Where to start with Lois McMaster Bujold?
March 27, 2019 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of those authors I’ve been intending to read for a long time but haven’t gotten around to. I’ve seen her recommended here many times. What books of hers would you recommend a newcomer start with? I just got Falling Free from the library because I heard it comes chronologically first in the Vorkosigan Saga, but I have no idea if that means it’s a good place to start.
posted by ocherdraco to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Oh oh oh! LMB is the best! She actually has her own reading order guide, but I would say Falling Free is a great place to start. Equally good would be Shards of Honor or The Warrior’s Apprentice.

And that’s for her Vorkosigan Books. The Curse of Chalion or Beguilement are great places to start for her fantasy (two different series).

But really, just start *somewhere*. Her stuff is awesome! Enjoy!
posted by bananacabana at 7:41 PM on March 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Agreed, start anywhere in the Vorkosigan Saga as they hold their own as stand alone novels. The series is much better when you start at the beginning, however. Once you start you won't want it to end...
posted by ashbury at 7:56 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Falling Free is my least favorite of her books, so if it doesn't work perfectly for you, go on to Shards of Honor.
posted by kbuxton at 8:03 PM on March 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

I started out more partial to the Miles stories, so I think starting with The Warrior's Apprentice would be fine but I think there's no wrong answer. Falling Free wasn't my favorite but I bet I'd still like it on rereading.

I also think starting with the reading order in bananacabana's link would be great too.I appreciate the stories with Cordelia more now than when I read them a long time ago.
posted by jclarkin at 8:04 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

For the Vorkosiverse, I'd start with either Shards of Honor or Komarr, which is a later book but was also designed to be another entry point to the series.
posted by mogget at 8:17 PM on March 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would definitely start with Shards of Honor, but also I love Cordelia and Aral more than most of my family members. The books are standalone, but I think you really benefit from reading them in more or less chronological order. (I read Falling Free out of order and it was fine.)

(I love Bujold. I love the Vorkosigan books. But I have found that the most recent ones are kind of disappointing. You may find differently! But, uh, just putting that out there.)
posted by kalimac at 8:23 PM on March 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Five Gods series is one of my favorite series of books. Starting with Curse of Chalion is traditional, but you could probably read them in any order and it would be fine. I really like the Penric novellas, too.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:33 PM on March 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I found Warrior's Apprentice most approachable, having bounced off Shards of Honor. That said, I recently finished Mirror Dance and think I'm not going to bother with the rest of the Vorkosigan Saga, so maybe I'm not who you should be listening to.
posted by zamboni at 8:57 PM on March 27, 2019

I REALLY loved starting with The Warrior's Apprentice (or even better, the anthology Young Miles) and reading chronologically through The Vor Game. Then I went back and read Shards of Honor and Barrayar (or, again, even better, Cordelia's Honor, the anthology, which has a nice side-story packaged with it.)

My argument for this is: it is INCREDIBLY fun to meet Miles' parents, Aral and Cordelia, and hear the political whispers about them through Miles but not actually know what they did to gain their reputations. It's the Star Wars Machete Order of Vorkosigan. Once you're done with Young Miles, go back and find out in Cordelia's Honor. Then, once you know and love Aral and Cordelia, jump back to Miles in Cetaganda, and enjoy your sudden understanding of many complex familial relationships and marvel at how much Barrayar has changed since Miles' parents were his age.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:07 PM on March 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

Falling Free is ok, but it's... just ok. I'd recommend starting with The Warrior's Apprentice (where you meet Miles) just because it makes going back to Shards of Honor (where you learn about his parents' backgrounds) so much more fun!
posted by gakiko at 4:15 AM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would start the Vorkosigan books with Shards of Honour.

You can absolutely read Falling Free first though, it’s standalone. However, I think it would have more weight if you read it after Labyrinth and before Diplomatic Immunity.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:32 AM on March 28, 2019

I tend to favour starting with Warrior's Apprentice, then going back to Cordelia's Honor, and then forward by publication date through the series (which is also roughly chronological by events).

For the others, series order works great, and Curse of Chalion is also one of my all-time favourite books.
posted by jenettsilver at 6:05 AM on March 28, 2019

Sort of an anti-recommendation: The Sharing Knife is ok, but I think she stretched a bit trying to fuse genre fantasy and genre romance in ways that felt clunky to me compared to relationships in her other novels. I also think some of the middle Vorkosigan novels are better than the early ones or the latest ones. Ethan of Athos has its charms but I wouldn't call it a must-read in the same way as Mirror Dance and Memory.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:41 AM on March 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I cannot favourite enough GenderNullPointerException's statement about the The Sharing Knife series. The Chalion series dealt with romance so well and Beguilement/The Sharing Knife books reminded me of the almost-worst of Anne McCaffrey. All IMO of course but I really, really wish I had never read any of the Beguilement series - I tried three.

I also second the mildly rough start to the Vorkosigan series and what feels to me like a gradual decline towards the end. I love the Vorkosigans and generally don't mind spending time with them even when a plot is missing or a core character is behaving somewhat amorally inexplicably or something but I would feel kind of bad for any new reader to start with any of the books past Komarr.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:11 AM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I still haven't read Falling Free or Ethan of Athos (tried them and put them back,) and I've read everything else Vorkosigan. I started with Shards of Honor, sort of by accident at the public library, and then read them piecemeal as I found them in second hand bookstores. I still can't quite tell if I've read them all.

The fantasy stuff is fine to read from the library, but not interesting enough to buy in my opinion.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:49 AM on March 28, 2019

The Five Gods series are probably some of my favorite books ever. So opinions vary there. I inadvertently started those with Paladin of Souls and I turned out fine.
But yeah, the Beguilment books are just so-so romance with underwhelming plot honestly. If you want a dose of easy sweetness, read them, but otherwise let them pass.

