Shards of Honour (Vorkosigan Saga, #1)
Lois McMaster Bujold
Cordelia Naismith, Beta Colony, is on a standard surveying expedition when she returns to camp to find the camp ransacked, one of her crew dead, and the savage Barrayarans after her and her men. When she is captured by Aral Vorkosigan, she fears the worst: to the easy-going, progressive, egalitarian Betans, the totalitarian, honor-obsessed Barrayarans are savage, murdering rapists. And now she is being forced to travel with one. But she soon begins to fall for Vorkosigan's bizarrely endearing awkward charms, even as she begins to uncover a secret plot that puts her entire colony at risk.
I hugely enjoyed this book. It kept make me grin and nearly laugh out loud. I probably would have given it a five except that a huge portion of the plot revolves around your acceptance of InstaLove (TM)--something I always have trouble with. Space pilots whose brains have been rewired so that they hook directly into their ships? Sure, I'll buy that. Human colonization across the galaxy with warp technology that defies the speed of light? Why not? But two people meeting in ridiculously hostile circumstances, being instantly attracted, and professing undying love within thirty pages? Purhleeese. However, despite my dislike of the "passionate" feelings of the two main characters, where their mutual touches made their world (I kid you not) dissolve into effervescent rainbows and lightshows and fireworks (blegh), I did really like both of the characters. Cordelia is hilariously funny and thinks in crooked lines. She is compassionate, yet with an odd edge of ruthlessness. Aral is her foil, his stiff standoffishness tempered by a sardonic wit, with a rock-hard self-assurance, but inwardly troubled and torn over his struggle to maintain his honor.
Not only does it help to explain some of the allusions I found entirely mysterious in The Warrior's Apprentice, but Shards of Honor is also much more political and provides a very successful and humorous critique of two contrasting governmental systems. Scifi and fantasy provide the perfect opportunity for authors to analyze and critique our own social and political systems. In this case, the society of the totalitarian, chauvinistic, rigid Barrayarans is contrasted against the open-minded, technologically advanced, and outwardly tolerant Betans. The Barrayarans are at first portrayed as the villains, and indeed the are led by a set of invaders, murderers, and diabolical rapists. (I actually found Bujold's use of rape here distasteful and lazy. If you make a character a routine and brutal rapist, then suddenly it doesn't matter what tactics the other side is using or whether his own actions or goals are justified; he's an Evil Guy and therefore everything he wants or does must be evil, because obviously it's impossible to have a righteous political cause while committing personal atrocities. Because that's never happened before, right? It just strikes me as a very lazy way of differentiating the good guys from the bad.) However, when I continued reading, inwardly castigating Bujold for this lack of subtlety, she brilliantly turned the tables and began to show the hypocrisy and intolerance of the Betans. Both Barrayar and Beta are essentially facets of historical governments with one element hugely magnified. The militaristic Barrayarans are reminiscent of our own days of blatant imperialism, racism, and chauvinism. The Betans, on the other hand, display a superficial tolerance and freedom, where anything goes in terms of fashion and sexual orientation, technological advances are used to improve the human condition, where women are treated equally to men, and where the president receives mockery rather than adulation. In fact, they are tolerant--as long as a citizen's beliefs stay within what they consider acceptable parameters. As soon as someone falls outside of what the Betans consider acceptable, they will ruthlessly silence opposition by claiming it stems from a mental health disorder. Any such dissident is designated as mentally ill, goes through rigorous "therapy", and eventually emerges from the medical facilities with a vacant and vapid smile, completely "healed" of the "mental disorder". In the end, a world that professes freedom but hypocritically silences its opposition is in some way s more terrifying than an openly repressive one. Bujold's comparison of the systems is delicious in its irony and both entertaining and enlightening.
Overall, Shards of Honor is a fantastic read. An enjoyable romp full of space battles, true love, and political maneuvering, it manages to leave the reader with both insight and questions into our own social and governmental hypocrisy.