re gods, you’re half tempted to start your own church of the Five-Fold Pathway by the end. There are really plausible rituals and all the characters have varying levels of religious zeal. They aren’t zombies or moral mouthpieces. The church doesn’t feel like cobbled together bits of earth religions, either. It is very uniquely its own, belonging to no other place but Chalion.
Heroine type: Smart. Strong. Brave. Centered. They all save themselves, save the heroes, and save the day. They are just as capable as the heroes are. They can be naÃ¯ve or jaded but never TSTL doormats. These girls don’t flounder or screw-up just so the hero can save them. They multi-task: saving themselves while ruling the world, thank you very much.
In the Vorkosigan Saga: (just a few)
- Kareen: Blonde. The bouncy daughter of the emperor’s own ex-personal bodyguard (that would be her mother), she’s ambitious and personable. The middle child in a brood of all blonde "commandos", she could sell water to a drowning man but she’s still torn, figuring her place and who she wants to be.
- Ekaterin: Brunette. An elegant widow in her early thirties, just coming out a soul-sucking, heart-blighting marriage. Damaged, unsure of herself at first, she’s sharp-witted, fierce, with a spine of steel and impeccable taste in all things.
- Cordelia: Red-head. A force of nature. At the start of the series (Shards of Honor) she’s in her mid-thirties, a science officer in despair of ever having a family or finding love. She’s tough, impulsive, and open-minded, with a bone-dry sense of humor. She not only pulls herself out of dire situations, she saves the hero too, and her ship’s crew and his ship’s crew and her planet and his planet
and- In Chalion: The romances tend to be relegated to the background, present without dominating the plot. All the women of Chalion, though, are clever and powerful, treading the dangerous waters of political intrigue with sure strokes and brave faces. Ista is the protagonist in Paladin of Souls; she’s middle-aged royalty, a faded beauty emerging from nearly two decades spent accursed and half-mad, stifled and confined for her own good by those who love her. In Paladin of Souls she reclaims her liberty and her life. She has a wonderful sense of self-direction and aggressively defends her autonomy, not only from those who love her and want to shelter her but even from the gods themselves.
In The Sharing Knife: Fawn is innocent, painfully young, but steadily learning more about the Wide Green World as the series progresses. In the first book she begins naÃ¯ve, but with her voracious curiosity she grows towards full womanhood. She’s got the patented Bujold bravery and a lively sense of humor. The most appealing thing I find, though, is her unquenchable joy for life.
Hero type: Clever. Honorable. Driven. Leaders of men. Her heroes are so attractive, every last one of them, but it’s not because of how they look: it’s because of who they are. One interesting thing is, with the exception of Thur in The Spirit Ring, each and every one of her heroes has some kind of physical oddity. Aral has a large L-shaped scar on his face. Miles is very short with a mild hunch, has scars all over his body from various corrective surgeries and a giant one on his chest from a sniper shot. Cazaril is skinny and sickly for most of his book, his back is covered in whip welts, he has a sizeable tumor and he’s missing part of a finger. Dag is rugged, with the generally beat-up body of an old warrior, his left hand was bitten off by a wolf. These gentlemen probably aren’t winning any beauty pageants, and yet they are all so comfortable with who they are, what they are, it makes them so, so appealing. It’s obvious why the ladies want them- even if the heroes can’t understand it themselves.
In the Vorkosigan Saga: (just a few)
- Miles: Ah, Miles-where to begin? He’s intriguing, engrossing with charm and wit to spare. He’s unstoppable. He can unravel the most tangled piece of political intrigue. He can bring a seven foot tall werewoman to her knees with desire. He’s a genius. He’s a brilliant tactician. He’s-under five feet tall. I’ve seen him described as one of the most fascinating, well-developed characters in fiction. I can’t really argue with that, this guy’s like an onion- oy with the layers! He’s particularly charming when he’s wooing his future wife Ekaterin in A Civil Campaign: ""What, when they issued you their honor they didn’t give you the model with the reset button? Mine’s right here.’ He pointed to the general vicinity of his navel."
