Verdict: Shards of honor is a charming romance with a fun space opera background; Barrayar is a delightful yarn.
Reasons for reading it: I got on well with The curse of Chalion, and there was a big discussion in the comments recommending me more Bujold, and rysmiel mentioned that Shards of honor as the only romance-shaped plot I have ever liked (because of how credible the people in it are, and how grown-up), which sounded like an excellent recommendation. But I read it when I was travelling and didn't have time to write it up. So now I've read the sequel, Barrayar, and it is too annoying to discuss my reaction to that without being able to refer to my opinion of the prequel, so I'm going to break my usual rule and review both at once.
How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent me an omnibus edition with both novels, plus another volume of three that I haven't got to yet.
I realize that rysmiel wasn't exaggerating by mentioning a romance shaped plot; Shards of honor is not just a book that happens to be romantic, it's literally a romance novel, with a feisty heroine in a star-crossed romance with an arrogant yet acutally sensitive hero who is an aristocrat from an enemy country. It doesn't deviate much from this incredibly hackneyed line, apart from by being really, really good. The characters, and the romance between them, are totally plausible and sympathetic. The other aspect that is original is that it's doing some really interesting worldbuiling far beyond just "Regency romance In Space".
I found the book absolutely gripping, and although it definitely is partly about True Love, I think it would work for readers with a lower tolerance for that kind of thing than I have. If I have any complaints about it, it's that it seems to be several almost discrete episodes stuck together: the initial meeting between Cordelia and Aral, Cordelia's capture and the space battle, Cordelia's experience back on Beta with the evil psychologist, and Cordelia's arrival on Barrayar and reunion with Vorkosigan. But what the various different threads do is give an amazingly clear picture of the central couple, including lots of the political background that makes Aral Vorkosigan who he is.
So even though it's soppy, there is plenty of action and plot apart from the love story thread. And actually, the love story itself is very successful, just because I really sympathized with Cordelia and therefore cared about all the obstacles in the way of her getting her man. It's also remarkably unsexist, even though the plot is a bit of a gender stereotypes cliche; both the lead pair are clerly people as much as they are a woman and a man.
Barrayar is a really excellent sequel. It deals with the interesting question of what happens ever after, with Cordelia dealing with being married to a high-ranking noble on a world she doesn't understand well, but it does so in the context of a very dramatic civil war plot so it's most certainly not just a fantasy of manners. Shards of honor is a perfectly complete story on its own, and I think Barrayar would mostly work without the earlier book too. So the relationship between the two is positive enough for me not to feel annoyed about the prospect of reading more in the series, and if they're all this much fun I'm keen to.
Barrayar has almost the perfect mix of action with dialogue and characterization with worldbuilding. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone of any gender, cos it covers both girly stuff like pregancy and motherhood and romance, and boy stuff like fighting and weapons and politics, and plenty of not particularly gendered stuff, all combined together into a unified story. I'm not huge fan of storylines about a mother being driven to heroically risk all to save her baby, and I'm not a huge fan of detailed descriptions of violence either, but both aspects are done superlatively well here, and I cared about Cordelia and the other characters enough to enjoy all the facets of the complex storyline.
Barrayar is emotionally powerful as well as being exciting and fun. I was really upset by the character deaths, really scared by the terrifying situations, and really touched by some of the romantic bits. Cordelia makes a really excellent heroine, likeable without being too perfect. The heroes get into some believably dire situations, but not so dire that it's completely implausible when they come out ok through a combination of competence and luck. It's just a totally satisfying read in every respect.
Oh, is that the one with the millions of sexy red headed women? I've just read that and really enjoyed it (after spending the first chapter very pissed off at it, it was actually quite interesting and fun in a slightly mary-sue-esque implausable kind of way)
I don't know - angoel is a fan, and he lent me Tinker, whatever the sequal to Tinker is called, and A Brothers Price (while also introducing me to Bujold). I think they were the stateside editions.
But them my favourite bookshop is quite happy to order things in from America, and with the dollar so weak they just end up book priced - in fact amusingly I have the Trudi Canavan Black Magician books in American edition because it was 5.99 per book to pay american price and ship them and 7.99 per book (I think - at least $more) to get them in English editions. I hate to think of my carbon footprint...
(PS Should I friend you? You have excellent taste in books, but I'm not sure if that's a weird reason)
I miss my favorite book store back home. They happy order books form the UK. This does not result in cheap books, but it did let me read Harry Potter 2 well before it was out in the states, and also much of the early discworld books, which where published in the US in backwards order.
(Thanks! Go right ahead, but be warned that I don't blog about books very much at all.)
You can't have a 20 mark answer just now cos I'm on my way out to work, but I would totally friend someone based on their good taste in books. And I would expect them to have interesting ideas on other topics.
