Minor spoilers of Shards of Honor are possible, you have been warned.
Wow, what a wonderful book. This just blows its predecessor out of the water. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Shards of Honor quite a bit. (And I realize that technically this is not the second book of the series, but it was packaged this way in my omnibus and who am I to argue?) I thought Bujold’s first book was full of heart, with a protagonist that quickly was proving to be a favorite. It was a page turner, a sci-fi book that read like a light fantasy; but it is managed to show a bit of depth beneath its light exterior.
But wow, amateur hour compared to Barrayar. This book showed several fronts, all in about three hundred pages, and each storyline got the depth it deserved without ever becoming real convoluted. A wonderfully funny start; Cordelia trying to fit in to her new place in a society that is alien to her. The relationship she shares with Aral, her husband, is absolutely perfect. Flirty and playful, occasional fights that don’t cause pages of brooding, with give and take from both sides. The story starts out as a fish out of water story as Cordelia navigates the court and learns what goes with her husband’s new position as regent to the boy emperor. Several favorite scenes come to mind, but the one where she tries to catalog all the unwritten rules about who can talk about sex to whom is one of the funniest passages I have read all year.
But just as I sit wondering if this supposed sci-fi book was going to be all dinner parties and playful banter a simmering pot boils over and the book quite naturally takes a new turn. An attempted coop moves the book down two incredibly interesting paths; the political side of what is happening and the adventure that goes with it. The politics were light but worth following, dealing mostly with Aral and what he needs to do to retake control. The adventure portions did what they needed to; keeping me turning pages at a furious pace to ensure everyone is going to be alright. This isn’t real dark fiction with a huge body count, but survival was not guaranteed for all characters and the danger felt real.
Where this book shines though is in characters. Trite to say, I know, but true. Outside of a few all too evil types all the adventures and plot twists seem to give at least one, sometimes several, characters just a bit more life. People act like people, not characters in a book, which I must admit even some of my favorite authors have trouble bringing across. Cordelia watches a conversation from afar and makes up her own dialog in her head. Not only was it hilarious, but it is totally something I have done when bored. Her fight for her unborn son will resonate with any parent; the way she project that protective nature on to another’s child (and the way she wasn’t the only one to do so) was heartwarming to say the least. I will have to see how the series develops, but two books in Cordelia has quickly become one of my favorite characters.
Much like the first book I could care less about Aral Vorkosigan, one of the few week points of the book as he often acted as Cordelia’s straight man, so instead I will focus on the background cast. Bothari specifically was incredible. A mentally damaged man with a horrible past, yet his fierce loyalty to Cordelia and awareness of his own issues make him a person one can’t help but like, yet pity. Never does a reader forget the man’s past and capabilities for more issues to come, but every time he shows the fortitude to get past his limitations it feels like a victory. Contrast Bothari, who is physically a superman but mentally a mess, with Koudelka who must come to terms with the fact that he will never physically be what he once was. Yet another plot line that could have felt trite if not played right, but for once I bought completely that he had to see himself as others saw him to understand things would be all right.
A book with great characters who feel more real throughout, a surprising amount of humor, and a pace that just didn’t slow down. Seriously, Bujold deserves all the praise she gets. I started with her fantasy, but this series has won another convert in me.
5 Stars. I am not sure the book did anything real unique or groundbreaking (though it is old, so maybe at the time it was groundbreaking). But I sure enjoyed the hell out of it.