Book Review

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold – A Guest Review by CarrieS


Title: Cordelia's Honor
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publication Info: Baen Publishing 1999
ISBN: 780671578282
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold Lois McMaster Bujold wrote what is quite possibly the most famous, beloved, and awesome science fiction romance ever, A Civil Campaign.  ( A | BN | K | S | iB) A Civil Campaign is a Regency Romance set in space, with manners, fantastic clothes, and awkward dinner parties mixed with cloning, recovery from physical and mental trauma, inter-galactic politics, humor, sadness, glowing HEAs, and much more.

I'm not writing a full review of that particular book because so many people have read it already – in fact I discovered it thanks to a comment thread on this very site.  If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this right now and go read it.  It's OK.  I'll wait.

Yay, you're back!  Wasn't that great?  So anyway, Bujold has written a vast number of novels in many different genres, and I wanted to review her first book, which is also a romance:  Shards of Honor.  I planned to review it as a stand alone novel, which is how it was originally published, but I ended up with an Omnibus edition that pairs Shards of Honor with a later novel about the same couple:  Barrayar.  So I'm now going to review both books since they are in my mind as a unit.  Rest assured that both novels are available as stand alones and work as such.  For formatting purposes I have to pick one grade for the whole Omnibus instead of grading each book separately.  The averaged grade comes to a B+ but that's a C+ for Shards and an A+ for Barrayar.

Shards of Honor was written in 1986, and is solidly within the romance novel genre, but with some twists.  I'm not going to get into the details of the planets and the politics but basically, Commander Cordelia Naismith is on a planet, taken prisoner by a guy named Aral Vorkosigan, they have to work to together for survival, etc, etc.  The plot thickens when Cordelia ends up on Aral's ship, there are various plots and mutinies and Aral and Cordelia are caught up in politics and doomed to be apart because they are residents of two warring planets.  Plot stuff ensues.

Shards is an interesting book in that it's really three books packed into one, and this was also a hard book to grade.  The first section is a straightforward romance/science fiction adventure.  In the middle section, the romance continues to build, but the tone darkens as it becomes much more about difficult choices and moral conundrums.  The final section is also dark, but in a different way, as Cordelia tries to find a way to live on her home world after her experiences with Aral.  I think the tonal shifts are deliberate, but they are unsettling (which might be the point.  I'm not sure).  Another thing to note is that it's a very grown-up romance.  Not just because the characters are both in middle age, but also because they deal with dramatic situations as un-dramatically as possible.  Cordelia spends a lot of time reacting to things instead of being proactive, but she reacts sensibly and courageously.  Cordelia and Aral are realistic about their future.  They are practical people.

Shards is also interesting because it provides a HEA and then informs the reader that there is no HEA – only partnership in the face of struggle.  It's an odd book, and surprisingly gloomy for a story in which true love triumphs.  Shards explores the theme of impossible moral choices. Aral says, “I've always tried to walk the path of honor.  But what do you do when all the choices are evil?”  This is the central question of the book.  There's no answer provided, only a startling epilogue that closes the story with these words, “” Yes,” he thought, “the good face pain.  But the great – they embrace it.””

Barrayar was written in 1991 but it opens the day after Shards ends.  The writing is much more polished.  The story does concern the marriage of Aral and Cordelia, but it is really about Cordelia and how she carves out a role (sometimes literally) for herself as her own woman and as a mother in world she sees as hostile to herself, her child, and her marriage.  This book was exhausting and harrowing but oh, my stars, it was good.  Was it a romance?  I'd say not really, because the point isn't Cordelia and Aral, it's about Cordelia saving her life in the broadest sense – which for her, means saving her new country, her child, her friends, and, oh yeah, her marriage.  There are some incredibly violent scenes.  There are no puppies or kittens and if there were they'd probably be stomped to death.  And yet this book ends on a more optimistic note than Shards.  Two quotes describe the book's overarching themes beautifully, and bring a sense of completion and optimism to the closing of Shards:

“Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning because the universe certainly isn't going to supply it.  Always be a moving target.  Live.  Live.  Live.”

And this quote, about the tenaciousness of familial bonds:  “While we live we cannot disengage.”