Ah! That makes sense, I obviously missed that conversation. Well, I'll no doubt here the results of the experiment then :)
This reminds me that I want to hear you thoughts on A Brother's Price at somepoint
I will post something on livejournal when I can, but it sounds like I should say something quickly or atreic will beat me to the punch :)
Actually, I didn't really engage with the plot, I wasn't really excited to learn what was going to happen or if Jerin and the princess were going to get together. (I'm sure it was perfectly fine, but I didn't really click with it. It seemed like I might in the first chapter, but it didn't turn out that way.)
But I was shocked to discover that it seemed to have done an almost perfect job of the gender reversal. Jerin has many, many experiences that much up with those attributed to a heroine in many romance novels (and in history, and in other novels), and I felt really embarrassed that I empathised with Jerin in a way I hadn't with them.
That's interesting - one of the things I was pleased about was the fact that the gender reversal _wasn't_ "perfect" or "symmetric".
For comparason, I read the Noughts and Crosses series a while back, and that drove me crazy because it was an entire book about a black/white divide / racism issues, but the author had thought it was a very clever gimmick just to write "black" every time the people in our world would be white, and vice versa. So the black people were rich and powerful politicians and the white people were cleaning maids etc. It was a very clever gimmick, for about 30 seconds or if you were 5. But it grated a bit for the whole trilogy (actually, if you read the whole things colourblind and forget about the gimmick they're not bad books at all)
However, A Brothers Price doesn't just do that, because there are real substantive differences and interesting issues that get explored because of the gender reversal*. I mean, the whole dynamic of the cribs and the biological fact that one man and ten women can have ten babies per year, but ten men and one women can only have one, actually gets thought about.
Of course, this is probably because there really isn't any difference between black people and white people except their ability to sunburn, but there are differences between men and women when it comes to reproduction.
*That sentance sounds far too pretentious for talking about, what is basically, paperback romantic trash. But you know what I mean
Ah, sorry. Thinking about it, I mostly meant "perfect" in the sense of "exceptionally well done".
I think I also meant "symmetric", but that's not fair. You're right, the world-building was excellent; I hadn't really stopped to question it, but the social structures are both plausibly and interestingly derived from the premise of few men.
I think I was just thinking that because I happened to be particularly struck by the parts that did have gender-reversal mappings onto our world. Eg. where Jerin really wants the princess, but knows he shouldn't, and then people assume she forced herself on him. I understood how he felt, and then realised I suddenly understood Romance Heroine #37 in other books. And several small revelations like that were enough to be really interesting. (And as previously mentioned, I'm embarrassed because there's no reason why one should empathise more with characters of your own gender, but it appears that I do.)
 The other thing I liked is that there wasn't an irrelevant justification for how the world came to be like that, which is considered normally necessary in AU type books, but doesn't really add anything.
That's really interesting - I read the book mostly identifying with Jerin, (but I assumed that was because he was the Central Character and all the others walked on and off the stage far more) but didn't find any of those bits particularly striking (well, they were fun to read, but not new ideas) probably because I've read a lot of other "romance" books. It could be less that we identify more with our own gender and more that we expose ourselves to different ideas - I do read Jilly Cooper type stuff, and I'm guessing you don't.
[Then again, I am always amazed by people who can identify with Will in His Dark Materials, because it is so obviously All About Lyra, and the person I had this conversation with was a boy, so maybe there is some gender identification going on. But really it's just whose eyes you see the world through - so I identify* with Miles in the Miles books and Cordelia in the first two books not because of their gender but because it's their story...]
*I'm not very happy with this phrase 'identify with' but I guess we both know what I'm using it as a placeholder for - the person whose head you're getting into when you read, ish.
I am always amazed by people who can identify with Will in His Dark Materials, because it is so obviously All About Lyra,
Oh yes, I agree 100% here. I may be biased against Will -- certainly people sometimes empathise with less main characters for good reasons, but I certainly empathised with Lyra rather than anyone else, and think that's the obvious default.
(I like your explanation of "identify with", and mean about that when I say similar things, and apologise for any confusion, but think we all know waht each other are talking about.)
Come to think of it, I think I'm using "empathise" or whatever in two slightly different ways, which character you mostly see out of, and to what extent their experience resonates with you.
In this book, Jerin is plainly the main character (although whats-her-name, the princess is second), and the obvious one to identify with. I did, and also fairly closely. (It hadn't occurred to me to wonder if someone else might have empathised with someone different, in retrospect, the idea would be a woman would most probably empathise with Jerin, but less closely, but I don't know if that's true -- see livredor's comment.)
didn't find any of those bits particularly striking
Yeah. I haven't read many romance novels, but I have read some (some very good books that also fit that description, and at least something that fits the stereotype completely.)
