A Critique of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

‘Cordelia’s Honor’ is an anthology of the three stories, ‘Shards of Honor,’ ‘Aftermaths’ and ‘Barrayar.’ ‘Shards’ and ‘Barrayar’ are novels starring the soldier-turned-aristocrat Cordelia, while ‘Aftermaths’ is a short story about the tragedy which happens in the aftermath of war. Together, these begin the ‘Vorkosigan Saga’ books, starring Cordelia and her son Miles


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I’ve read these books 3 times now. I would not read them repeatedly and review them right now were I not fond of them.

Further I’m a giant fan of most of Bujold’s other books. So… yeah. Totally biased. But I’m totally biased for a reason. Bujold’s a very good author. She’s won buckets of literary awards. Chances are you’ll like her books too.

(I couldn’t read more than a few chapters of the ‘Spirit Knife’ books, though; they weren’t my thing.)


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT IS THE GENRE? WHAT TROPES DOES IT USE

  • Character focused scifi
  • Romantic scifi, of the enemies-to-lovers variety
  • Space Opera
  • A kickass female protagonist… who doesn’t feel like a Mary Sue
  • Family drama between multiple generations
  • Military scifi, Political scifi. Biological scifi
  • Culture clash between two societies: a highly militaristic feudal spacefaring society, vs a Star Trek Federation-like technocracy
  • Growing pains of a patriarchal feudal society being dragged into the modern era by a woman protagonist

READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I am in this book’s target audience. I enjoy military, political and biological scifi. I enjoy good, human characters. Adding in the kickass protagonist, I enjoy it all the more. As a result, I am inclined to enjoy this. As a result, take my grading of this with a grain of salt.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)

(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I’ll start with what I didn’t like. While I do enjoy the romance between Aral and Cordelia, I personally feel that in ‘Shards of Honor’ the pair of them didn’t have enough time together to develop their romance. I intellectually understand why they fell in love.

  • they were forced to spend a lot of time together, depending on one another for their lives, and
  • they have very compatible personalities.

However, they only have one or two tender scenes together before they were planning on getting married. This was a relationship red flag for me, and made their relationship seem either toxic or artificial.

And that’s it. In both novels, and the novella, that is the only complaint about characters I have.

Now for what I enjoyed. Let’s start with Cordelia.

Cordelia is one of my favorite characters of all time. She successfully rides the line between being a very ethical, commonsense protagonist… who also is willing to go balls-to-the-wall to save the people she loves. In book 1, she risks life and limb to save the lives of the people who’ve taken her captive. She doesn’t do it for personal profit; she does it because it’s the ethical thing to do. She comes from Beta Colony, which is basically a Federation-expy. As a result, reading from her perspective is like reading from the perspective of a slightly-overwhelmed Captain Picard.

In ‘Barrayar,’ I enjoyed the relationship between Cordelia and Piotr, her father-in-law. They begin the book good friends, because she’s pregnant and he’s a happy pater-familias who wants to be a grandfather. After her gestating son is mutated by teratogenic gas, their relationship falls apart because he’s an anti-mutant Barrayaran. Finally, in the epilog, they come to an uneasy truce when they prove their mutant son is worth fighting for.

I enjoyed the relationship between Kou and Drou in the novel ‘Barrayar,’ and doubly so I enjoyed how Cordelia was actively shipping the two and trying to get them to hook up. Koudelka in particular had great development over the course of the two novels.

I loved every single character in these books- even the villains. Even Ges Vorrutyer- a character who appears for maybe ten total pagers- is still one of the most disturbed antagonists I’ve ever read. The other antagonist- Vordarian- is a more forgettable antagonist, but he is also a very human one. He’s not motivated by sadism or vast evil plans like Ges, but is instead just an ambitious politician. It’s nice to read about normal antagonists who aren’t evil incarnate sometimes.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

‘Shards of Honor’ was structured using the Five Act Format.

Act 1: Takes place on an unnamed, recently discovered planet. Cordelia’s ship of scientists are ambushed by Aral’s ship of soldiers. This phase of the story lasts until they march and rejoin Aral’s soldiers two hundred kilometers away. Over the course of this act (which takes place over like 5 days max), Cordelia and Aral fall in love.

Act 2: Takes place in Aral’s HQ, and Aral’s spaceship. This act is when their love story solidifies. Cordelia rescues Aral’s spaceship from political enemies. I personally loved it when she almost singlehandedly defeated Aral’s enemies in combat. Cordelia is no wilting daisy.

Act 3: Takes place 6 months later, during a space invasion. Cordelia is taken captive by the Barrayarans again, a thematic echo of Act 1. She escapes the nefarious Ges, and Aral protects her, thematically echoing Act 2 when she saves his life.

