Cordelia’s Honor contains the first two chronological novels in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. These books could also be viewed as prequels to the series since they are not actually about the life of Miles but instead tell the story of how his parents met and how Miles came to be disfigured before birth. Shards of Honor is Bujold’s first published novel while Barrayar was released 5 years later after other books in the series had been written. The latter is a direct sequel to the former and completes the story begun in the first book, some parts of which Bujold had originally wanted to include in Shards of Honor before she realized it was too long. While the first half of the story was certainly enjoyable, it did lack polish and Bujold’s extra writing experience shows in Barrayar, which is a much tighter novel and the winner of the 1992 Hugo Award.
In Shards of Honor, Commander Cordelia Naismith from Beta is part of an astronomical survey expedition until she and her crew are disrupted by a military force of their enemies from Barrayar, who claim they found the planet first and insist the Betans surrender to them. Most of Cordelia’s party escapes, leaving her and her botanist, whose mind was destroyed by a disruptor fired by one of their foes, stranded. The commander meets and is taken prisoner by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, infamous as the “Butcher of Komarr.” This knowledge does not stop Cordelia from being openly hostile to Vorkosigan, but soon she begins to see that he is an honorable man even if his society’s beliefs are very different from her own.
Barrayar continues shortly after the marriage of Cordelia and Aral and Aral’s appointment to the position of Regent of Barrayar. Cordelia’s former expectations of a quiet life with her new husband are turned upside down as their lives become more dangerous due to conspiracies to take the throne. Aral is already unpopular with many on this very harsh, political world due to his liberal views, and now he is a very clear target for those who desire to replace the regent and the five year old emperor.
The slower-paced Shards of Honor contains romance, adventure, an exploration of the concepts of duty and honor, and an illustration of the cruel Barrayarans and the compassionate but misguided Betans. The science fiction elements are in the background – although the story takes place in a world where space travel occurs, technobabble and heavy-handed scientific explanations are not present. The characters of Cordelia and Aral are likable with a dry humor that emerges at times and personalities that are clear from their words and actions. It was not always a tight story and the aftermath chapter at the end in particular seemed to come from out of nowhere and not tie in to the rest of the tale, but it was an entertaining book that made me eager to read more.
Barrayar is much more tightly plotted and faster paced than its predecessor with adventure and political scheming galore. The headstrong, independent Cordelia is still a pleasure to read about. The characters besides her and Aral are also better written and there are new ones introduced as the heroine settles into life on Barrayar. This also allows the society to be examined more as well as the political division between people like Aral who believe change is necessary and those like his father who are set in the old ways and abhor the idea of changing them. In the afterward, Bujold states that the book is “about the price of becoming a parent,” but the theme that stood out for me was that people often viewed as being without worth by others, like the crippled Koudelka and disfigured child Miles, were still human and could be perfectly useful and valuable in spite of their shortcomings.
Cordelia’s Honor comprises two novels of varying quality and complexity but both of these have one thing in common – they are worth reading for interesting characters and entertainment.