The pleasures of reading the complete Vorkosigan Saga

Shards of Honor is one of the best books in the complete Vorkosigan Saga.Miles Vorkosigan is the central figure in most of the sixteen novels (to date) that comprise the complete Vorkosigan Saga, several books of which have won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold won the Hugo Award four times, matching the record achieved by Robert A. Heinlein—and it’s easy to see why. The space operas that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga are several cuts above the classics in that genre from the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They sparkle with witty dialogue and humor, characters come across as three-dimensional, they’re action-packed, and the plotting is invariably complex and full of surprises. In short, these books are fun to read.

A journey through space and time in the complete Vorkosigan Saga

In the universe of the Vorkosigan Saga, the human race has spread to the stars. Interstellar travel is now possible through the discovery of wormholes, which permit faster-than-light travel for specially equipped starships. However, no other intelligent species has yet been discovered on any of the countless worlds explored by humans. By the time we meet Miles Vorkosigan in the third book, human empires have grown up and they’re often in conflict.

Despite the misleading headline on this post, you won’t find reviews below for the complete Vorkosigan Saga. As of this writing, Bujold has published novels (as well as a number of novellas and short stories). I’ve read only fourteen to date. They’re listed below in the chronological order of events that take place in the books. I’ll flesh out the list as time goes on.

1. Falling FreeAn outstanding sci-fi series

One thousand years in the future and 200 years before Miles Vorkosigan is born, genetic engineering has created a new race of human beings designed to thrive in free fall. The 1,000 new people who live in the top-secret facility where they were created are called quaddies. Each has an extra set of arms instead of legs. The eldest are 19. In Falling Free, an engineer assigned to teach them welding comes into conflict with a former student who now commands the station.

2. Shards of HonorThe exciting second book in the Vorkosigan Saga

When Miles’s future parents meet, they are soldiers in opposing forces. His mother-to-be, Commander Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony, is leading a scientific study team on an unnamed planet. His future father is Admiral Aral Vorkosigan from the militaristic Barrayaran Empire. Circumstances that threaten them both bring the two together. They find themselves fighting for survival in a 200-kilometer trek across the planet’s surface—and in a deadly battle against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship.

3. BarrayarThe Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera

Cordelia has married Aral on Barrayar and hopes for a quiet life with a retired soldier. Then he is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes, and Aral is forced to the limits of his considerable political skills to steer the boy-emperor through his childhood. Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent.

4. The Warrior’s ApprenticeMiles begins his journey

In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.

4.1 The Mountains of MourningMiles grows up in an award-winning novella in the Vorkosigan Saga

Nineteen-year-old Miles is on home leave after gaining his ensign’s epaulettes from the Imperial Academy. He’s looking forward to an excursion with his cousin Ivan when he comes across a disheveled young woman seeking entry into the castle where his father, the illustrious Admiral Count Vorkosigan, holds court. Miles’s plans are upended when his father commands him to accompany the woman back to her home village days away through the rough country of the Vorkosigan lands. His assignment: to learn the truth about the woman’s claim that her husband killed their baby in her crib.

5. The Vor GameMiles Vorkosigan’s perilous rite of passage

Miles has just graduated from officers’ training as an ensign and is assigned to the last place he would ever choose to go: a godforsaken basic training camp on an island in the frozen north of Barrayar. He’s told he will only receive a more desirable posting if he can avoid insubordination for six months. (Yes, Miles’ mouth repeatedly gets him into trouble.) Naturally, circumstances soon conspire to force him to defy the camp’s commanding general. And that’s only the beginning of this twisted tale.

6. CetagandaLois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga continues

Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.

7. Ethan of AthosCrisis on a planet inhabited only by men

Dr. Ethan Urquhart, a physician who works at one of the many Rep (Reproductive) Centers on Athos, a planet inhabited only by men. Athos had been founded two centuries earlier by a small group of misogynists who assigned all blame to women for evil in the universe. Children are produced there by inseminating ovarian culture in vitro and raising each fetus in a uterine replicator. But now there’s a problem. Some of the 200-year-old uterine cultures are no longer fertile, and others are quickly deteriorating. Ethan is dispatched off-planet to acquire fresh ovarian cultures from a biological lab. His greatest challenge along the way comes in the person of Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Mercenaries, who is on a secret mission from Admiral Miles Naismith, the undercover identity of Miles Vorkosigan. (Miles himself never appears in the story.) Quinn proves to be Ethan’s protector, but he’s terrified of her. After all, she’s a woman!

