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Sci-fi Review: ‘Shards of Honour’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Warning:  The following review contains spoilers.  Not really for the book, but for everything else you may be interested in.
 

I will keep this short, because I honestly don’t think there are many people left that need to be told to read Bujold.  If any of you are in fact one of those people, there here it is.  Go read Bujold.  Like, right now.  Because if you don’t I will start spoiling everything else your reading and/or watching.  Because Bujold is bloody amazing, and even in ‘Shards of Honor,’ her first book, that talent was showing itself strong.
Damn it I said go read Bujold!  Snape killed Dumbledore, don’t say you were not warned.

I like my Martini’s light on vermouth, and I like my Science fiction light on science.  I made a perfect gin martini last night, and over twenty years ago Bujold wrote a book that was so light on science it could have been a fantasy book.  I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.  Like many a good fantasy novel the readers are dropped into the middle of the story with no background.  It says something about the craftsmanship of the author whether drops like this confuse a reader or excite them; in ‘Shards of Honor’ I was turning pages at a record pace.  I am counting this as a win.

Why are you still not reading Bujold?  Ok, you asked for it; the fight club is all in his head.  Ya, all of it, you don’t talk about it because it doesn’t exist. 

Everyone says that Bujold is one of the best at creating deep, realistic characters and also excels at having them interact.  In this case everyone seems to be right.  Loved Captain Cordelia Naismith, a rare middle aged woman in speculative fiction.  She is in no way defined by her age, still a well-respected and capable leader who is beloved by her crew.  With a strong sense of honor and the ability to think quickly I was always happy to see her decisions and how they played out.  I enjoyed Aral Vorkosigan a bit less, he was a bit too perfect.  But I will admit that while he may play the strait arrow a bit too much he was no Gary Stu; he makes very real mistakes and it costs both him as his men.

Sigh.  Really, you don’t think I see the magazine sticking out under the book?  Leah is his sister.  Ya, rethink that kiss now.  And read Bujold.

I was also impressed by the tension built in the book, both from danger and the romance.  The romance had a feel of being inevitable, but was still entertaining.  The dangers the characters go through on the other hand felt very real.  Naismith’s run in with a truly evil admiral would have been flat out bad in the hands of a less capable author, but her show of outward cool contrasted with her inner fears was well done.  A minor character with some major mental health issues was also intriguing.  There can be no doubt he did some horrible things, yet how much of it was as the result of others using his illness?  For the most part he acted within his own set of honor, and was genuine when guided by the right hands.

Oh for god’s sake.  You just don’t learn do you?  Old Yeller, the dog in Stone Fox, both dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows… all of them died. 

The best part of the book to me was when Naismith is assumed to be under some kind of reconditioning.  Part of me wishes Bujold would have made a whole book of this; Naismith not really knowing which of her memories were real, what to believe, unsure of her love.  But I suppose others have already done this, so I will be happy with the book I got instead.

Kint is Kayser Söze .  Don’t pretend you don’t know why I told you, I think by now you got the pattern.

As a first book this was impressive.  A bit rough compared to the fantasy I have read by the author, there were some rough timeline jumps.  They didn’t affect the story, and a case could be made that they helped avoid a lot of extra bloat, but they were abrupt and were the only time I had to reset my brain in the book.  Having started on Bujold’s fantasy I was very happy that this wasn’t a complete change of style; it was still a fast moving, smart plot based around a small cast of interesting and capable characters.  What more can I want?

Did I mention that everyone who considers themselves to be a fan of the genre should read Bujold?

4 stars

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Fantasy Review: ‘The Curse of Chalion’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Another example of me finding a book that it feels everyone else already knew about, raved about, and left me wondering why the hell I have not read it before.  ‘The Curse of Chalion’ is my first reading of Bujold, but will certainly not be my last.  Here is an author who knows how to play with pacing, keeping the duller times in the character’s lives interesting somehow, but providing occasional action scenes that don’t lack either.  Even better in my mind, the very strong pacing and plot is outdone by the strength of the characters.

There really isn’t much the author didn’t do just right in this book.
The book is the story of Cazaril, former soldier, former rower on a slave ship, and at the start of the book, a penniless man hoping to beg a job from a family he served earlier in life.  Hoping for any job at all, he is surprised to be offered a job as secretary/tutor to Royesse Iselle, second in line to the throne.  Doing his best to remain inconspicuous, he finds himself dragged into the political arena.  Even worse, he becomes aware of a curse hanging over the whole family, and may be the only one who can remove it.


While the titled curse could be considered the main plot line of the book, it is but one important thread followed throughout the story.  Equally important is Cazaril coming to terms with his importance, Iselle working hard to make her own path, and a decent game of political maneuvering that affects everyone in the family.  Throughout the entire story the religion plays a strong part, with ample proof that the five worshipped gods are real and active, though they are in no way omnipotent.  I am personally a big fan of well-crafted religious stories, which is one more plus for this book in my mind.

The books biggest strengths of the book is the characters.  Being the story of Cazaril, the narrative never leaves him, a rare third person narrative with only one POV.  Sold out before the story began, he was not ransomed at the end of a long siege and was hardened by his time as a slave.  He may seem too good to be true in some cases, but for the most part he is a reasonable portrait of a man who wants to be a good man, and whose actions reflect that.  He excels at a great many things, but has some noticeable failures as well, keeping him away from the Gary Stu territory.  Iselle is likewise a wonderful character.  She shows signs of spoiled princess early, but it is quickly shown that that is only the case if a person goes in with preconceived notions.  In reality she is very intelligent, with a desire to learn more.  She has some of the rashness of youth, which leads to some hard moments for Cazaril.  When she decides to take her life’s direction into her own hands she does so with quick decision making backed by strong research.  I loved her throughout the book.  Another example of a well done character is Iselle’s companion, Betriz.  She has many strengths, but the reason I point her out is how well she worked as a love interest.  When rejected she acted realistically; that is with disappointment but not falling into grief.  (Teen fantasy is often criticized for lots of true-love angst, but I have found a lot of adult fantasy falling down the same hole, which is why this is so refreshing to see).  The books main villain may have seemed a bit too evil, but the curse realistically shows some of the reasons why.  And though he may be evil, he is just as smart and calculating as Cazaril.

I also found the pacing and writing style to be very well done.  Not a lot of extra flourish, and by sticking with one character it was one long transition between scenes.  Only a few minor nitpicks here. Not an action book, the action scenes did lack for some excitement, but luckily were not the core of the book so it mattered very little.  Travel was also inconsistent, with some journeys taking an appropriate amount of time, while others went so fast it made the land seem like it was only a hundred miles across.

It would be hard to talk about the politics or religion without spoilers, so I only point out that both were done well.  The politics were a bit simplistic, and there were some things that seemed like coincidences that may throw some readers off.  But the influence of the gods is constant, with some of the coincidences being literal dues ex machina.  This may be the best made up religion I have read about since ‘Firethorn.’

So, good strong story, great characters, interesting religion, simple but entertaining politics.  The only flaw I really saw was in fairly weak action sequences, which were not even the point of the story.

4 stars.  Really enjoyed this one.

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