Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Review: Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

For some reason I missed out on Bujold's Vorkosigan series - I think that I was going through a period of not reading much SF when they came out - but they kept being enthusiastically recommended to me by so many people that I thought I'd better rectify the omission. After pondering the reading order, I decided to follow the chronological story line rather than the order of publication, so kicked off with Shards of Honour.

The series is set in the distant future, in a space-opera setting of human-colonised planetary systems and warfleets of spaceships. This story concerns how the parents of Miles Vorkosigan (the hero of most of the series) met. The principal character is his mother, Cordelia Naismith, with his father Aral Vorkosigan in a secondary role. As far as I can recall, Naismith is in every scene and, although written in the third person, the story is told entirely from her point of view. The complicating factor is that they are officers in the armed forces of two hostile systems, and the plot is all about how their relationship develops despite the difficulties this causes.

The first and most important point to make is that Bujold is a great writer and storyteller. I really did not want to put this book down, and finished it in two sessions - helped by the fact that it is 250 pages long, short by modern standards but very much in my comfort zone (I'll be expanding on that in a later blog). The descriptive passages and the quality of the characterisation and plotting are superb, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I look forward with great anticipation to working my way through this series.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect book, any more than there is a perfect human being, so what can I find to criticise? For me, what makes a good book (apart from the basic essentials of good quality writing and the author's storytelling ability) is the right blend between characterisation, plot and setting (which may vary, depending on the story). What makes a good SF book is that the plot and setting contain elements which are very different from mainstream fiction and stretch the mind to achieve that "sense of wonder" which is unique to the genre. This is, however, the area in which Bujold is weakest (at least in this novel). The SF ideas are limited and unoriginal. The different planets visited are described rather sketchily and there's no attempt to tie these into coherent ecologies. A reasonable attempt is made to describe the Barrayan political system but that never came alive for me. What this story really is, is a romance in an SF setting - but perhaps that is inevitable given the basic plot.

In that respect, Bujold resembles Catherine Asaro (I posted a review of her Skolian Empire series on 18 July). Both write space operas which are great reads and strong on romance. On the basis of only reading one of Bujold's novels so far, I would give her higher marks for writing quality but lower ones for the SF elements. I'll have to see if that changes as I read through the series.

1 comment:

Bill Garthright said...

Good review, Tony, and quite accurate. Bujold is my favorite author, but if you're looking for unique SF elements, you're not going to find them. This is character-based space opera. The characterization tends to get better and better as you get further into the series, but it's always the focus of her books. It's easy to care about nearly all of her characters. There's often some romance and almost always humor (did you notice the humorous elements in this book?), but the science fiction setting is not particularly important - certainly not unique - since it's only used as a basis for stories about the human condition. People, not technology, are entirely the focus of these books.