Werthead

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Book 1: Shards of Honor

Cordelia Naismith, commander of a survery ship from Beta Colony, is marooned on an uncharted planet when her vessel is attacked by Barryarans. Naismith is captured by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the infamous Butcher of Komarr, and taken on a gruelling cross-country journey to his base camp. However, Vorkosigan himself is facing a prospective mutiny led by an ambitious junior officer and both Beta and Barrayar are about to find themselves on opposing sides of a bloody war.

The Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most famous ongoing works of science fiction in the United States. Comprising (so far) fifteen novels and numerous short stories and novellas, the series has won four Hugos (including three for Best Novel), been nominated for another six and has won an additional two Locus Awards and two Nebulas. The series has sold more than two million copies for Baen Books in the States, but is almost unknown in the UK. Repeated attempts to publish the series here have failed, usually due to low sales and indifferent reviews.

Reading Shards of Honour, I have to reluctantly adopt the traditional British stance of not seeing what all the fuss is about. The book starts off well enough, with an adventure storyline featuring two people (and a severely injured third) abandoned on a planet and having to work together to survive. These sequences, though indifferently written, are interesting enough and Bujold reveals an interesting amount of character through the actions of Cordelia and Aral. Unfortunately, what she doesn't do is provide them with any chemistry. When Cordelia realises she is attracted to Aral, and Aral reciprocates those feelings, it kind of comes out of nowhere. When (spoiler alert!) they are eventually rescued, the book descends into a montage of Cordelia being captured, released, re-captured, escaping, being almost-raped (the lazy go-to jeopardy trope for any female character in peril, naturally) and so on for a good hundred pages or so. Due to the stodgy prose, mechanical dialogue and somewhat stilted character reactions, none of this is particularly exciting.

Things perk up a little bit towards the end, with the revelations of the extent of a supporting character's psychological trauma and a subplot about a bunch of unborn babies in exowombs (the result of war rapes) having to be forcibly supported by the fathers who conceived them both being intriguing, but these are very minor elements that arrive rather late in the day.

Shards of Honour (**) has moments of interest, but overall is stodgily-written and unconvincingly-characterised. Still, it's a first novel and not one of the most well-regarded in the series, so I will press on with the (chronologically) second novel in the series and one of the most critically-acclaimed, Barrayar. Shards of Honour is available now as the past of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus (UK, USA).

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Well, really, all the fuss is about Miles (and Gregor, and Ivan, I guess), and the Cordelia novels (this and Barrayar) are really only good to provide background for characters who will appear or reappear in other novels.

If you're doing this in publication order, you might have to slog through rather mediocre stories, I find that Bujold only hit her stride in the mid 90.

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Yeah, I've read the first few, Shards of Honour is definitely the weakest although I thought it was ok. The series isn't reinventing the wheel or anything but they're pretty good entertaining reads.

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Well, really, all the fuss is about Miles (and Gregor, and Ivan, I guess), and the Cordelia novels (this and Barrayar) are really only good to provide background for characters who will appear or reappear in other novels.

I disagree, Barrayar is really good. And I prefer Cordelia to Miles as a main character, even though Shards of Honor is far from great overall.

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I disagree, Barrayar is really good. And I prefer Cordelia to Miles as a main character, even though Shards of Honor is far from great overall.
I don't know, I found it too heavy-handed, I don't know, even contrived, in all aspects

Except the koudelka fling, and Alys Vorpatril, that was nice. But the thing about beheading the pretender with your katana since you're so uber awesome and stuff? Meh.

For my money, A Civil Campaign is where it's at, followed by Komarr, Memory, Cetaganda, and so on. And this makes me think I didn't read the last three books in the series, I should get down to, but I was not that grabbed by diplomatic immunity.

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Except the koudelka fling, and Alys Vorpatril, that was nice. But the thing about beheading the pretender with your katana since you're so uber awesome and stuff? Meh.

For my money, A Civil Campaign is where it's at, followed by Komarr, Memory, Cetaganda, and so on. And this makes me think I didn't read the last three books in the series, I should get down to, but I was not that grabbed by diplomatic immunity.

Huh? Bothari beheaded Vordarian. But because of the way she delivered the head to Aral, Cordelia is commonly credited among the people. She didn't make the truth public because she didn't want Bothari court-martialed, but the relevant people know it. On Barrayar, it also works double duty as a propaganda coup. :)

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Huh? Bothari beheaded Vordarian. But because of the way she delivered the head to Aral, Cordelia is commonly credited among the people. She didn't make the truth public because she didn't want Bothari court-martialed, but the relevant people know it. On Barrayar, it also works double duty as a propaganda coup. :)

Yes, I know, I have read that book, it was bad formulation on my part, but you know what I meant.