7.1. LabyrinthA missing chapter in the long-running Vorkosigan Saga

In Labyrinth, we rendezvous with Miles in his guise as Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. He’s on assignment for Imperial Security, charged with retrieving a geneticist who wants to escape from the planet Jackson’s Whole, an independent society that harbors a number of powerful criminal enterprises. Of course, no sooner has the scientist shown his face than everything begins to go wrong. And only with the help of an eight-foot-tall genetically engineered super-soldier named Taura will Miles have any hope of escaping the clutches of the criminals who have imprisoned them both.

7.2. Borders of InfinityA space opera series about the ways and wiles of human beings

Working alone, Miles has contrived to be captured by the Cetagandans following their successful attack on an outpost of the planet Marilac. According to plan, he now finds himself in an enormous, egg-shaped enclosure maintained by impenetrable force fields in all directions. There are ten thousand prisoners in the camp, and anarchy reigns. To engineer the release of his cousin, Miles must somehow mobilize the prisoners and organize them into an orderly force. Naturally, he will succeed. But the ingenious course he follows is as entertaining as it is engrossing.

8. Brothers in ArmsAn interstellar adventure story in the award-winning Vorkosigan Saga

For some time now, Miles has secretly lived two lives. In one, he is Lord (now Lieutenant) Miles Vorkosigan, the only child of Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan, hero of a war with the Cetagandan Empire and now prime minister of the Barrayaran Empire. Inhabiting his other identity, he is Admiral Miles Naismith, the military genius who heads up the 5,000-strong Dendarii Mercenaries. Miles’ private space navy secretly is under contract with Barrayar‘s feared Imperial Security; the Dendarii are sent on missions where the involvement of Barrayar must be concealed. But there is now a price on Miles’ head in his guise as Admiral Naismith, and Cetagandan assassins are surely pursuing him.

9. Mirror DanceCharacter development shines in this superb Vorkosigan Saga novel

Miles’ clone-brother, Mark, takes center stage throughout much of this novel. We follow his development from antagonist to collaborator, through a long series of conflicts and adventures that force him to grow. We learned in Brothers in Arms that Mark was designed and raised on the criminal planet Jackson’s Whole to impersonate Miles and eventually worm his way onto the throne of the Barrayaran Empire. In that book, the two brothers finally met. Now, as Mirror Dance opens, Miles is away from his fleet, engaged on business in his guise as Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries. Mark seizes the opportunity to commandeer one of Miles’ warships and sets out on a mission to avenge the crimes committed against him on Jackson’s Whole.

10. MemoryA science fiction saga that’s endlessly entertaining

Lord Miles Vorkosigan, otherwise known as Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, is suffering from “an aftereffect of an acute case of death.” Something went wrong in his cryorevival, and he now suffers seizures at the most inopportune moments. Miles is now 30 years old. His military career for the Barrayaran Empire has lasted for 13 years, but it now appears it may be at an end. In Memory, the 10th volume in the prizewinning Vorkosigan Saga, Miles must live with the consequences and find a new way through life.

11. Komarr – The best book in the Vorkosigan Saga?

Most of the Vorkosigan novels are space operas that sprawl across the galaxy. The action in Komarr is limited to the single planet of that name and a space station in orbit around it. And most of the books in the series feature a large cast of characters. The focus in Komarr is squarely on Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Both Miles and Ekaterin are Barrayaran. Her husband is a senior functionary on Komarr for the Empire. Miles is now an Imperial Auditor on his first big assignment, sent by the Emperor to investigate a tragic accident. The plot revolves around his investigation and his growing infatuation with Ekaterin. But what is distinctive about this novel is how deeply we plunge into the inner lives of both principal characters. Few literary novels provide better examples of character development.

12. A Civil CampaignCharacter development is king in the Vorkosigan Saga

Miles and Ekaterin have returned to Barrayar mere months before the Emperor Gregor’s wedding. Since Miles and Gregor grew up together in Miles’s parents’s home, and Miles’s father served as Gregor’s Regent for many years, Miles is unable to escape a leading role in the wedding. He is to be Gregor’s Second, or best man. Unfortunately, while the wedding preparations move ahead, complicating everybody’s lives, Miles is caught up in local politics. Two very nasty feuds among the Counts of Barrayar have broken out. Because of Miles’ prominence as the son of the Regent and an Imperial Auditor, he’s forced to play a leading role in resolving the disputes. Both Miles and his cousin Ivan are caught in the middle of both disputes. And ugly days lie ahead. Very ugly.