There's so much I could say about these two books.  Anyone who thinks Romance Novels are fluff should be beaten over the head with these.  You want weighty content?  I got your content right here, baby – sexism, politics, war, ethics, rape, horrific violence, deep tenderness, family, motherhood, abortion, PTSD, the rights of the disabled, medical ethics and practices, classism, culture shock – seriously.  You want a Crowning Moment of Awesome?  “I went shopping.” = Best.  Line.  Ever.  Want humor?  Watch Cordelia play go-between to two young people who cannot communicate.  It's a tough ride, but wow is there a lot of stuff in those books.  Hell, the afterword alone, in the Omnibus Edition, is amazing.  Here's a quote by Bujold that makes my dizzy with it's awesomeness:

“As a longtime series reader, and now writer, I'm very aware of the pitfalls of what I've come to believe is another story form, as distinct from the novel as the novel is from the short story…Each series novel must simultaneously be a complete tale in itself, and uphold its unique place in the growing structure; it must be two books at once.”

If you want to jump into the Vorkosigan Saga, you can do so at any point, but be aware that the books vary in their amount of romantic content.  Bujold recommends that the series be read in chronological order of content as opposed to the order in which she wrote the books, which would mean you'd start with Falling Free ( A | BN | K | S | iB) (which has some cute romance stuff in it) and then hit Shards and Barrayar.  Of course by now you've followed my advice and read A Civil Campaign, so that's out the way!  Really, A Civil Campaign is the only novel I've read yet by Bujold that qualifies as a true romance novel and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  But that doesn't mean that Shards of Honor and Barrayar aren't worth reading as searing observations of love in a difficult world.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Sony | Kobo.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    TheDuchess says:

    I inhaled this entire series over summer this year, and fell head over heels in love with it. Bujold deserves every ounce of recognition and acknowledgement she’s received.

  2. 2
    Blue-ringed occy says:

    You can also buy the books from Baen’s site:…
    Low prices, multiple formats, no DRM, no georestrictions. What’s not to like? ;)

  3. 3
    Karin says:

    I just read Shards of Honor, and I’m taking a breather before Barrayar, but I thought it was way better than C+. Among other things, I thought Aral’s love for Cordelia, his marriage proposal and what he says about her honor, were highly romantic. And Cordelia is such a strong feminist, I loved her attitude. After Shards of Honor, I knew I would have to read the whole series, so I ordered a used hardcover copy of The Warrior’s Apprentice from Amazon, which I found at a reasonable price. But the prices for a new paperback are insane! The cheapest right now is $143.46 and it’s n/a on Kindle.

  4. 4
    LG says:

    The Warrior’s Apprentice was what convinced me to finally start buying Baen’s e-books. I’m slowly working my way through this series, with the occasional detour (just read The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells, also available in e-book form from Baen).

  5. 5
    LG says:

    I know, when I looked at print book options for the series, I was a little horrified. I decided I’d use the e-books as instant gratification and collect the print books more slowly, via used bookstore finds if necessary.

  6. 6

    I loved this series. I read it in college. Time to go see if the library has it so i can read it again.

  7. 7
    Frannie says:

    I loved this review! I think Bujold is a brilliant and amazing writer. I started with the Challion series, moved on to Cordelia’s Honour & the entire Vorkosigan series (there’s an ARC of the latest, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, available from Baen) and then the Sharing Knife Series. I listened to them all on audiobook (I do a lot of driving) and then purchased paper or ebook where I could and reread them. They’re incredibly intelligent, funny, intensely romantic, deeply moving, and yes, fully of weighty content – very thought provoking. A Civil Campaign is perhaps my favourite, although Paladin of Souls is a close second.

  8. 8
    GHN says:

    Bujold is an incredible author. She is one who has it all! And certainly Shards of Honor and Barrayar are excellent – and the latter book will certainly transform your idea of shopping trips.
    And Cordelia also makes an excellent – if untraditional – “Baba” (matchmaker)
    And Carrie – if you want romance, I can also recommend Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. It is part of Baen’s November bundle, but I got the eARC (well spent money!), and I found it very much to be in the tradition of A Civil Campaign. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is Ivan-you-idiot’s book, for those of you who like this series.

  9. 9
    Todd says:

    I read “Shards of Honor” when it first came out and have been a fan ever since. I’ve read just about all of them. In regard to Cordelia playing Baba, in ones of the Miles books he plays TWO Babas, plus the sworn lord to both parties. Hyperactive little git.

  10. 10
    hapax says:

    Oh, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, how I love the.  I think her entire character (and story arc) can be summed up in this quote (it’s from CIVIL CAMPAIGN, but refers back to the events of SHARDS / BARRAYAR):
    “You trust beyond reason!”
    “Yes.  It’s how I get results beyond hope.”

  11. 11
    miz_geek says:

    Most of the Vorkosigan saga ebooks used to be available for free from Baen (but looks like they’ve changed their minds about that and taken them down).  That is actually the specific reason I bought an e-reader two years ago.  I really wanted to reread them all, and I just couldn’t stand to do it on my laptop.  Excellent series. 

