Sunnyskywalker (sunnyskywalker) wrote,

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Shards of Honor: Let's just leave those guns hanging over the mantelpiece unfired

Reading a review of Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor (here) made me realize I don't think I've ever written up my own reactions to the book.

I first read Shards of Honor about 10 years ago, after reading The Curse of Chalion and The Paladin of Souls and hearing that the Vorkosigan Saga was also great. Out of what I'm sure is a natural instinct for many readers, I started at the internal-chronology beginning, with Shards.

I hated it. And I didn't believe it, which I think is part of what made my reaction so strong--probably irrationally strong, because I'm sure some of the books I love are just as flawed in different ways, but they don't snap suspension of disbelief and stomp it into the ground the way this one does for whatever reasons.

So, you are a levelheaded leader who's been captured by an enemy commander, one reputed to be a horrible butcher. He tells you that no, he was totally against that; it was all his subordinate's fault! And he was so horrified that he killed his subordinate on the spot!

And your response is, "Wow, you sound like a totally honorable guy. So sorry for doubting you!"

Because it is impossible that he might be lying? Because it is impossible that anyone who can act like a decent human being for a few days at a stretch could ever do anything terrible? Even if we accept that Cordelia is that easily convinced (maybe inexperience with mass murderers has indeed left her feeling like yes, anyone who acts nice for a few days couldn't possibly be one), there's no reason that readers should be.

In fact, I'm pretty sure readers shouldn't be. Especially not in a book in which characters demonstrably do not tell the truth all the time, e.g., the whole elaborate deception involving thousands of war dead so that a couple of powerful bad guys can be killed off without blame attaching to anyone inconvenient. And especially especially not when we see other captives' memories and minds being messed with.

I know the Betan psychiatrists who suspect Cordelia has been brainwashed are themselves pretty terrible in their own ways... but, um, that doesn't mean she couldn't have been brainwashed. Coming back from a second stint as a POW declaring that you can see how a brutal, sexist, classist war-mongering government could work and that one of the top leaders there seems totally nice and wants you to marry him and you're considering it sounds just a tad worrisome. Especially to anyone who already knows--as readers do--that you desperately want children but have had very bad luck with relationships and are deeply afraid that you're going to be single and childless forever, and so might be just a teensy bit vulnerable to being told that you're so amazing that a totally honorable and duty-bound guy fell in love with you at first sight and wants to marry you and have lots of babies. And when you think your choices are either "stay at home and be subjected to no-good scary psychiatric treatments against your will" or "run away to marry some guy I hardly know on Planet Military Feudalism," with no "maybe I could run away to Planet Option C instead," something is definitely not working with your decision-making process.

To be clear: it isn't (necessarily) a problem that Cordelia is otherwise strong and levelheaded but vulnerable in this particular way. That makes her a flawed character with all sorts of interesting narrative potential. What is a problem, for me, is that the narrative doesn't address the risks.

We have all this buildup! (1) Aral's reputation might or might not be wrong, but that just highlights that (2) lots of people are lying about things, and he might be one of them, and (3) he's officially her enemy and has plenty of good military reasons to con her, and (4) we know from the elaborate "manipulate a war to get the prince killed" plot that Barrayar is totally on board with elaborate plots, so a marriage offer as a long con (for currently unknown-to-readers purposes) would be completely plausible, and (5) she practically hands him the story of how she's emotionally vulnerable to a declaration of love and offer of future babies, plus (6) there's a definite possibility that her memory has been tampered with.

I think it's completely reasonable at this point for a reader to have serious concerns when Cordelia runs off to marry Aral. Look at all those guns over the mantelpiece! And yet we get next to nothing to reassure us that he really, truly loves her (as much as he can after a week, anyway) and isn't conning her, not even reluctantly for honor and the greater good. She just... marries him, and everything's cool because no one was ever thinking of firing those guns, the end.

Okay, not exactly the end, since Barrayar picks right up where Shards left off, and they're now published together as Cordelia's Honor. I recently re-read Shards and then read Barrayar for the first time out of a sense of guilt that maybe I wasn't being fair and had missed something crucial, or that reading both together would fix everything.

The possibility of Aral having lied to or manipulated Cordelia never comes up. Maybe I blinked and missed it, but I was looking, so I don't think I missed anything too significant. Apparently, we're supposed to know not to worry about it in Barrayar because of the deep trust and connection they developed in Shards. Except that they didn't actually develop it in Shards. Maybe we're also meant to have read some of the Miles books already so that we know Aral and Cordelia are totally happy together twenty years later.

The whole thing feels frustratingly circular. How do we know Aral lying isn't a possibility? Because in the future, it didn't happen. In the past, how did Aral and Cordelia develop this great trust and affection despite major obstacles and overpowering reasons for mistrust? Easily, thanks to their intuitive foreknowledge of the future which spared them from any of the completely reasonable concerns that might trouble us regular mortals who can only exist in linear time.

Since it is impossible for me to read both three or more books simultaneously, never mind experience them as a big ball of non-causal story mush outside of time, I cannot bring myself to accept future events as a reason not to suspect suspicious characters in the story-present. If there are a whole bunch of guns hanging over the mantelpiece labeled "THIS STRANGER YOU'RE PLANNING TO MARRY COULD BE LYING THROUGH HIS TEETH," I expect the narrative to treat this risk seriously. Cordelia meets a whole bunch of scheming Barrayarans, including by telling her that Aral is bisexual and expecting her to be appalled; surely one of them could try harder at hinting that Aral was just using her for intelligence purposes or as part of an elaborate scheme to upset the balance of power on Barrayar or something that gives her pause for more than half a second? Something that would make her and Aral have to work to build that connection and trust instead of just having it magically work out? Maybe someone could plant evidence to that effect! I mean, if you're a dastardly schemer, why not go all out?

I have other niggling issues, but this is the big one, for me. The good parts are good enough that I can see how, if they hit your buttons, that could overcome the weak points. But it doesn't work for me. I just can't believe in the love story of Cordelia and Aral, which pretty much kills the duology for me. I tried reading a few Miles books too, and couldn't get on with them either.

Which saddens me, because I have wanted to like the Vorkosigan books for a decade. They sound so good when other people describe them! I can see many of the virtues they describe! But I think it's time to accept that the Vorkosigan books are decent-to-great books with some big flaws--like most books, including my favorites--that just aren't a good fit for me for whatever reason and stop beating myself up over not liking books so many others like.
Tags: books, literary minority report, sf/f

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