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.