12.1 Winterfair GiftsA cast of characters worthy of Shakespeare

Typically, in the many novels and novellas that comprise the Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold shifts perspective from one character to another. Winterfair Gifts is an exception. In this short tale, more novelette than novella, a minor character holds center stage. Armsman Roic is a new member of Miles’ retinue of twenty armsmen who have sworn allegiance to protect him with their lives. A veteran of less than a year in his post, he has been given the least desirable assignment of staying at Vorkosigan House as a sort of doorkeeper while others guard Miles or the members of his family. But the occasion is one of historic importance in Barrayar—Miles is getting married!—and Roic will be put to the test as never before.

13. Diplomatic Immunity – Babies occupy center stage in the 13th book of the amazing Vorkosigan Saga

Miles Vorkosigan is now well into his thirties and married at last to Ekaterin Vorsoisson, whom he met two novels ago. They’re expecting twins—but Ekaterin isn’t pregnant. Instead, doctors have merged their sperm and egg. The two embryos, a boy and a girl, are gestating in uterine replicators, a now widely accepted technology. The couple is looking forward to returning to Barrayar in time to witness the birth of their twins. Then Miles receives an urgent message from Emperor Gregor. His assignment is to travel to a nearby space station where all hell has broken loose. The people who live on the station—the quaddies of Falling Free—have impounded the ships and cargo of a large Barrayaran trade convoy. Unfortunately, soldiers who were escorting the fleet have caused a great deal of trouble on the station, and the residents are not happy. And that’s only the beginning of what will prove to be a perilous test for both Miles and Ekaterin.

14. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin proves he’s not “that idiot”

Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin Ivan Vorpatril crops up from time to time in the novels in this series. He comes across as a happy-go-lucky character who uses his devastating good looks and abundant charm to prey on all the beautiful women of the Empire with whom he manages to ingratiate himself. Miles calls him “Ivan, you idiot.” Though he has held a series of jobs in the imperial military, he’s hard to take seriously. Miles certainly doesn’t. But in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Ivan gets his due. And we begin to see what this son of his brilliant mother, the Emperor’s social secretary, is really made of. Miles himself surfaces only in a cameo role. Ivan’s on his own as he stumbles into a thicket of intrigue.

14.1. The Flowers of Vashnoi Space opera comes home in this charming Vorkosigan Saga novella

Miles and Ekaterin have been married amid all the expected pomp and splendor on Barrayar for at least a couple of years. The proof lies in their twin toddlers, Sasha and Helen, who are just as clever and adventurous as we might expect from the offspring of the “little admiral” of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. And their mother, never a pushover, has staked out a place for herself as the grownup in the family. In this delightful novella, Lady Ekaterin now proves her mettle in a dangerous encounter amid the radioactive wastes of the Exclusion Zone on the immense Vorkosigan estate.

15. Cryoburn Who is Miles Vorkosigan?

It’s not hard to understand why the Vorkosigan Saga has been going on so long. Simply put, Miles Vorkosigan may be the single most engaging character in all science fiction. Consider, for example, how his bodyguard and valet, Armsman Roic, thinks of him. “It was hard to tell, sometimes,” Roic thinks, “if m’lord’s style was the result of single-minded dedication to duty, habits of overweening Vor privilege, or simple insanity.” And then there’s Miles himself, asking, “‘What if my children find out I’m not really a grownup? How dreadfully disappointed would they be?'” So, it’s appropriate to ask, Who is Miles Vorkosigan?

16. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen A nontraditional love story in the Vorkosigan Saga

Surprise! Admiral Aral Vorkosigan was bisexual. Yes, the former Regent and Prime Minister to the young Emperor Gregor, Viceroy of Sergyar, the feared Count Vorkosigan, was bisexual. And the Admiral and his equally formidable wife of more than four decades, Cordelia Naismith, lived in a virtual three-way marriage with his handsome young aide, Oliver Jole. So now we know: the father and mother of Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan, the current Count, maintained a ménage a trois for the better part of twenty years. And now, three years after the Admiral’s death, Oliver and Cordelia have started . . . dating.

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