  12. 12
    Becca says:

    Buy them from Baen – they’re reasonably priced there.

  13. 13
    Tiffany says:

    Lois McMaster Bujold is without a doubt my favorite author, I read her books over and over again, and while I am thrilled and in love and terrified and all those things good books make you feel for the charectors when I finish one I feel as if I learned a little more about being a human. Every time.

  14. 14

    If you want “The Warrior’s Apprentice,” buy “Young Miles” ($8 omnibus which includes it plus a novella and another novel).

    Vorkisogan is one of my all-time favorite series—despite that, I think the first book (Shards of Honor) is among the weakest. I just don’t think Bujold had hit her stride yet as a writer with that one. When I started reading the series to my 13-year-old son, I began with Warrior’s Apprentice. It hooked him hard (after a few chapters—it has a slowish start for a teenage boy), and later I’m sure he’ll have the interest to go back and read the first two.

    An interesting thing about this series is that Bujold writes in many different styles. Some of the books are romances, some are mysteries, and some are military sci-fi. And it really doesn’t matter what they are! Because they all have incredible characters and incredible heart, and whatever the story is, you’re just along for the ride.

    They’re also quite interesting to read aloud, because the vocabulary Bujold uses is sophisticated. I keep running into words that I know but have never actually said out loud, so I have to pause to think how to pronounce them.

  15. 15
    Carrie says:

    If you want to experience Bujold in all her glory, listen to the Vorkosigan books on audio. Grover gardener is masterful as the narrator. I also loved The Curse of Chalion on audio. The narrator (I forget his name) was perfect!

    I disagree about your take on Shards, however. It was one of the few books I’ve read that I’ve given 5 stars to. It’s a wonderful study of conflict and point of view. Aral and Cordelia spend a great deal of time in the book just talking, and it’s wonderful to listen to.

    I’d also recommend readers read Shards and even Barrayar before A Civil Campaign. You need Miles’ back story to get the most out of the book. Actually, I’d read Shards, Barrayar, The Warrior’s Apprentice and Komarr first. That gives you his back story and a good look at his character. In Komarr you get Ekaterin’s story, which helps the reader understand her character and reluctance in A Civil Campaign.

    But however you read them, Bujold is one in a million.

  16. 16
    Kmitc56 says:

    I was so excited to see that you reviewed a book in one of my favorite series.  I just finished Cryoburn, the last in the series.  Another book in the series is supposed to be out soon but I think it takes place before Cryoburn.  Anyway, I’m starting the series over now with Shard’s of Honor. I’m going to skip Falling Free this time.  In the interest of honesty I have to admit that I’ve not read one of these books – I listened to all of them instead.  I love the narrator – these are great audiobooks. McMaster has a chronological list on her site at…

  17. 17
    harthad says:

    I second the vote for the audiobooks! I’m currently working my way through Miles’ whole story arc that way (almost done with Brothers in Arms). The narrator does a great job.

  18. 18
    Melinda Smith says:

    Shards of Honor is one of my favorite books of all time—more than a desert island keeper, I’d call it a zombie apocalypse keeper or something. I love that in the midst of the action and the romance, the book presents strong and multilayered characters who navigate moral ambiguity and try to make the right choices. Cordelia is such an amazing character that, had I read this book before my daughters were born, I might have had to name one of them after her. It’s just a great, great book (and you can probably guess that I’d give it an A+ instead of a C+). (And yes, by all means, buy these books from Baen where they are readily available in all formats and reasonably priced.)

  19. 19
    Amelia Lewis says:

    This was already mentioned-in-passing, but I wanted to underline it: all of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga series (maybe there’s an exception? but I don’t think so) are in print (published by Baen, available at Amazon and other large-inventory stores), as omnibus volumes (two or three novels bound together). It can be a little difficult figuring out which omnibus volumes contain which books (and I don’t think the omnibuses read straight through chronologically, but haven’t checked for sure), but they’re all there, at reasonable prices.

    In addition, you can get the ebooks directly from Baen, in multiple formats (and the purchase price includes all/any of the formats that you want). They don’t sell the ebooks on Amazon, because they were a pioneer of delivery without DRM, and I understand that Amazon has been fairly fierce about enforcing DRM.

    So: for the books, you need to find the omnibus volume that contains the novel originally published (try Baen, and look in each omnibus volume for LMB; they say “previously released as _X_ and _Y_”). For the ebooks, Baen.

