This year, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga turns 30. Sixteen novels and assorted short stories and novellas, published over three decades, collecting a grand total of 10 Hugo Award nominations (and four wins): that’s a respectable track record for any space adventure series without the words “Star Wars” or “Dune” in the title.
It’s easy to see why it has proven so popular with readers: the series takes a more social approach to the space opera, putting the characters and their interactions front-and-center. Bujold captures the spirit and style of older adventure novels—daring escapes, plot twists, social intrigue, and complex social mores—but adds enough of her own flourishes that everything still seems fresh and new. And in a genre known for its massive tomes, she manages to pack more depth and narrative complexity into 15-odd chapters than some space operas offer in an entire trilogy. Also rare for the genre, the books display her wickedly droll sense of humor (perhaps I should have led with that?).
With the release of the most recent book in the series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, there’s no better time to go back and read the earlier volumes of Bujold’s classic far-future epic. But as decades of novels, novellas, and omnibuses (published out of chronological order, no less) can be a little daunting, I decided to provide a few different points of entry to get started with the world of Cordelia, Aral, Miles, and their relatives, allies, and many, many enemies..
If you want to start at the beginning:
Shards of Honor and Barrayar
Chronologically the second novel in the Vorkosigan Saga (after the only-loosely-related Falling Free, discussed below), Shards of Honor starts the story proper. It follows Commander Cordelia Naismith, the leader of a research team from Beta Colony, who develops an odd relationship with her ostensible enemy, the Barryaran Commander Aral Vorkosigan, after the two are stranded on an uninhabited world. While the book is packed with plots and intrigue between empires and political major players, the focus is on relationships. Bujold imbues her cast with humanity and chemistry, and the quick back-and-forth dialogue keeps the book ticking along while adding a great deal of wit. Also, the varied settings and fast-moving plot make it an excellent primer for the series’ tendency to genre-bend at will. Though published years (and several books) later, Barrayar acts as a direct continuation of Shards and a necessary prquel to later books (so much so that they were, for a time, collected in the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor).
If you want to start before the beginning, or off to the side:
Falling Free and Ethan of Athos
Jumping into a new series—especially one as long-running as this—can be intimidating. Luckily, Bujold has written two novels set within the Vorkosi-verse that work very well as completely standalone novels full of interesting ideas, and will also give you a feel for the series as a whole. Falling Free is a prequel set about 200 years before the other books, and concerns the fate of beings known as Quaddies—genetically modified humans with four arms and no legs who were designed to serve as a labor force in zero-G environments. Quaddies as treated as property by the company that created them, and granted few rights and limited knowledge of the outside world. When new developments in artificial gravity threaten to make them obsolete as a species, a natural-born human engineer named Leo Graff determines to help free them.
Ethan of Athos is set contemporaneously with the story of Cordelia and Miles, but only mentions Miles by name a few times, focusing instead on the titular planet of Athos, all all-male society that maintains itself with science, creating the next generation of citizens via cloning technology and “uterine replicators.” With the genetic samples from the original colonists breaking down, Athos’ scientists attempt to obtain donor eggs from off-planet. When shipment of vital tissue samples appears to have been sabotaged, biological engineer Ethan Urquhart sets off to the galactic trading hub of Jackson’s Whole to investigates who might be responsible, and try to obtain an untainted supply. Athos provides for an interesting exploration of a single-sex society, touching on issues of misogyny, homophobia, and sexuality,
If you want to start with Miles:
The Warrior’s Apprentice
Though Cordelia and Aral kick things off, most of the series concerns itself with their son, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, born a hunchback with brittle bones and a lopsided body due to a chemical weapons attack on his parents. Miles washes out of the military during a Barryaran officer’s exam when he is forced to jump from a climbing wall and breaks both his legs. During a needed vacation to visit his grandmother on Beta Colony, a chance encounter results in him “buying” an old freighter by exploiting several legal loopholes and swearing its jump-pilot into his service. From there, he picks up a deserter, drafts his bodyguard and childhood friend, and assembles a small free company for a dangerous shipping mission that quickly gets out of hand. While the characters and plot are no less engaging, The Warrior’s Apprentice manages to fill in a tremendous degree of the setting via Miles’s favorite gambit—the abuse of historical and legal loopholes.
If you’d rather start in the thick of it:
Komarr is a good middle point to pick up the series, as it’s the start of a new arc that sees Miles acting as an investigator rather than part of the military. It also deals in depth with the planet of Komarr, long alluded to in the history of the series, shifts (nominal) genres by putting the intrigue and mystery up-front, and introduces a new viewpoint character in Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who offers an interesting counterpoint by not being directly involved (at first) in the intrigues and politics of the Barryaran Empire. Komarr is also a good starting point because the story begins at a much slower burn than some of the other books, allowing the reader to sink into the setting without having to keep up with the kinetic plots found in previous volumes.
If you’d looking for just a taste:
The Borders of Infinity
This collection of novellas serves as a kind of loose introduction to the universe, framed as a series of accounts Miles gives one of his superiors while recovering from injuries earned on a mission. All three novellas fit chronologically between different books in the series, with “The Mountains of Mourning” serving as a bridge between the early Miles adventures, “Labyrinth” as a brief affair after his Dendarii Free Company is an established presence, and “Borders of Infinity” a short introduction to the latter part of the saga. “Borders of Infinity” also contains a moment central to both Miles’s development as a character and to the series as a whole, making it essential reading before tackling the later books.
Where did you first start with Bujold?