- Aral: A dedicated leader and father. He’s dealt with disasters (personal, political and otherwise) that would have crippled lesser men (and nearly cripple him but for Cordelia’s love-ahh!). "I would get up-but for some reason my legs go first and my tongue last. I’d rather fall at your feet in some more controlled fashion."
- Cazaril: Humble. Loyal. A man of truly great integrity. He’s brilliant, especially when it comes to political maneuvering in a court full of scheming nobles. Cazaril is hands down one of my most favorite characters EVER! He fell to the very depths of despair and doom and emerged soft-spoken and self-deprecating. Once a great captain of men, after his enslavement he’s become unceasingly grateful for even the smallest kindness. He undervalues himself but fights tooth and nail, blood and bone to help those he cares about and owes fealty to. A wonderful, wonderful character. Here’s a quote of Caz’s from The Curse of Chalion:
"On the galleys we were not lords or men. We were men or animals, and which proved which had no relation I ever saw to birth or blood. The greatest soul I ever met there had been a tanner, and I would kiss his feet right now with joy to learn he yet lived. We slaves, we lords, we fools, we men and women, we mortals, we toys of the gods-‘all the same thing, Palli. They are all the same to me now."
- Ingrey: The hero from The Hallowed Hunt, he’s a loyal liegeman and a secret shaman with the spirit of a wolf trapped in his gut. Handsome, agile, athletic. He’s set to guard a noblewoman who killed the prince in self-defense, and Ingrey finds himself drawn to the girl, Ijara, longing to protect her even as he knows she’s probably doomed. I enjoy how his priorities shift from self-preservation to protecting Ijara, and the ensuing romance is very sweet.
In The Sharing Knife: Dag is awesome. He begins world-weary and welcoming his death (consequence of a shattering loss in his early adult life) and then meets Fawn. She saves him, rekindling the old hunger for life and love. He defies his family and his whole society to stay by her. He acquires a philanthropic bent once he’s met Fawn, a desire to heal the world, unite the two peoples and he sets about doing it, even if it can feel like casting stones in the ocean. I particularly love how well Bujold depicts Dag’s reactions to various complications that arise. They are always multi-layered and real. And I love the way he loves Fawn.
"For the courage of her heart, which I saw face down the greatest horrors I know without breaking. For the high and hungry intelligence of her mind, which never stops asking questions, nor thinking about the answers. For the spark of her spirit, which could teach bonfires how to burn.-All this is set beside me, and you ask me instead if I want dirt? I do not understand farmers."
Writing style (simple v. ornate): Tends towards the simple.
It can get a little complicated in Vorkosigan if she’s space-jargoning but generally she’s not one to use a four syllables if she can get her point across with one. Really solid, well-written stuff that serves her stories. Some books have multiple points of view (A Civil Campaign has 5) and some have just the one (All the Chalion books thus far follow only one POV character). She also has a knack for summing up really complex, deep emotional truths with laser precision. An example from Vorkosigan: "Reputation is what other people know about you, honor is what you know about yourself." And here’s another for good measure from The Curse of Chalion:
"Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice-‘if not whether, then how, they may endure."
Dialogue (lots/little/balanced): Balanced.
There are occasionally sections very heavy in dialogue. Exposition. Interrogations. She doesn’t really do much rapid-fire back and forth dialogue like, say, Crusie or someone. Usually it tends to be a page of mostly conversation, then a page of mostly description, back and forth.
Humor (Yes/No-serious/some): Some.
A dry sense of humor permeates all her books. Occasionally events devolve into downright farce. A Civil Campaign probably has more in common with a Georgette Heyer romp than a classic space opera. At the least, all of her characters banter and joke with each other and to themselves. Usually they are self-deprecating and wry but always so, so funny. All of her books have humorous incidents but they’re not laugh-riots. This bit’s from A Civil Campaign:
"What the hell is going on down here?’ Roic bellowed, scrabbling for his stunner on the wrong side of his holster with his hands slippery from their coating of bug butter. "You woke me up! "S the third time somebody’s woke me up this morning! I’d just got to sleep. "Swore I’d kill the next sonuvabitch who woke me up–!’ Kareen and Martya clung together for a moment of pure aesthetic appreciation of the height, the breadth of shoulder, the bass reverberation, the generous serving of athletic young male Roic presented; Martya sighed. The Escobarans, naturally, had no idea who this giant naked screaming barbarian was who’d appeared between them and the only exit route they knew- Kareen cried urgently, "Roic, they’re trying to kidnap Enrique!’ "Yeah? Good-.Make sure they pack all his devil bugs along with him-’ The panicked Gustioz tried to lunge past Roic toward the door, but caromed off him instead. They both slipped in the bug butter and went down in an arcing flurry of official documentation.
