Veera: My motivation for reading this book was an agreement with a friend – if I started reading the Vorkosigan books, he would start reading Austen. Since A CIVIL CAMPAIGN found its way on my reading list last summer, it was a very convenient arrangement. Although to be fair, I was told to start with a different book, both by Alex and said friend, so my current attitude of nice-but-didn’t-rock-my-socks is a questionable one.
Alex: We told you to read THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE first, didn’t we? Told you. TOLD YOU. There are things that I really like about SHARDS OF HONOR, and there are things which I think could have been pulled off a little better. Do you want to go first, or shall I?
Veera: Be my guest!
Alex: Okay, so. Bujold’s greatest strength (IMHO) is her characters, which means that her books and I are immediately best friends. Miles Vorkosigan is everyone’s favorite, of course, but this book is about Miles’ parents and how they met. Since we know going into the book that Aral and Cordelia are going to end up together and have a kid, there’s no mystery to how their emotional arc will end, no “will they, won’t they?” They will. We know they will. The exciting part of the journey isn’t discovering if they do or not, it’s discovering how they got there. And I feel that that’s one of the book’s weaker aspects. The relationship between Aral and Cordelia just felt a little too rushed, and I think the book would have benefited if it were another 25,000 to 50,000 words long. I love reading about people’s relationships, but when I’m supposed to ship two characters, I want to be made to SUFFER for it a little bit first, so that when they finally have a dramatic golden-age-of-Hollywood movie kiss in front of a sunset or possibly on a horse right before the credits roll, I really feel like I’ve earned it. SHARDS OF HONOR didn’t really make me suffer for it, so the payoff of the ending wasn’t as effective and “MY HEART, MY FEELS” keen as it could have been.
So Miss Romance Novel Specialist, what do you think of SHARDS OF HONOR when you look at it through the lens of romance novel structure? It seems to me that that’s basically what it is.
Veera: Well, technically it would seem to have all the essential elements (I can’t think of what the Point of Ritual Death was but surely there was one) —
Alex: The what now? Is this like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but for romance novels?
Veera: Yeah, that’s basically what it is. Northrop Frye coined it for the medieval romance and its ilk, and Pamela Regis fitted it into the romance discourse, because romance continuum. In the Point of Ritual Death the heroine goes through a symbolic death, and it’s usually also the moment when it seems like union of heroine and hero will be impossible.
What you say about wanting to suffer some before the relationship is finalized has a lot to do with genre, really. If SHARDS OF HONOR was primarily a romance novel, with the focus on courtship, you probably would be made to suffer more, because the focus would be on emotion. When it’s clearly primarily speculative fiction, the focus seems to be more on action.
Alex: I disagree that whether I suffer or not has exclusively to do with genre! There’s lots of SFF books with romances that have made me suffer. The other Bujold book that got you into this series, A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, definitely gave me the sort of agonizing 400 pages of UST that I like. There’s others, but that’s the best example — I think Bujold just learned and improved vastly in her knowledge of structure and pacing in the fifteen years between writing SoH and ACC.
Veera: But do they all actually fill the requirements of a romance novel (while obviously still keeping in mind that these would be secondary plots)? I do believe A CIVIL CAMPAIGN does – as it really should, with such an obvious connection to Heyer) – but usually when I see romance subplots in SFF they don’t really fill the definitions and requirements.
Alex: No, not all of them do (within my limited understanding and experience of romance novels, that is, I’m definitely not as much of an expert as you are, dear <3).
Veera: Having said that, I’m really suspicious of genre blendings.
Alex: REALLY? How come? I love genre blendings. Or at least I love the idea of genre blendings. *significant look at current manuscript*
Veera: Yeah, I like the idea too. I’ve just read too many poorly executed ones. It’s a precarious balance.
Alex: I can agree with that. I’ve read some shoddy ones too. You have to have a real expertise in and passion for both genres, and you can’t just slam ‘em together like two fistfuls of clay. You have to weave them together. (This is also my philosophy about crossover fanfiction, which I loved both reading and writing back in the day.)
Veera: Exactly! Although I must say Bujold does a pretty decent job. Like you said, it could have been better with a bit more length, but I find it alright. It’s a bit of both, but it’s perhaps the blending that’s not entirely successful – the romance feels separate from the rest of the plot.
Alex: How much of a badass is Cordelia, though? I fucking love her. She’s great in this book but she ONLY GETS BETTER IN FUTURE ONES.
Veera: Ooooh I love her! I like how she’s just no-nonsense and efficient and good at what she does.
Alex: Yes, that’s Cordelia in a nutshell. She is not here to take your bullshit, she is here to kick ass. When Cordelia is in the room, the best thing to do is just to get out of her way. But in all seriousness, though, one of the things I like about Cordelia is that she’s DEFINITELY not your typical Ass Kicking Lady. She’s not made out to be stoic or unfeeling — she’s sensitive, in the beginning of SoH especially she’s kind of insecure, and she has some strong nurturing tendencies. She’s also HELLA smart in a lot of different ways: common sense, interpersonally, academically… She’s a strong female character, emphasis on female. And it’s awesome.
Veera: That’s precisely what I think. She’s incredibly kick-ass, without sacrificing any femininity. A perfect example of how a character can be both good at the action and still very caring and, if the expression is permitted, soft.
Now, having not read any other Bujolds, how would you say this one compares, in terms of genre and characterization?
Alex: Oh man. Bujold only gets better as she goes on. Which is amazing, because SoH is already very good. It was actually the second of her books to be published, and I do like THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE better of the two because it has Miles, and Everyone Loves Miles. But yeah, with her other books she… hm, I’m not sure how to say it. You can see that she kept learning!
Another thing I really love about Bujold is her language. She’s very efficient with her words, she doesn’t bother overdecorating her prose, or dressing it up. It’s just simple, straightforward, concise. And yet she packs so much meaning and feeling into it, and she does things like this (which is possibly my favorite line from SHARDS OF HONOR):
Unsmiled! UNSMILED!! What a fucking GREAT word, and what a clean and simple way to describe the activity that’s happening on this person’s face. Augh, she’s wonderful.
Veera: Oh yes, I remember that scene! Unsmiling was a good idea, both in terms of keeping the dialogue dynamic AND comic effect!
Alex: So you’re going to read THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE next, right?
Veera: That’s the plan. After that, should I continue in publishing order from there, or is there some sort of trick to this?
Alex: Well, publishing order is how I did it, for the most part, but the other option is to continue in internal-chronological order. If you did it that way, the next would be BARRAYAR, aka CORDELIA KICKS MORE ASS THAN THE ENTIRE BARRAYARAN MILITARY COMBINED. Not to be missed!
Veera: That sounds most promising!
Alex: Which will you do, then?
Veera: I think I’ll go for THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE. I need to meet this Miles fellow. His mom I already know I like.