Also, I don't know if I ever considered Bothari as anything but a simple tool in those stories. Even when he died, I felt like if one of miles' blaster jammed. (even with the melodrama in the book.) So who wielded the sword, heh, it's not a detail that really struck my mind. Funny you know, since I remember more easily who the sword belongs to and how they smuggled it in.

Edited by Errant Bard

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The Cordelia ones (and the new Ivan one) are the only ones I haven't read. I'm actually a wee bit disappointed by recent installments: Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn were pretty weak, with much wasted potential in the latter case. A Civil Campaign was enjoyable fluff, but there's been nothing approaching the likes of say, Memory.

Edited by Roose Bolton's Pet Leech

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Diplomatic Immunity felt like a rehash of things we had seen before to me. I agree that memory is really good, but I like the fluff better still, and Komarr can rival Memory if you consider that the hero is not Miles but Ekaterin, in truth I used to not like it that much, but it grew on me with a reread.

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Well, really, all the fuss is about Miles (and Gregor, and Ivan, I guess), and the Cordelia novels (this and Barrayar) are really only good to provide background for characters who will appear or reappear in other novels.

Although I was a bit underwhelmed by Shards of Honour (which has some good bits, but Bujold's writing is a bit clumsy compared to her later books) I thought Barrayar was a lot better and I'd rank it above the first of Miles' stories. I think Cordelia does get better characterisation in Barrayar.

I'm actually a wee bit disappointed by recent installments: Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn were pretty weak, with much wasted potential in the latter case.

I'm a bit disappointed that the post-Civil Campaign books haven't really advanced the main plot of the series. DI, Cryoburn and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance are still entertaining to read (particularly Ivan's book) but I agree they're a bit lacking in depth compared to some of the best books in the series.

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I had a similar reaction to the first omnibus. I just don't get it. I think it may be in parts for me wanting to strangle Cordelia half the time, although I will say Barrayar is much better written plus, and forgive me if I spell this wrong, Borathi in the second book has a fascinating character arc. But oh my god, I get it, she's worried about her baby.

Definitely plan to continue on to the miles books though. There is potential here.

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One of the things to keep in mind about the Vorkosigan novels and short stories is the time frame in which they were written and the type of SciFi that they are.

They were started in the late 80's and early 90's as romances / space opera. As such, you would expect them to take place in the sort of "California in Space" milieu that so many of the SciFi books of that genre and time adopted.

Instead, we got a culture really out of left field, including a planet settled by Russians, Greeks and Frenchmen, formerly subjugated by some form of Chinese / Japanese super race.

By itself, this world (or should I say galaxy) she created was fairly unique. For young adult novels, they provided an excellent entre into the world of Science Fiction, and while they had departed from the world where Hero Whiteman powers his rocketship with his slide rule and guts, they weren't quite as culturally alien as William Gibson, either.

Furthermore, you can feel Bujold become a better writer as her career continues. Ethan of Athos is much more a juvenile work than The Curse of Chalion, and you have to admire someone who hones her craft like Bujold has done.

Finally, while not exactly wish-fulfillment fantasies like Leo Frankowski, the reader is safe in thinking that Bujold will provide a redeeming virtue from all the growth and change in the characters. And like GRRM, if not to the same harrowing lengths, Bujold does imperil and even kill off characters. And when she believes they have no more growth to offer, she focuses on other characters within her universe, as witness to her moving on to Ivan and Ekaterin.

I first ran across her stuff in Analog, specifically Weatherman in 1990 and then Barrayar in the next year. Compared to the other stories in Analog at the time, hers really stood out for readability and interesting and sympathetic characters. (At that time, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was far superior to Analog in terms of the stuff they were publishing for some reason, so to get a real winner in Analog was noteworthy.) I started looking for her name in the bookstores, and I have found her stuff to be generally very satisfying if not always challenging.

Note - I haven't read any of The Sharing Knife books.

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FAO Werthead, since I can't send a PM...

Wert,

I am enjoying your reviews of various books on this site and your blog.

Someday as you have the opportunity, I would enjoy reading your reviews of The Lords of Dus.

Lawrence Watt-Evans doesn't have a lot of reviews, perhaps because he wrote most of his works before the age of the internet.

In any case, your depth and breadth of FSF reading would make for an interesting review of these four books from the dawn of the 80's.

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Seven Altars of Dusarra

The Sword of Bheleu

The Book of Silence

Thanks and have a nice weekend.

