Shards of Honor is, basically, a military sci-fi romance, telling the epic story of how Captain Cordelia Naismith ditched Beta colony and ran away to marry Lord Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most elite warriors of the elite warrior class of the warlike Barrayar civilization. My understanding of the Vorkosigan Saga series, of which this is the first installment, is that the protagonist for most of it is Cordelia and Vorkosigan’s son, making this a sort of How-Mommy-And-Daddy-Met prequel to the rest of it. In this case, how Mommy and Daddy met involves a lot of interplanetary politicking and Cordelia getting taken prisoner in increasingly ridiculous ways.
There is totally a star-crossed lovers joke to be made about Cordelia and Vorkosigan, as even before the war breaks out Beta colony and Barrayar don’t like each other very much at all; each colony/country/thing has a big stick up their butt about how their way of doing things is the only proper civilized not-stupid way and what is wrong with those (choose: brutal, wimpy) other people anyway. When the war breaks out it gets even worse.
Cordelia and Vorkosigan first meet when both of their missions on a weird alien planet go wrong at about the same time. Cordelia’s mission was an exploratory one, leading a team of botanists and stuff to research the fantastically crazy flora and fauna of this planet, which involves things like hydrogen-filled floating vampire jellyfish (+10 points to Bujold for worldbuilding, just for the vampire jellyfish). Her team was attacked by Barrayarans, who are considering starting a war over this particular planet. Vorkosigan’s mission was not precisely to kill all of Cordelia’s scientists, but that’s basically what happened because a rival political faction picked this mission to instigate a mutiny against Vorkosigan.
Vorkosigan takes Cordelia prisoner, along with one of Cordelia’s men who is suffering from nerve disruptor damage and has lost all higher brain functions. Cordelia learns all sorts of fun things about the Barrayaran culture and political situations on their four-day adventure to stay alive and get to the supply depot, where Vorkosigan surprises his men by being not dead and re-takes command. Cordelia is rescued by some of her men in the middle of the mutineers trying to re-mutiny, and things are kind of awkward because Cordelia’s rescuers have teamed up with the mutineers to make this happen, but Cordelia at this point kind of likes Vorkosigan and really is not at all on Team Mutineers. Cordelia awesomely pulls off a weird half-baked plot to both foil the mutineers and escape with her men.
Some months later, war is on, and Cordelia is now officially a combat captain, when she and her men again get captured by Barrayarans. This time she is captured by a deeply unpleasant and twisted dude who plans to torture and rape her, in what is really one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have read in a damn long time. Creepy dude tries to outsource the raping to a former soldier of Vorkosigan’s, however, and the soldier (who is a very interesting but not very intelligent sort) recognizes Cordelia and still has her mentally categorized as Vorkosigan’s prisoner. Vorkosigan has very strong feelings about not hurting prisoners. The soldier kills the creepy dude instead, and this is where the plot really starts to go crazy enough that I don’t think I can summarize it. The political situation in Barrayar is deeply complicated, full of plots within plots and the sorts of things that make an honorable guy like Vorkosigan start drinking heavily when he figures out what’s going on and what part he actually has in all of it.
Cordelia returns from the war a hero, although she is shell-shocked and also really annoyed that nobody will listen to or believe her accounts about what happened and what she did and did not do. (The main sticking point on this one is that creepy rapist guy did not succeed in raping her, and she was not the one who killed him, but everyone is totally sure that he raped her but then she did kill him, because that’s the story they want.) This reaches the final straw when she meets a series of smug psychologists who are all a hundred thousand million bajillion percent sure they know exactly what did and did not happen to her, and that any evidence to the contrary is merely evidence of a really good cover-up, and anything Cordelia says to the contrary is obviously just denial, because there is of course no way that things could have gone any way other than the way a bunch of people who weren’t there decided they did. Cordelia eventually gets so frustrated with this condescending treatment that she runs off to Barrayan to see if Vorkosigan is still interested in her. Cordelia’s escape from Beta Colony is an absolute delight to read; it’s clever, it’s funny, it contains much off-the-cuff manipulating of journalists and spaceship pilots. Cordelia really has an amazing talent for pulling off completely harebrained escape attempts by the seat of her pants.
The romance in this story, despite being sort of the point of the novel, is all very understated, except for the weird Jane Austeny thing where the first move anybody makes is a marriage proposal. But it is a very sensible marriage proposal, as Cordelia and Vorkosigan are both sensible mature adults. It’s quite easy to see why they make a good match, and they work very well together. It’s also cute that they are both a bit older, frequently being the oldest characters around, so they have a sort of bonding over competent world-weariness thing going on that for some reason I really like. They are both generally pretty level-headed people, and Cordelia in particular has a sort of resourcefulness and dry sense of humor that I really like in a protagonist.
Overall, Shards of Honor was a really solid and enjoyable space opera, with a little bit of everything—action and romance and intrigue and humor—and generally likeable characters. While I am bummed to hear that Cordelia won’t be the heroine in the other books—Cordelia is pretty great, I have not gushed on for too long about how great Cordelia is BUT I COULD—I will certainly be putting them on The TBR List, if only in hopes of more floating vampire jellyfish.