Apr 5 2012 10:00am

The Shards of Honor Gateway: Author Mary Jo Putney on Romance in the Vorkosiverse

No Longer a Gentleman by Mary Jo PutneyToday we are honored to host Mary Jo Putney at Heroes and Heartbreakers. Mary Jo’s upcoming release is No Longer A Gentleman, a historical romance in her Lost Lords series. Mary Jo has won numerous awards, hit numerous bestseller lists multiple times, and writes in several genres.

We’ve asked this tremendous writer to share her thoughts on another writer, Lois McMaster Bujold, and her Vorkosigan series. 

I’m a romance writer, so it’s no surprise that I discovered the Vorkosigans through an online romance discussion group. Several fans of romantic SF/F kept recommending this Bujold person. When I inquired where to start, I was told that Shards of Honor was a strong romance as well as first in the series.

Shards should have been classified as a “gateway drug.” Once I read the story of Captain Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, the Butcher of Komarr, I was doomed. Since then, I’ve read and reread every novel Lois McMaster Bujold has ever written. (And checking facts for this essay kept hooking me into still more rereading!)

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Vorkosiverse is a feast of relationships, not just romances. I love how cousins Miles and Ivan interact as evil brothers who nonetheless trust each other unconditionally. The way marriages mature and change. The way the boy emperor, Gregor, grows into his insanely demanding role. Cordelia, Aral, Gregor, Mark—there are so many marvelous characters who are defined as much by their relationships as by their actions.

The Vorkosigan books aren’t genre romances, where the developing relationship is at the heart of the story. Yet the series is romance in the literary sense: a vast and sweeping tale of high adventure. The story of Miles Vorkosigan is a classic bildungsroman, the chronicle of a young man learning about life as he grows to manhood.

And, like most young men, Miles has a natural interest in the female half of the species. (We won’t get into Betan herms here.) His passion for Elena Bothari, with whom he was raised, is unrequited, but there will be other women in his future.

Terrific women, too. As a female reader, one of my pleasures in the books is how strong the female characters are. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the author is female, but there are never enough great fictional women to take them for granted.

Miles’s lovers are always accomplished and interesting. A favorite moment of mine is when clone brother Mark, whose actions have gotten Miles killed, is confronted by the ferocious Amazons that were his clone brother’s former girlfriends.

Elli Quinn, whose face was burned off in battle, is given a new face courtesy of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, and grows into his second in command and eventual successor. A “drunkard’s dream” of a girlfriend, Quinn is funny, smart, sexy, and a warrior to reckon with.

Sergeant Taura is equally dangerous—bred as a disposable super-warrior, she can terrify with a smile, but inside she’s a lonely girl who has never known affection, much less love. Granted, when an eight-foot tall teenager with fangs and claws wants sex as a price for her cooperation, a man might suffer world-class performance anxiety, but Miles is up for to the challenge. Indeed, he and Taura develop a lasting bond they both cherish.

Though Miles tends to be monogamous, sometimes circumstances bring on diversity. His occasional liaisons with Taura when they’re far from the Dendarii overlap his long affair with Quinn. And during his amnesia after cryo-revival, there was that fling with Dr. Rowan Durona, his accomplished and attractive doctor. Very healing.

Miles in Love by Lois McMaster BuholdMiles isn’t the only one who gets to fall in love. When Bujold first takes us to Barrayar, it’s a brutal world where women have little status and life is run along hierarchal and militaristic lines. One of the pleasures of the series is watching how Barrayar changes after Cordelia arrives and Aral becomes the Regent. Their rock-solid marriage, based on mutual trust and respect, lay the foundations for a more civilized society.

For that reason, several romances have a feminist and radical subtext. When Cordelia settles in Barrayar, the military is strictly for men, and a girl with warrior aspirations is shut out. Ludmilla Droushnakovi, known as Drou, is the tall, blond, athletic daughter of a non-com. She can’t join the imperial forces, but at least she’s trained to fight while serving as a bodyguard to Princess Kareen.

Drou is attracted to Lieutenant Koudelka, Aral’s war-injured secretary, and vice versa, but the romance almost founders over the issue of a woman’s strength. When Kou attempts to confess to Aral that he raped Drou, Aral summons Cordelia and Drou. Drou almost breaks her confused lover in half while proving her point that he couldn’t have laid a hand on her if she hadn’t been willing.

It takes Cordelia in terrifying Betan matchmaker mode to sort out their misunderstandings and send them toward their happy ending. When Drou and Kou marry at the Imperial residence, Aral comments that every class of Barrayaran society is represented on the guest list. It is a sign of the changes ahead, and Drou and Kou go on to produce a gaggle of handsome blond daughters who will have romances of their own.