    Definitely worthwhile. And I agree with others that Shards rates higher than C+ … but it *is* rather somber. The epilogue, in particular, is unsettling and apparently only tangentially related to the main story … but if you eventually get to “it needs to be there,” then you’re probably a Bujold fan. :-)

  20. 20

    There’s a new one out in November, I believe. It’s about Ivan.

    Miles Vorkosigan, maniacal dwarf mercenary diplomat who can do push ups with his tongue, is one of the most 3D characters in literature of any genre. If I had to choose between Bujold and Pratchett it would be a mighty hard choice.


  21. 21

    I have to agree with Melinda and the others in that Shards of Honor is one of my all-time favorite books, and Barrayar is simply amazing, too.  Cordelia and Aral are both incredible characters.  And, of course, so is their son.

    Paladin of Souls is my favorite fantasy of hers (as opposed to science fiction), and also has an amazing female lead.

    Someone mentioned Martha Wells—if you want a wonderful fantasy, amazing world building, and an enticing thread of romance, I would definitely recommend her.  Her romance is always subtle, but somehow it has such an impact.

  22. 22
    Carrie says:

    I’m glad to read the positive comments about Paladin of Souls. I read a few reviews that made me think I might not like it as well as Curse of Chalion, but if it’s a favorite here, I’ll definitely give it a try.

  23. 23

    I read The Sharing Knife series and the Chalion-verse books ages before I tried the Vorkosigan Saga because ordinarily I vastly prefer fantasy to science fiction. But eventually I took the plunge, and I’m so glad I did. They’re up there with Jane Austen and the Lord Peter Wimsey books on my all-time favorites list. I haven’t quite taken to accosting strangers on the street and demanding to know if they’ve accepted Miles Vorkosigan as their personal Vor-lord and savior yet, but the temptation is there. Really, though, Aral is my favorite, slightly edging out Lord Peter on my personal fictional secret boyfriend list.

    That said, I don’t think Shards of Honor is the best entry point to the series, because Bujold has grown so much as a writer since then. I’d start with The Warrior’s Apprentice, maybe the whole Young Miles omnibus, then go back for Shards/Barrayar and then move forward chronologically. A Civil Campaign is tied with Memory for my favorite of the series, but I can’t imagine reading it without having read Memory and Komarr first.

    Oh, and I also bought the eARC of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and have already read it twice. It’s also a lovely romance, and something of a valentine to fans of the series, but I don’t think it would work as a standalone—at least, you’d lose a lot by not knowing the characters’ history.

    I should probably stop babbling fangirlishly, but since Carrie named two of my favorite quotes from Barrayar, I can’t resist throwing in my two favorites from the series as a whole.

    From Memory: “The one thing you can’t trade from your heart’s desire is your heart.”

    From A Civil Campaign: “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.” Followed in the same scene by: “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.”

  24. 24
    Mari says:

    I met Bujold and Pratchett at the same conference once. (Actually it was the second time I met Bujold. The first time, I was on a panel with her. Discussing “A Civil Campaign.” Swoon.) They aren’t just great writers, they’re lovely people.  I will never forget how sweet Pratchett was when talking with my teenage daughter.

  25. 25
    CarrieS says:

    @Mari – WOW. Just…WOW.  Am speechless with how awesome that is.

  26. 26
    Tae says:

    Ivan’s book!!! Bujold became one of my favorite authors after reading everything she wrote.  She’s from Minneapolis and I had the chance to meet her a few times when I lived up there.

  27. 27
    Sophydc says:

    omg…that is my holy grail of authors! It is great to hear that they are wonderful people too (I always thought they were based on what they have to say about humanity). That is so cool.

  28. 28
    Growlycub says:

    Always fascinating to read others’ opinions.  I prefer Shards to ACC hands down.  Matter of fact I just re-read it (well listened and yes, I second the Grover Gardner audio rec; he’s very, very good).  I don’t re-read ACC.

    I bought the eARC of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. I liked what she did with Ivan very much and it’s a very good ending to the series.

  29. 29

    I have two sets: the physical for comfort reading and the Baen eBooks for travel. Never leave home without Bujold!

  30. 30
    Books4mb says:

    I adore the whole Vorkosigan series. Aral makes me swoon. Miles makes me laugh, and I want to be like Cordelia when I grow up. Whenever I want to torture myself, I read the Aftermath section Cryoburn. Those few pages get me every time. I don’t just choke up or get a little teary, I flat out cry. I won’t say exactly why, so I don’t spoil it for any one, but those 100-word drabbles are some of the most moving word I’ve ever read.

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top