Act 4: Takes place on Beta Colony and in POW camps, where everyone else thinks that Cordelia doesn’t love Aral, but has been mind controlled by the Barrayarans into thinking she loves them. Basically, they think she’s a Manchurain agent. This echoes the emotional abuse in Cordelia’s pre-history, when she was emotionally abused by her first husband, who used her, divorced her, and left her. Instead, after the war Cordelia leaves Beta Colony and joins Aral on the planet Barrayar.

Act 5: On Barrayar, they get married and live happily ever after… until the dying emperor ropes Aral in to become the regent for the next infant emperor.

So, how was ‘Shards’ paced? I was never bored at any point. The author did a good job of varying the story beats up, so we never stayed in a static state too long. Similarly, the author kept the stakes elevated, but varied. In every act, something different-yet-equally-terrible could have happened to upset the lovestory.

‘Barrayar’ was structured using the Four Act Format. (I don’t have post to link to about this, because I haven’t written it yet. In short, the 4 Act Format involves two main plot arcs: Act 1 and 2 are one plot arc, and Act 3 and 4 are another plot arc. The Act 3/4 plot arc is usually the ‘real’ plot, while the Act 1/2 plot is a ‘practice’ plot. The Act 1/2 plot prepares the reader for the ‘real’ plot, perhaps by providing a small scale version of what is to happen later in the novel. As a result, the reveal of the ‘real’ plot halfway through the book recontextualizes the first half of the novel… hopefully in a good way, showing the reader what the book is really about. There is an inciting incident between Acts 1 and 2, as well as Acts 2 and 3.)

Act 1: Establishes the new status quo on Barrayar. Taking place shortly after the end of ‘Shards,’ Cordelia must rapidly accustom herself to the the barbaric techno-feudal lifestyle of backwater Barrayar. She makes allies: her father in law Piotr; Kou and Drou; the mildly-crazy Bothari; her husband Aral; and her unborn son Miles. But with her highborn family and regent husband, comes many enemies.

Act 2: Act 1 ends with a bang- specifically a poison gas attack on Cordelia and Aral. Cordelia- and by extension Miles- is poisoned. Their son Miles is moved from her womb to an artificial tank-womb, to finish gestating and receiving treatment. Now the plot goes on to find who set the assassin up to the job.

Act 3: Begins with another bang. A civil war breaks out, with Aral playing the defensive against Vordarian, the man behind the assassin. Cordelia and Aral are separated, with Cordelia taking the infant Emperor out into the wilds for his safety, while Aral goes to lead the defense in person. Eventually Cordelia and Aral meet back up- just in time for the enemies in the civil war to find and capture the artifiical tank-womb in which their son Miles is gestating. Their son is a hostage, and will soon die if they don’t save them.

Act 4: Aral refuses to give his own son special treatment, and send people out to save him. Cordelia takes matters into her own hands. She takes Bothari, Kou and Drou, and goes on a rescue mission. Using secret information, they enter the Imperial Palace, rescue the artificial tank-womb, decapitate Vordarian, and end the civil war. Aral and Cordelia reconcile with one another, Bothari gets proper medical treatment for his madness, Kou and Drou get married, and everyone lives happily ever after… but now the barbarians of Barrayar know not to cross Mama Bear Cordelia for fear of getting decapitated.

As for pacing, I felt that it was well-paced. At no point was I bored. Each Act was a distinct series of story beats, a distinct short story with start point and end point. Act 1 was a low-stakes political thriller, Act 2 was a high-stakes political thriller, Act 3 was military fiction, and Act 4 was an scifi thriller assassination/rescue op.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (A+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

‘Shards’ is my favorite of the two novels. I enjoyed the revelation of “Put all your bad eggs in one basket… then drop the basket.” The author captured Barrayaran politics in that one sentence, a place of grand schemes, fit for opera… or space opera. This is a truly fascinating setting to read from a political perspective.

Similarly, the author had an almost ‘utopian grimdark’ worldview about the good guys at Beta Colony. Of course Beta Colony wouldn’t believe that Cordelia’s love for Aral was real and not the result of chemically induced mind-control by the Barrayarans. When Beta Colony sent psychiatrists to give Cordelia ‘therapy’ to make her stop loving Aral (aka use mind control chemicals to make Cordelia betray Aral to his death), it felt all too real. Yes, Beta Colony were the good guys, but even the good guys make mistakes.

All cards on the table, the novel ‘Barrayar’ was better than ‘Shards of Honor.’ There can be no doubt that ‘Barrayar’ is a more structurally and technically competent work of art. The author matured in-between writing the two books. Book 1 had a better, more crunchy idea around which to base a plot (namely the whole ‘drop the basket’ spoiler I just hinted at), but book 2 executed on it’s plot better than 1. (‘Barrayar’s’ “I went shopping” scene at the end of the novel is still pure gold, all these re-reads later.)