Wilbur

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Book 2: Barrayar

Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony has married Aral Vorkosigan, the Imperial Regent, and is now living on Barrayar, the homeworld of her former enemies. Cordelia is bewildered by Barrayaran society, which is militaristic, elitist, feudal and unforgiving of physical infirmity or weakness. As she sets out to try to make a fairer life for her family and friends, they are all swept up in political intrigue and civil war when Vorkosigan's regency is challenged.

Barrayar is less the sequel to than the direction continuation of Shards of Honour, the first novel in The Vorkosigan Saga. This is understandable, as Bujold wrote them as one one long novel, but broke off before Barrayar was very far underway and ended up writing a whole bunch of other novels before getting back to this one. This sabbatical was for the good, as Barrayar is a significant improvement over the lacklustre Shards of Honour, featuring much more interesting characterisation and a more a gripping plot.

As before, the book is told from the POV of Cordelia and the book is focused heavily on her characterisation as she adjusts to life on a new world. Exploring Barrayar from the outside is a good idea, as Cordelia gets to express the reader's disbelief that such a techno-feudal society could even exist. There are some great moments as well where natives of Barrayar try to 'shock' Cordelia (such as with rumours of a gay affair between two male lords) with scandals only for her to find them bafflingly ordinary and inoffensive. It would be easy for Bujold to make Cordelia arrogant and superior about such things, but she plays fair and on one or two occasions Cordelia has to admit where her own world has gotten things wrong, and where Barrayar may have better ideas (though the reverse situation is much frequent).

In the first novel, Cordelia was stoic to the point of being emotionally inert, but in the sequel she is a much better-nuanced character who reacts more believably to events. Bujold never lets us forget that Cordelia is a trained and professional military officer, so her crisis-management skills and tendency to personally take part in dangerous missions herself are well-founded. The theme of motherhood is also explored, as Cordelia falls pregnant only for her unborn child to suffer injuries in an attempted assassination attempt. Barrayaran tradition would be to have the child aborted, but Cordelia causes a scandal by using imported Betan technology to save his life at the cost of leaving him crippled, to the fury of her father-in-law. The resulting tension may be obvious ('baby in danger' is a bit old-school for an SF trope) but it works quite well.

In the latter part of the novel, when open civil war erupts, Bujold's decision to stick with Cordelia as the POV character pays dividends. Normally in a big SF novel, the author would adopt a multi-POV approach, or stick with the characters in the thick of the action. Instead, Cordelia is cut off from the outside world and has to lie low in the countryside without a clue as to how things are progressing or where her husband is. This approach is purposefully frustrating, as we share Cordelia's annoyance at not knowing what's happening and it works quite well.

On the negative side of things, the focus on Cordelia compromises the characterisation of secondary characters. Aral Vorkosigan himself remains a fairly distant figure and Cordelia's staff get mixed treatment. Bothari is a sympathetic-but-tragic character with an edge of unpleasantness to him, making him a fairly complex and interesting character for the 'badass big arse-kicker' trope. Droushnakovi and Koudelka are likable characters but their inability to progress their relationship and their comedy of manners of constantly misunderstanding what the other person is doing briefly made me think I'd picked up one of the weaker Wheel of Time novels. Cordelia serving as counsellor and den-mother to her staff is an interesting idea, but it slows down the pacing at critical junctures. There's also the bigger problem that Barrayar is not really convincing as an SF society and is rather unpleasant. Though this gives us empathy with Cordelia, it also means that the intricacies and court politics of Barrayaran society come across as being rather flat. And probably the less said about the cliched villain, the better.

Barryar (****) is a huge improvement over its forebear, featuring a far more interesting storyline, some accomplished worldbuilding (although of an unpleasant and unlikable world) and better characterisation of the protagonist, despite some more mixed results for the secondary cast. Barrayar is available now as part of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus, along with its forebear Shards of Honour (UK, USA).

Edited by Werthead

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FAO Werthead, since I can't send a PM...

Wert,

I am enjoying your reviews of various books on this site and your blog.

Someday as you have the opportunity, I would enjoy reading your reviews of The Lords of Dus.

Lawrence Watt-Evans doesn't have a lot of reviews, perhaps because he wrote most of his works before the age of the internet.

In any case, your depth and breadth of FSF reading would make for an interesting review of these four books from the dawn of the 80's.

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Seven Altars of Dusarra

The Sword of Bheleu

The Book of Silence

Thanks and have a nice weekend.

Wilbur

I've read them, they aren't that great.

