Details: (c) 1986 – 1991 Lois McMaster Bujold; Pub 2006 Baen; ISBN 0-671-57828-6
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.