Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When an attack leaves her stranded on an uninhabited planet, Cordelia Naismith is forced to travel with Aral Vorkosigan, a man better known as the Butcher of Komarr.
Cordelia and Vorkosigan undertake a difficult journey to find supplies and shelter in the alien world, with an injured comrade in tow - but the uneasy alliance between people from radically different cultures transforms into an odd friendship of equals. The two soldiers slowly reveal their histories and characters to each other, always aware that their countries are on the brink of war. Vorkosigan is facing a mutiny, and Cordelia is forced to walk a narrow line to help the man she admires but who nevertheless represents a threat to her cherished way of life.
Cordelia's Honor is two novels in one: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. I'd definitely hand Shards to a romance reader who wanted to venture into science fiction: its tale of two opposites bonding on a trip through an alien world is a classic romance storyline, told by Bujold with the science fiction premise of spacefaring human civilizations. Barrayar is likewise more invested in the characters than the setting, in contrast to other classic science fiction like The City and the Stars or Asimov's Foundation books. (For example, I can't imagine Arthur C. Clarke adding a postscript that is a vignette of the aftermath of battle, when the bodies must be gathered and cared for. The scene is at once deeply moving and thought-provoking, proving how great Bujold is at depicting the human cost of war.)
Barrayar picks up where Shards leaves off, setting up the intricacies of a society wholly dominated by a wealthy military elite, further stratified by caste and gender. Compared to Cordelia's democratic homeland, Barrayar is a medieval totalitarian state (Bujold consciously modeled it on pre-revolutionary Russia). Newly pregnant, Cordelia uncomfortably assumes her new role Lady Vorkosigan, trying to untangle the conflicting agendas of the people around her. Soon an assassination attempt damages her unborn child and she must struggle not only to save his life but to defend her new homeland during a civil war.
Cordelia's reactions to her new home always come from a character place. Bujold's insight that the loss of a human life is not just the death of a person someone loves, but also a waste of all the resources that went into the person - education, experience, energy, etc, is a worthy idea that she explores fully.
As a novel, Barrayar feels more complete than Shards. It starts slowly, but once the civil war kicks in to test the new Regency the story and characters are firing on all cylinders. (My copy of Cordelia's Honor contained an excellent afterward by Bujold about the creative process for those who geek out about the craft.)
I think James S.A. Corey space opera novel Caliban's War is a good match for fans of Honor because it's full of great characters - especially female ones - who drive the story forward: but I can't recommend starting there instead of with its superbly scary and fast-moving prequel, Leviathan Wakes. You could also try On Basilisk Station by David Weber for kick-ass female characters, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for thoughtful, character-driven science fiction. (Side note: This omnibus include the first two books published in The Vorkosigan Saga, though you can find the internal chronological order of the series here.)
"About three meters away, he was now, she thought. An uncross able gulf. So in the physics of the heart, distance is relative; it's time that is absolute." - 80
"Kly regarded her with bemusement. 'So what are you, off-worlder not-a-lady?'
'I was an astrocartographer. Then a Survey captain. Then a soldier, then a POW, then a refugee. And then I was a wife, and then I was a mother. I don't know what I'm going to be next,' she answered honestly, around the gum-leaf. Pray not widow." - 357