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Book 3: The Warrior's Apprentice

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of one of the most powerful men on Barrayar, but is also a cripple, cursed with fragile bones and occasional hubris. When his pride overrides his good sense and leaves him too injured to take part in entrance examinations to the Barrayaran academy, Miles is washed up and left without a future. Intrigued by a mystery involving his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles decides to take an offworld trip...but nothing goes to plan and before long Miles's fast-talking has earned him the command of a fleet of starships, thousands of mercenaries and involvement in a civil war which is none of his business. Miles has some explaining to do.

Whilst chronologically The Warrior's Apprentice is the third volume in The Vorkosigan Saga, for most people it's where the series really begins. This is the book where the main character of the series, Miles, debuts as an adult character and it also represents a notable tonal shift from the previous two volumes, Shards of Honour and Barrayar. Whilst those two books were fairly serious (aside from brief comedy-of-manners episodes), The Warrior's Apprentice is more rambunctious. It's a bit of a romp, actually, with Miles' fast-talking mouth and off-the-cuff inventiveness (i.e. lying his head off) getting him in and out of trouble so quickly readers may experience whiplash trying to keep up with it.

It's a novel which can be firmly filed under 'fun', although there is a tragic core to the novel involving the character of Bothrai. Bujold writes this mystery so it works from two angles: if you've read Shards of Honour and Barrayar, you know what's going on long before Miles does and Bujold milks the tension effectively as Miles investigates the matter. If you haven't read those books and are as much in the dark as Miles, it works just as well. The tragic interlude (and the finale, which involves a brief dash of political intrigue) are a bit out-of-keeping with the book's overall tone, but Bujold shows impressive mastery of pacing in allowing the narrative to organically shift to integrate them before moving back to a less serious feel.

The result is a novel that is often quite funny, but also reflects the central character very well. Miles is a ball of energy that tends to drag people along behind him into various crazy schemes they'd never normally want to be a part of, but his momentum somehow keeps everything afloat. The novel works this way as well, with the plot taking increasingly ludicrous turns but it not mattering because Bujold infuses the novel with so much energy and verve you just want to read along and find out what happens next. Bujold's skills with characterisation also help define the book's setting much more clearly, with even briefly-appearing secondary characters getting fleshed out into three-dimensional people within just a few paragraphs.

Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn't an out-and-out comedy. The concluding section on Barrayar is also perhaps a little too neat and tidy, and there seems to be a narrative disconnect between Cordelia's treatment by her own people on Beta Colony in the first two books (where she was treated as a criminal) and her well-regarded position here. But there are fairly minor issues.

The Warrior's Apprentice (****) isn't high art or hard SF, but it is entertaining, fast-paced and well-characterised, with just enough pathos and tragedy to add some depth to it. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with the novella The Mountains of Mourning and the novel The Vor Game.

Edited by Werthead

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Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn't an out-and-out comedy


It's hardly the only implausible book in the series, but I agree that it does have some of the least convincing plot developments which is why I wouldn't rank it among the best Vorkosigan novels, although it is a lot of fun. I'd say much the same about the next novel, The Vor Game, although The Mountains of Mourning in between them is excellent.


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It's hardly the only implausible book in the series, but I agree that it does have some of the least convincing plot developments which is why I wouldn't rank it among the best Vorkosigan novels, although it is a lot of fun. I'd say much the same about the next novel, The Vor Game, although The Mountains of Mourning in between them is excellent.

Bujold does a great job with her novellas. I think Borders of Infinity might be my favorite things she's written.

I'm really ready for a post Cryoburn novel. :tantrum: And I've only been waiting less than a year. :leaving:

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It's hardly the only implausible book in the series, but I agree that it does have some of the least convincing plot developments which is why I wouldn't rank it among the best Vorkosigan novels, although it is a lot of fun. I'd say much the same about the next novel, The Vor Game, although The Mountains of Mourning in between them is excellent.

What is great about this book is that Bujold really cranked out a set of interesting, believable (if barely), charismatic characters with a plot that served them all well, and ones (for the most part) who we wanted to see more of in future books.

Bel Thorne

Mayhew (although he has a cameo earlier in the timeline with Cordelia)

Elena

Tung

Bothari

Auson

and of course, a now almost adult Miles.

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There must be something wrong with me. I can't get into these books. I've tried, forced myself through 2 omnibus editions. Still can't recommend them to people. I wanted to like Miles, I really freaking did. People who's opinion I respect recommended them, they've got all the pre reqs for me, and they are well written. Just can't get into them.



I wish she'd write another Chalion novel.


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