Forward Momentum: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice

The Warrior’s Apprentice is where I normally tell people to start the Vorkosigan books, and it is the other logical beginning to the series. It was written immediately after Shards of Honor but set a generation later—a literal generation. Cordelia and Aral’s son Miles, blighted before birth by a teratogenic chemical attack on his parents is a manic-depressive dwarf with brittle bones but is still determined to serve in the military. On the first page of the book he fails the physical test to enter the military academy. After that he goes to visit his grandmother on Beta Colony and events spiral in the manner of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice until he finds himself the admiral of a fleet of space mercenaries. If you like MilSF you’ll love it, and if you don’t like MilSF you might just love it anyway, because really that’s the least of it.

What makes this so good is that it has about ninety percent more depth than you’d expect it to have. The plot may be “seventeen-year-old with physical disabilities becomes admiral of space mercenaries” but the themes are much deeper and more interesting. This is a story about loyalty, duty, the weight of family expectations, and what it means to serve.

Miles’s grandfather was a general, his father was an Admiral and Regent, his mother keeps telling him great tests are great gifts. He’s spent a lot of his childhood crippled physically and under a weight of expectation. The other person who brought him up was Sergeant Bothari. Bothari has been Miles’s bodyguard and batman since Miles was born and he is a deeply screwed-up guy. He has a daughter, Elena, and the mystery of Elena’s parentage (no mystery if you have read Shards) is one of the unusual plot strands of Warrior’s. Bothari raped Elena’s mother and made a fantasy that she was his wife. Elena, born out of a uterine replicator, is supposed to be his atonement —but one human being can not be that for another. Miles loves Elena but once she gets away from Barrayar she never wants to go back. You’d expect from the first chapter of the book that Miles and Elena would be engaged at the end, but far from it, she rejects him to marry a deserter and remain a mercenary.

The book largely takes place in Tau Verde space, with Miles taking over the Oseran mercenaries with hardly a blow being struck. (“Now I understand how judo is supposed to work!”) But the emotional heart of it is on Barrayar. In Shards, Cordelia says that Barrayar eats its children, and here we have that in detail. After Miles has assembled the fleet and is hailed as Admiral, he goes home to stand trial for treason. The climax of the story is not the surrender of the Oserans but Aral begging for Miles’s life. (Incidentally, she must have had most of what happens in Barrayar in mind if not on paper before she wrote this.) The whole plot happened because Miles wants to serve… something.

Also unusual—how often do you see a bleeding ulcer instead of a bloody boarding battle? I think it was absolutely the right choice, but what a nerve! And Miles’s depression balances his mania—he manages astonishing feats, but he also has his black moods, his days of sitting doing nothing while everything goes to hell around him. Yet unlike some depressive characters in fiction, it’s always entertaining to be around Miles. And the conflict of Shards between Cordelia representing Beta and Aral representing Barrayar is internalised in Miles, who holds both planets, both accents, both value sets, and tries to reconcile them in his own person. Psychologically and plotwise it all make perfect sense, it’s just, again, not the kind of choice you’d expect to see in a book like this.  And again, you can spin this as a book about Miles winning, but it’s really just as much if not more about how much he lost, Bothari, Elena, his grandfather…

On this re-read, I was impressed with how much we see Miles play-acting outside of the part of Admiral Naismith. He gets out of bed to mime the mutant villain, he pretends to be rehearsing Shakespeare with Elena, he plays the Baba in the Elena and Baz’s betrothal scene. Clearly acting parts has been part of his life for a long time, and that explains (partly) how he can take on roles so easily.

Again, though, this isn’t a great first book that sets a pattern for the series. It’s a lot closer to most of the books—it’s Miles-centred, it features the Dendarii Mercenaries, it introduces some key recurring characters, Ivan, Alys (barely glimpsed), Emperor Gregor, Elena, Bel Thorne, Elli Quinn. I suppose some of the others are even on this pattern The Vor Game and Brothers in Arms are both “adventures with the Dendarii where the heart of the thing is Barrayar.” But none of the others have that shape. And on the writing level, this is perhaps a little smoother than Shards, but only a little. If you look at this as the beginning, it’s a good book and I’m deeply fond of it, but the series does get a lot deeper and more complex as it goes on from here.


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