Like the Trembling Heart of a Captive Bird

Shards of Honor — Lois McMaster Bujold
Cordelia Vorkosigan, book 1

Shards Of Honor

Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1986 debut novel Shards of Honor is the first Cordelia Vorkosigan book, as well as the first novel set in Bujold’s Vorkosiverse.

A Betan exploratory mission has been sent through a newly discovered wormhole; they have discovered a terrestrial world suitable for colonization. Unfortunately for the Betans, they are the second group to discover Sergyar. The Barrayaran militarists were there first and they don’t want company.

Cordelia and her co-worker Dubauer return from a field trip to find that the Betan shuttle has taken off without them. Not only that, the Betan base camp has been reduced to smouldering ruins, in which they find the corpse of one of the Betan officers. Worse than that … it seems that not all of the attackers are gone. A sudden attack gravely wounds Dubauer and knocks out Cordelia.

Cordelia wakes to find herself the prisoner of the notorious Barrayaran officer, Aral Vorkosigan. Aral is widely believed to be responsible for a mass execution on a newly conquered planet. As Cordelia finds out, what the galaxy thinks happened and what actually happened are quite different. Aral does not appear to be the monster he is painted in the popular press.

Nominally the commanding officer of the Barrayaran expedition, Aral was himself ambushed by his subordinates and left for dead at the Betan camp. The mutineers made the error of entrusting the job of killing Aral to the troubled Sergeant Bothari, who cannot bring himself to kill Aral. Much much more on Bothari in later books in the Vorkosiverse.

A new habitable world is valuable in itself. To Barrayar, the system’s true value lies in the second wormhole in the system, the one that leads to the Escobar system. The pro-war faction in the Barrayaran government believe that if they can control the wormhole, they can mount a surprise attack on Escobar. Moar planets! Moar glory!

Smart money might say that Aral and Cordelia’s budding romance is doomed by the fact they are officers on opposite sides of an interstellar war. The smart money would be wrong. Fate will bring them back together.


Jim Baen liked this novel enough to buy it and two other LMB novels1. This is how a political troglodyte like Baen came to publish Ethan of Athos, a novel about a planet populated exclusively by gay men. He did finally get around to reading it, which is why if internet rumour can be believed, there was never a sequel to Ethan.

There’s a lot of off-stage rape and on-stage near-rape in this book. LMB isn’t exactly subtle about giving readers clear signals about who the bad guys are, so the pro-war party isn’t just pro-war2. It’s also a collection of spineless yes-men and murderous sadists. But the war party is led by Crown Prince Serg, who is as bad as any of his followers, but too well connected to be squelched, what with being the son of the Emperor and all. Serg is all set to be one more of Barrayar’s insane and cruel rulers. This poses something of a problem for his entirely sane father.

Me, I just cannot fathom what Cordelia and Aral see in each other. The romance seems to proceed much too quickly, for reasons that are unclear to me. [Editor’s note: this is romance genre stuff. This is the meet-cute of all meet-cutes. You have not read sufficient bodice-rippers.] Surely Cordelia’s affections could be more constructively bestowed on someone who isn’t a highly placed officer in a brutal militaristic state. But SF does love its autocrats and as far as autocrats go, Aral looks pretty good next to Serg.

Shards of Honor is available here (Amazon). If Chapters or Kobo have this edition, their crappy search engines successfully hid it from me.

1: Something I only discovered while researching this review. Ethan of Athos was submitted to Terry Carr at Ace. “for a line he was then editing specifically for first novels.”

He would have been overseeing the third series of Ace Specials. Had Carr beat Baen to the punch, Ethan of Athos might have been published alongside novels like The Wild Shore and Neuromancer. But probably not, because Carr seems to have had a blind spot where women authors were concerned. Of the twelve novels in the third Ace Specials, only one, O’Keefe’s Black Snow Days, was by a woman.

2: This novel does not spend a lot of time on Barrayaran history. We learn later that Barrayar had a reason for invading Komarr that was not just greedy imperialism. Komarr controls the only wormhole that leads to Barrayar. Komarr previously allowed the Cetagandans to invade Barrayar, which provoked a vicious guerrilla war and ended in Cetagandan defeat. Barrayar has a good reason to make sure that they are never invaded again.

But invading Escobar is just plain imperialism.


  • Spriggana

    a planet populated exclusively by gay men

    Correction: populated exclusively by men, gay, bi and hetero. But with no chance of ever seeing a woman, much less meeting one, their choice of partners is somewhat limited.

  • SF_Fangirl

    Is Ethan of Athos any good, though? I’m a huge Vorkorsigan ‘verse fan and I never managed to get through the book. I eventually gave it away because clearly I wasn’t going to read it.

    Shards of Honor is very fan fiction-ish but charming and engaging. I love Cordelia and wish we had more of her stories. I find some of Bujold’s early work less than engaging.

  • James Davis Nicoll

    I think I read Ethan once, decades ago? So I am not sure what it's like any more.

  • Joy

    Ethan is not Bujold's best but I found it a fun read. Kind of like Falling Free in quality.

  • Ultragotha

    I like Ethan of Athos a lot. Not least because Dr Ethan Urquhart is a firmly religious man, who uses his orthodox religious upbringing to morally navigate the caper he gets sucked into, *without* denouncing his religion in the face of all this unorthodox temptation.

    Plus it's a fairly good caper yarn and Ellie Quinn rocks.

  • Damien

    I've re-read Ethan of Athos and liked it.

    Shards is also still available from Baen, as a DRM-free ebook, unlike the Spectrum version.

  • Tim

    In a later book, Cordelia explains what she deduced that Aral saw in her. Aral was mostly homosexual in orientation, in a culture that finds homosexuality horrible and that values uniforms. Cordelia was a woman in a uniform. She says that Aral loved her at first sight.

  • Mike D

    In the same year (1985) Jim Baen published two books with Same Sex Marriage.

    Warriors Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold which you will be getting to
    Five-Twelfths of Heaven - Book One of The Roads of Heaven by Melissa Scott

    I suspect he didn't care provided it was a good story.

  • Royce Day

    As much as I'm a Bujold fan, I have to admit I don't care for "Shards" all that much. The narrative is choppy as hell, and the Obligatory War Crimes scenes just squicked me out. Fortunately LMB's writing skills vastly improved by the time she wrote "Barrayar".

  • Harimad

    Ethan of Athos, like Shards of Honor, is clearly an early work by a gifted author whom we hoped (correctly!) would improve in her craft.

    That's not why I am so fond of it. I am fond if it because Lois got the economics right. So, so many SF authors haven't a clue about economics and it drives me crazy. In Ethan of Athos, she sets up an economy that makes sense! It has a currency - actually it has two. One you earn for your labor and you use it to buy goods and services. The other is for good deeds, and you have to earn enough good deeds money before you can have children. Further, the costs of raising children is explicitly acknowledged on Athos - no scab labor that everyone pretends is free. That part alone makes me so happy, I do a happy dance when I think about it. (It's also what I like best about Sherri Tepper's Six Moon Dance - a real economy that works, that doesn't just mimic RL.)

  • Mike Schilling

    What Cordelia sees in Aral is that he admires her abilities and strengths, unlike her ex-lover who manipulated her into giving him her captaincy. Also unlike a real-life ex-husband who thought her writing was mere self-indulgence.

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