Plot: (action-oriented / character-driven): 50/50.
But actually more like 100/100. Her books are so full, so rich and deep that you are captivated, dragged along on the adventures. Her characters are so real you want to buy them a drink. Her plots intricate and complex. She always creates organic, believable characters and then throws them into impossibly difficult, complicated, delicate situations. I’ve tried a couple times to sum them up here to give you an idea, but there’s just SO much drive in any given novel I don’t really know where to start.
Pace: (fast/medium/slow) Depends.
Most of the Vorkosigans are pretty fast-paced, but then there are some like A Civil Campaign and Komarr that start slower but rev into overdrive at the end. The Sharing Knife series is more slow and steady, episodic at times. Chalion is a mix edging more towards medium/slow. Her plots always manage, though, for all the sub-plots and complications, to remain tightly controlled. No sprawling, unfocused epics here, thank you very much.
Conflict (externally driven/internally driven/both): Both.
Bujold is always one to provide strong motivating factors, both internal and external. Here’s a couple tasters: in Diplomatic Immunity Miles is trying to get back home in time to be there for the birth of his twins. He’s side-tracked by a diplomatic nightmare. He has to worry about his own safety, that of his wife’s, the potential war brewing, a biological weapon that could kill thousands of people and a few other complications that would be too spoilery to mention. Cazaril from The Curse of Chalion has SO many conflicts. There’s a literal one growing in his belly slowly killing him, a demon and a dead soul trapped because of a curse Caz performed to save someone he loved. He’s torn politically between struggling factions. He’s torn theologically as the gods pull him every which way. He constantly questions his own decisions and motivations, wondering, hoping he’s doing the right thing and not leading his entire nation into disaster. He’s been shattered into a million small pieces and is slowly sorting through to see what still fits in his new life, his new self. Basically, in a Bujold book it doesn’t matter whether it’s external or internal- the characters are just driven. Inexorably, perhaps disastrously, driven onward to their fate.
Emotional Angst (high/medium/low): High.
Bujold writes her stories based on "What’s the worst thing I can do to this character?" They have to deal with lost loves, lost children, dishonor, death, disease, social injustice, attempted rape and so much more of the dark, twisty stuff that makes up life. Her books can get really dark but they still don’t take themselves too seriously. And as dark as the depths are to which her characters plunge they still manage to pull themselves back up.
Violence: PG-13 bordering on R.
Her violence is never gratuitous although it is often stark and shocking. I can be a little sensitive about bloodshed and I admit there have been a few scenes of hers that made me squirm, but nothing so disgusting or horrible it made me give up on the book. The Vorkosigan books are probably the most violent. In her books at large there have been mass graves, decapitations, miscarriages, graphic attempted rapes, and other acts of violence to be expected in heightened situations.
Heat level: (kisses/warm/hot/scorching): Kisses/Warm.
As far as the actual love scenes I would say probably kisses to warm. Very little sex takes place on stage. More often there’s a little lead up and then a fade to black. Or veiled allusions to what they’re doing without actually going into Insert Tab A into Slot B purple prose. There are no engorged members thrusting into love grottos here. The sex scenes are really there to build character and plot more than to titillate or excite and as such, are fairly tame. Here’s an example from The Sharing Knife: Beguilement:
Hand. Soon supplemented with tongue, in very tender places indeed. His touch was like silk, there, there, there? ah! She jerked in surprise but eased back. So, this was making love-.Minutes flew. Something was swirling through her, like some astonishingly sweet emergency. His touch grew firmer, swifter, surer. Her eyes closed, her breath came faster, and her spine began to arch. Then her breath caught, and she went rigid, silent, openmouthed, as the sensation burst from her, climbing up to white out her brain, to rush like a tide to her fingers and toes, to ebb.