Finally, I need to mention the short story ‘Aftermaths,’ which is appended to the end of ‘Shards of Honor.’ Every time I read ‘Aftermaths,’ it gets better and better. It has me in tears each time I read it. It’s a story about the people who clean up the bodies in the aftermath of a space battle. The people who have to comb through hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of the empty space where the battleships fought, and grab the bodies ejected from decompressing battleships. It is a quiet, deeply emotional story about grief, loss, and sorrow for young lives lost, no matter on whose side they fought. In the end, every dead young soldier represents the grief of a still-living mother.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A+)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

‘Shards’ put it’s anti-war theme on it’s sleeve and wore it with pride, while ‘Barrayar’ had a theme of family arguments, stress and strain, and the old making the world ready for the coming generation. It was all well done.

The author’s prose is magnificent. Every chapter- if not on every page- the author shows off some stylish muscles. She can make the most boring moment fascinating to read about.

As for tone, it was dark. People died. Rape happened offscreen (not to the protagonist), but was a major plot point in both novels. I’ve compared Beta Colony to the Federation; then let me compare Barrayar to the Klingon Empire. Imagine that the Federation and Klingon Empire were all the same species; if that were the case, you know some bad war crimes/sexual assaults would happen in war between them.

Children born-by-rape were a major plot point in these novels. You remember I mentioned the artificial tank-wombs? These children were put in such wombs and handed to the fathers, because the mothers didn’t want them. One of these children becomes a prominent character later in the series. I felt that the topic of rape was treated respectfully, explored carefully, and not used in such a way as to further punch down at the victims. But if you’re sensitive about the topic of sexual assault, maybe skip ‘Shards.’

I give the Authorial Voice: (A)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

Like I said above the author captures the Barrayaran techno-feudal ethos magnificently. They are a society caught between old and new- and modernizing is not necessarily a good thing. Barrayar tried modernizing and become less-feudal in the past, only to nearly have a fascistic politibeurau take over (‘Shards’ has take over as one of the plot points). But one thing is certain: the old ways can’t last for long. The feudal traditions of generations past simply can’t survive in the modern era of interdimensional travel, gene editing and babies birthed from beakers.

When Cordelia enters the scene and becomes the second most powerful person in the Barrayaran empire, she brings her Beta Colony sensibilities (ie scifi socialistic) along with her. She intends to bring Barrayar into the modern era, kicking and screaming if need be- and heaven help anyone who threatens her husband or son in the processes. Patriarchal, feudal old Barrayar has met it’s match.

If I had a complaint, I wish the author spent more time exploring Beta Colony. It’s portrayed as a techno-utopia, but with extremely loose love and marriage customs (polygamy is widely practiced, marriage is considered mildly weird, and you need to take a special course and receive a license to become a parent). Throughout the entire series, Beta never gets fully explored. I wish it was explored more, because it seems like a neat place.

I give the Setting: (A-)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I listened to the audiobooks by Grover Gardener. I have a love/hate relationship with these audiobooks. On one hand, he does a good job with them. I’ve listened to all ~15 Vorkosigan audiobooks, so I can’t say they’re bad. On the other hand, I personally don’t like his style. He delivers narration in a very monotonous style, and he doesn’t really do accents like other narrators. His style doesn’t click for me, but I can see it clicking for other people who don’t want to be distracted by an overly-embellished narrator.

I do have one complaint which isn’t Grover Gardener’s fault. The author’s narrative style, when combined with the audiobook format, sometimes made me confused as to what the protagonist was actually saying. Cordelia would sometimes think a line in the text of the narration, and I would think she would say it as dialog. When I realized she was NOT saying dialog, I was briefly confused. Or Cordelia would say some dialog, but I would think she was actually thinking that dialog. This happened again and again. It was weird. Cordelia is a very introspective POV, and it made me confused due to the audiobook.

Cordelia being introspective resulted in good prose and characterization… but it also was really disjointed in the audiobook format, because the reader can’t see the quotation marks for when Cordelia opens her mouth, and when she’s just thinking with herself.

This book wasn’t a good fit for audiobook. I think you should read the paper/e-version of this.

I give the Audiobook: (B-)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Take your time to build up the romance between your characters. The first act isn’t enough.
  • Each act of your story should shake things up dramatically, either by changing the setting of your story or changing the objectives of your story. New tension and stakes in each act are advisable as well.

SUMMARY

This is a good pair of books. I think ‘Barrayar’ is better than ‘Shards of Honor’ on a pure-readability level, however both are wonderful novels. I suggest you read ‘Shards’ first, and if you like it, then read on. Book 1 is technically a romance, but it’s very light; book 2 is a family drama. Even if you don’t like romances, chances are you’ll like this. I suggest you give this a spin. (And did I mention that ‘Barrayar’ won the Hugo and Locus awards? This duology is worth checking out for that alone.)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Scifi, romance, space opera, Adventure, Military scifi, Political Scifi, Biological Scifi

Similar books:

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Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


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  8. Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
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And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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