Elena Bothari is another Barrayaran woman frustrated by her native world’s sexism. The romance of Elena and Baz Jezek is only sketched in, but I’ve always assumed that part of their bond is that they’re both Barrayarans who can’t go home again. She won’t and he can’t, but they have each other and a shared culture.

Miles is shocked when he realizes that Lord Vorkosigan has no sex life. Quinn and Taura and Rowan Durona are the lovers of Miles Naismith. The little admiral of the Dendarii fleet has sucked up all the passion and fun available to the Miles’s identities.

When a disastrous lie forces Miles to leave his mercenary fleet and rediscover what it means to be Barrayan, that includes finding a mate who will fit into his new future. He and Elli Quinn do their best to persuade each other to a different path, but Quinn won’t settle on Barrayar, and Miles won’t abandon his home world. In the end, they settle for parting as friends. Which is a fine ending to a love affair, actually.

Inevitably, the love of Miles’s life, the widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson, is Vor. Like Miles, she has faced struggles in life that have seasoned and matured her. She is a “woman (who) went down and down, like a well to the middle of the world.”

Though no warrior, Ekaterin doesn’t lack courage, and she shares Miles’s Vor values right down to the cellular level. To be Vor is to serve, even if the cost might be one’s own life.

To be Vor also means living by a code of honor. Miles is shocked when an angry Lieutenant Vorberg accuses him of abandoning Illyan, head of Imperial Security, who has been asking for Miles as his mind slowly shatters. Miles immediately answers the call, even if that means bringing down the fearsome walls of ImpSec itself. Both he and Vorberg understand that it matters to “make Vor real.”

Hyperactive over-achiever that he is, Miles almost loses Ekaterin by failing to understand her need to make him a gift of her talents. She, too, has her honor. As always, Miles learns the hard way, but he learns. Just as his military skills include the ability to bring out the best in those around him (a trait inherited from both parents), he is able to bring out the best in Ekaterin.

And she is wise enough to cherish all that is special about Miles, while being entirely aware of his many and colorful shortcomings.

The essence of good romance is to show how two people suit each other. What is unique about each individual, and about their relationship to each other? What does he love about her, what does she love about him? Bujold shows such things with impeccable accuracy. By the time Ekaterin proposes to Miles in front of the entire Council of Counts, there is no doubt that these two people are made for each other.

Another Vorkosiverse romance that feels utterly right is that of Emperor Gregor. Gregor’s cool, razor-insightful style defines him brilliantly. He serves the Imperium as he was born and bred to do. Yet when he falls in love, the object of his affection isn’t a tall, slim Vor maiden “whose family tree crosses (his) sixteen times in the last six generations,” but Dr. Laisa Toscane, a luscious and intelligent Komarran heiress. (What female reader can’t appreciate the fact that the round girl gets the guy?)

It’s a powerful moment when Gregor, whose life has been lived for Barrayar, tells Miles that Laisa is the one thing that he absolutely wants for himself. Miles gives Gregor permission to grab her with both hands and “don’t let the bastards” take her away. Gregor deserves no less than a woman as lovable and loving as Laisa.

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster BujoldThere are romances in virtually all of the books, because romance make a great subplot and also they’re fun. But the real Saturnalia of romance is A Civil Campaign. While the centerpiece is Miles’s courtship of Ekaterin, the Koudelka girls fall for an amazing range of men.

In Memory, Delia Koudelka secured Komarran Duv Galeni, who had yearned for Laisa Toscane, but didn’t move fast enough. As Miles observed after that book’s final crisis, it would take four large and foolhardy men with hand tractors to pry Delia off Galeni’s arm. Galeni clung to her just as hard. This one wouldn’t be allowed to get away.

In A Civil Campaign, Martya sets her sights on the mad Escobaran scientist Enrique Borgos, who needs a managing woman to take care of his interests while he spends fourteen-hour days in his lab. Martya is fully qualified to manage a man, and she won’t mind spending all the money his inventions will make, either.

Olivia Koudelka pairs off with the most unusual Lord Dono Vorrutyer. Though perhaps the quietest of the Koudelka girls, she was trained by her mother and is quite capable of taking down three thugs when they attack her beloved. Two with a stun gun and one by bashing his head into a concrete pillar. The Koudelka girls are as formidable as they are blond.