I would point out that there are sometimes rather frank discussions in Bujold’s books about bisexuality, hermaphrodites, sexual violence and sexual experimentation, just as an FYI for people who might be sensitive about that stuff. Bujold pulls no punches. About anything, really.
If you like Lois McMaster Bujold, you’ll like-
I’m going to break this down too:
You might try some Georgette Heyer. She has the same enveloping, precise and detail-oriented world-building. Her characters are varied and rich. Her plots can become intricate as a fold of lace. She has romance, adventure, and intrigue. The witty quips fly faster than you can keep up sometimes. These Old Shades has the dark, delicious Duke of Avon. The Talisman Ring is a hilarious romp. The Grand Sophy features an indomitable, headstrong heroine. Personally, I’ve never read a Heyer I didn’t enjoy and the same goes for Bujold’s books too.
In Particular, if You Like:
- The Vorkosigan Saga try: Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair. The world-building isn’t up to Bujold, but if you’re hankering for some military SF with a romance this book reads like a poor man’s Vorkosigan in many places. The hero is pretty much a beefier, "hunk" version of Aral Vorkosigan. He’s even nick-named the Butcher too. I haven’t read any others by Sinclair but she’s a RITA award winning novelist with several other SF titles under her belt: maybe someone else can give more title suggestions. I unfortunately don’t read much SF and the stuff I have read is probably too dated for most modern SF readers. I hope other folks have more suggestions.
- Chalion try: I would recommend Andre Norton’s Witch World series (most of which have some kind of romance). Some of my favorites would be the first two Witch World books respectively titled The Witch World and Web of the Witch World. Also, Year of the Unicorn (which actually has no unicorns in it- promise!). All three of these have well-developed, satisfying romantic subplots, killer world-building and adept character development. I haven’t read this myself yet but from what I’ve read Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series has similar themes and high stakes like Chalion. A world in peril, the state religion kind of up in the air-Tell me if I’m wrong in the comments, though.
- The Sharing Knife try: I highly recommend The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Fans of The Sharing Knife books might like the conflict as two sets of peoples (Dragonriders and Holders) try to figure out how to live and support each other amidst a crisis that threatens their whole world. It features the same layered, intricate world-building as a Bujold novel and it has a lot of the same themes. Actually, the more I thought about it the more similarities I saw between the Dragonrider/ Holder and the Lakewalker/Farmer conflicts. Many, if not all, of the Dragonrider books have some sort of romantic subplot and the Dragonrider men are HAWT. I would highly recommend the first two books Dragonflight and Dragonquest. The series is pretty large so if you want to dive in I really recommend reading them in the order they were published and not by the books’ internal chronology. Oh, and don’t bother with the newest ones by her son at all. The Gryphon Saga by Andre Norton, comprised of three books: The Crystal Gryphon, Gryphon in Glory, and Gryphon’s Eyrie. They’re an off-shoot of the Witch World series and they follow Lord Kerovan, a lord’s heir and soldier, and his lady-love, Joisan, as they navigate their war-torn world. The first book has them separated by conflict and chaos. Kerovan has an out of the ordinary appearance (amber colored eyes and cloven feet) and magical abilities to match. Their marriage starts off as an arranged one of convenience but then they move towards friendship and, eventually, love, trust and true companionship. Kerovan reminds me a bit of Dag. He worries constantly if there is something profoundly evil about him because of his immense supernatural power. By the end of the first book Kerovan and Joisan set off into the wide unknown world together to wander and find answers to save themselves and their world.
- The Spirit Ring try: Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Spindle’s End. These books are similar because of the cooperative defeat of the baddies and the self-sufficient, strong heroines. Also they share the more young adult tone. McKinley’s have more pronounced romances (being based on fairytales) than The Spirit Ring and Bujold in general.
Ok, your turn: What do you recommend?