For the sci-fi I followed Bujold's list linked up top.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:26 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think Shards of Honor and Barrayar are good to read back-to-back, and I found them published together as Cordelia's Honor.

Falling Free is set in the same universe, and carries one of the major science fiction themes of the Vorkosiverse (control and access to reproductive technology), but isn't really connected in terms of characters or setting until Diplomatic Immunity.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:51 AM on March 28, 2019

It's from 2011 and a bit old now, but the wonderfull Incomparable Podcast did an (early!) episode on the Vorkosigan novels that you may enjoy: Ep. 24: My Word as Vorkosigan

I haven't read anything of hers besides the Vorkosigan books. *shrug* Maybe next winter?
posted by wenestvedt at 9:00 AM on March 28, 2019

Falling Free is a great standalone novel, in the same universe as the Vorkosigan saga, but not related to it closely. It wasn't my favorite at first - but on rereading (and rereading again), I think it's one of her most important. It may seem a bit dated; it was written in the 80s and very much belongs to the silver age genre of hard SF. But (as with all Bujold), her character work surpasses most hard SF.

I would recommend starting the Vorkosigan Saga itself with The warrior's apprentice. The books about his parents (Shards of Honor, Barrayar) come earlier but I agree with the poster above who said they work better once you've gotten to know the figures - and Shards especially has some first-novel rough edges. Warrior's also has early novelist roughness at points, but is more tightly plotted and also introduces what turned out to be the character who really drove the series: Miles. It's his tensions (tradition-modernity, disability-dreams, brilliance-idiocy) that really catch people. Also, he always runs forward, which makes for great plots.

Note for my Bujold credentials: every 1-2 years, I do a full Vorkosigan re-read. I'm on my third or fourth time.

As for her fantasy: tastes vary and all, but I think her Curse of Chalion is the finest fantasy novel I have ever read, hands down. I have read it 4 or 5 times, and still get chills. It's one of the most profound novels of any genre when it comes to contemplating fate and will and the divine. The semi-sequel, Paladin of Souls, is also great (and I love that it's about a 40+ year old woman - being 40+ and creaky but still able to hold her own).

The Sharing knife series isn't quite as strong, but that just means they are good fantasy novels, not brilliant ones. I've still read them a couple of times each.
posted by jb at 10:48 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I love love love love Bujold, like, I can't even go into the many ways her work has affected me.
With that said, here is my take:
Super short version: If you like fantasy at all start Bujold with The Curse of Chalion. Then go explore the Vorkosiverse. Chalion shows off Bujold as a mature writer, and is a great story that stands on its own.

Longer version:
If you prefer scifi space opera to fantasy go ahead and read the Vorkosigan series. I think Shards of Honor is a fine starting place (it's sold in an omnibus edition as Cordelia's Honor if you prefer print). Falling Free is fine but it's tangential to the main story.

The earlier Vorkosigan books are much more traditional space opera and Bujold was not as good a writer yet. Shards grew out of Star Trek fanfiction, and that's not a bad thing, but it does color the plot. By the later Miles books Bujold gets more creative with the perspective, and playing with genre tropes, bringing in elements of romance, comedy of manners, and more. Problem is some of the emotional beats with Miles work so much better if you've grown along with him from a callow adolescent. Memory and A Civil Campaign are my favorites, but they work so much better if you know all the background.

I didn't care for the Beguilement/Sharing Knife romances, but that may be more me than Bujold.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:13 AM on March 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

When I started the Vorkosigan saga, I went with the reading order mentioned in the link bananacabana posted, which is the chronological - but left "Falling Free" until before "Diplomatic Immunity", and was glad I did, as I would've bounced off it pretty hard.

In other words, I would concur with the people who said you ought to start with "Shards of Honor". If you bounce off that, though, try "The Warrior's Apprentice".
posted by sailoreagle at 3:39 PM on March 28, 2019

I started with Shards of Honor when it was the only book she had written, and I still think it is the best entry into the series. You could tell she was going to become a great writer.

Nowadays we would probably put a content warning on Shards of Honor as some of the characters perform (and endure) sexual assaults during the war in the book. It is an important part of the plot, not gratuitous (not even explicit-- the text is all PG level, but it is there) and handled with skill and care even in her first book. Also torture, discussed and occurring off-screen, again in a military setting.

So happy to see that others love the first Chalion book as much as I do, but it can be tough gong with some very heavy and hopeless themes. I also feel like it is one of my favorite all time books, and the third one (Hallowed Hunt) is nearly as good. Conversely, my wife loves the second one among the three Chalion books.

If you are comfortable with ebooks, her Penric and Desdemona novellas are a cheap and accessible way into the Five Gods/Chalion universe, although they take place in a different time frame.

And I am also, like many others, very meh on the Sharing Knife books. I never warmed to them.
posted by seasparrow at 7:50 PM on March 28, 2019

Also meh on Sharing Knife, never could get into it. I am also less into the "Weald" books in 5 Gods, I really missed Chalion reading them. But Paladin of Souls (which I read first) blew my tiny little mind. I love Ista and Illvin and the Bastard and the whole gods forgiveness and Ista's attitude and the Bastard being the Bastard. dy Cazaril is also quite amazing when I finally got a copy of that one.

I nth that the Vorkosigan series really should be read chronologically (except for Falling Free: as long as you read it before Diplomatic Immunity, who cares), but I feel like a lot of the middle books are kind of the best--Mirror Dance, Memory, and my favorite, A Civil Campaign. I think I came across ACC first actually and read that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:22 PM on March 28, 2019

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