For example, I've certainly come across the idea of a heroine being seduced by the hero, and liking him an awful lot, and wanting to do things with him, but deciding she really really shouldn't (even if you assume nothing involves penetration and potentially indisputable physical evidence). And I've appreciated the dilemma in abstract and felt sorry for her, but didn't really imagine how it would feel. But when Jerin was in that situation, I did empathise with how he would feel, and wonder what I would choose.
This is a bit of an over-generalization, but I think girls have the advantage here. Because a really vanishingly small proportion of children's books have female protags, and an awful lot don't even have female characters who are people at all, rather than just whiny annoyances, or prizes for the hero. I think also that boys are less likely to be drawn to those books that are about girls; did you read things like Little house on the prairie or Anne of Green Gables? So from a young age a reading girl gets used to empathizing with male protags, especially if she wants to read about anything where exciting stuff happens.
Many people have pointed out that nobody in her right mind is going to read Arthurian tales and identify with Guinevere, or Robin Hood and identify with Maid Marian! (Myself, as quite a young child I was convinced that Merry and Pippin were girls, I think because their names reminded me of Mary and Pippa, and I also managed to miss the maleness of Kipling's Kim. But on the whole I read plenty of stuff with entirely male casts and never worried about it, and in a mixed gender scenario I often identified with the boys when they behaved more like people.)
If you move on to SF as an adult, you're still pretty much in a world where men have exciting adventures and women look decorative, (though obviously not every single book is like that). Mimetic literature, interestingly, is disproportionately about women, but a lot fewer men than women read mimetic.
I think it's fascinating that you connected to a romance type novel where the heroine happened to be male; I would almost have expected that you'd find that shape of story inherently boring. Though of course, the starting point for this whole thread was that you enjoyed Shards of honor even though it's about as romancey as you can get. Did you see it mostly from Aral's point of view, even though the narrative is in Cordelia's head the whole time?
This is a bit of an over-generalization, but I think girls have the advantage here.
I agree, I think you're right. Or rather, it sounds like it accords with my experience: most of the time, the main characters have been male, and where the main character(s) has been female, I have empathised with them (although I think empathised closely more rarely), and where there have been several characters, empathised much more often with a male one. I can't speak for if women who are exposed to a majority of books with mainly male protagonists have come to empathise with male protagonists more, but expect your impression is right, nor would it surprise me if it were true.
did you read things like Little house on the prairie or Anne of Green Gables
Not specifically, but I have read books with female protagonists, and in general identified with the main protagonist, but not as often very closely.
I think it's fascinating that you connected to a romance type novel where the heroine happened to be male
Well, actually, I didn't really. I connected to many of the scenes, and thought the world-building was excellent and the book generally well written, but I didn't really connect to the story.
However, I certainly have connected with some other romances, and I also enjoy some fluffy films with happy romantic endings if they're interesting or funny in the middle. But romances have a bad name because people often think of the many awful romances.
So I don't know if I can precisely describe the extent to which I like romances, but it's not something I dislike, although nor something I seek out specifically. Like mysteries, it's something I often like a lot when a good book also fits that description, but sometimes find tedious when it's specifically crafted for it.
Did you have any specific reason for guessing I'd dislike it? (That's a serious question, friends often do have insights primaries miss :)) That I like a lot of science fiction? Or from my personality?
Did you see it mostly from Aral's point of view,
No, not at all. I definitely empathised with Cordelia. And wanted her to be with Aral. But I suspect I saw Aral as what I'd think of him, rather than how she would. And for instance, when she mentions giving up a potential ship captaincy for someone she thought she loved, I think that may resonate better with someone who has been exposed to the view that they are more likely to useful at home than as the big leader than it did with me: I was certainly moved by the story, but I didn't really imagine myself in that situation.
In my limited experience very few British people have read Little House books. The one person over here was a (male) lecturer who mentioned the prairie fire. In contrast all my friends growing up had read them. (I was a geeky kid and all my friends where readers)
I used to not notice the lack of women in books, but it gets to me more and more. I kind of wish I could turn it off, so I could just enjoy something every now and again. However I like that can notice it, and I think being aware of casual discrimination in books is a useful skill.
This observation isn't original to me, but a surprisingly high proportion of people who like SF also like Jane Austen, if they can get past the "classic" packaging.
I'm really enjoying the way that cartesiandaemon is passing books on to me that lots of my flist get excited about; I'm getting far more discussion on books that come from him than those I discovered by myself, or was recommended by my recent ex or rysmiel. *bounce*
I've read most of the series and really enjoyed it. Some people get tired of Miles after a few books, because of the way he is in when he is young, but something I really like about the series is that the characters change over time. Miles grows up as he grows up. And I really enjoyed watching how Aral and Cordelia deal with parenting by the time Miles is basically an adult.