But the romance that proves the Vorkosiverse is circular is that of clone brother Mark Vorkosigan and Kareen, the youngest Koudelka daughter. When terrorized by Miles’s “hellish harem” in Mirror Dance, Mark had thought wildly that he wanted a nice small, soft, meek blonde. Kareen isn’t meek, but she’s blond and soft and compassionate, and she loves the dark and twisty complexities of Mark’s tormented soul.

Her parents are less enthused, given the massive amount of baggage Mark carries. Once again Cordelia goes into Betan matchmaker mode to convince Drou and Kou that Mark and Kareen deserve a chance to see if they suit.

Thirty years have passed, and it is no longer necessary for young people to claim their sexuality in “a mad secret scramble in the dark, full of confusion, pain, and fear.” That was a time Drou remembers without affection. Barrayar is a better place now, and even Kareen’s protective Da eventually agrees to give love a chance.

The last romance that I’m really waiting for is Ivan’s. What clever lady is going to see beyond his carefully cultivated façade of the cheerful dolt to see the strong, honorable man below?

While I’m waiting, I’ll reread the whole Vorkosigan series. Again.


A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author, Mary Jo Putney was born in Upstate New York with a reading addiction, a condition for which there is no known cure. Winner of numerous writing awards, including two RITAs and two Romantic Times Career Achievement awards, she has five times had books listed among the Library Journal’s top five romances of the year, and three times had books among the top ten romances of Booklist. Her favorite reading is great stories, but in a pinch she’ll settle for the backs of cereal boxes.

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Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
I absolutely love this series and everything else Ms. Bujold has ever written. The two novels after "A Civil Campaign", "Diplomatic Immunity" and "Cryoburn" also contain romances as sub-plots. This author has a deft hand with relationships which make her works so much richer.
Marian DeVol
2. ladyengineer
Because of a lifetime addiction ('60's to present) to fantasy and science fiction, I discovered this series when its first entries were being published ('80's and '90's). It is one of my all time favorites!

My love of historical and other romance started later, during high school in the '70's with Georgette Heyer. Several of your own work are on my TBR pile.

Mary Jo, thank you for a wonderfully detailed article! You have inspired me to assess where my Vorkosigan saga collection stands, to fill in whatever blanks there are, and to begin to reread the lot. ;->
Regina Thorne
3. reginathorn
I'm eagerly awaiting the "Ivan-centric" book as well - he turned into one of my favorite characters with A Civil Campaign (or even before that I think!) I keep comparing Ivan and Miles to another "golden boy"/"physically challenged" pair of relatives, Jaime and Tyrion Lannister from George R. R. Martin's series: I read that before I read the Vorkosigan books, and I couldn't help but see Miles as Tyrion with a much better family and Ivan as a far less evil version of Jaime. I love their dynamic together.

For some reason, though, Ekaterin just doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps it's because I really liked the potential Miles partners who appeared earlier in the series, or perhaps it's because I felt like Bujold went out of her way to make Ekaterin's husband so completely and utterly awful in every possible way so that we wouldn't think badly of Miles for falling in love with a married lady or SOMETHING. But she bugs me a little bit, I'm sorry to say. Although Miles's hilarious courtship of Ekaterin is the highlight of my favorite novel of the series, so I guess I'm glad she's around after all!
Nancy Barber
4. nlbarber
The wait until November for Ivan's book will be hard--the Bujold mailing list is drooling over various draft covers for it today, and wishing Bujold would drop a few more plot-hints. Meanwhile, I'll re-read the later Vorkosiverse books, and the Chalion books, and The Sharing Knife books, and maybe even The Spirit Ring. There are lovely romance elements in all of 'em.
5. moretta
Thank you very much! This has convinced me to include all her books (thanks, Baen!) in my ereader, for reading from time to time. And remembrances...
6. eeeeeelizabeth
Bujold is definitely my favorite living author. I have loved this whole series for years, and reread it a zillion times, and agree with all the praise. I can't wait for you to write something similar about the Chalion series, which so richly deserves praise for its amazing star-crossed romances-- Oh, Ista!!! :) Strangely, the Sharing Knife series, which was intended as a romance, didn't strike me as nearly as poignant or rich as either the Vorkosigan Saga or the Chalion series.
Sallie Moore
7. salliem
What a marvellous summary of my all-time favourite series! Thank you, Mary Jo. I can't think how often I have read these books and have no intention of ever stopping. Delighted to hear that Ivan is soon to find his mate. From initially wanting to box his ears every time he wandered heedlessly onto the page, I have grown very protective of him and hope his real mother, Lois, feels the same!
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