Apr 1 2009 12:30pm

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.

1. OtterB
I first encountered Miles in The Mountains of Mourning when it was published in Analog. I still find that one of the best stories I've ever read in terms of the intertwining of plot, character, and theme. Which I can think about when I come to the end of it, but not as I'm reading, because I'm inevitably picked up and dragged along by the momentum. I find that a good thing to recommend to people who haven't read any Bujold, especially since it's available from the Baen Free Library.

I went from there to the books that were published at that point and followed on in publication order. I loved Shards of Honor and Warrior's Apprentice. I didn't care as much for Brothers in Arms and Vor Game, although they improve on rereading in the context of the overall arc of Miles's life. I thought she really hit her stride with Barrayar. My favorite of the Vorkosiverse is Memory, although I'm with katenepveu in the comments on the Shards post - I don't reread the beginning of it.

Looking forward to your continued posts on these.
CD Covington
2. ccovington
I love the Vorkosigan series. My friend got me hooked with Cordelia's Honor, and like Otter, MEMORY is my favorite, with THE VOR GAME a very close second. TWA is fun, and I adore how Miles accidentally acquires a set of mercenaries and doesn't realize the implications until much later, long after Ivan shows up. Vorloupoulos' law indeed!

I think I'm going to use The Mountains of Mourning to lure people in, since it's a) short, b) freely available on the internet, and c) a perfect encapsulation of the barbaric ball of rock called Barrayar. (I blogged about TMoM yesterday, actually.)
3. wsean
Forward momentum!

Two words that perfectly encapsulate Miles' character, and the reason he's so much fun to read about. What a totally awesome motto.

Yeah, it gets him into trouble as often as not, but it's so great to see a character who'll just keep going no matter what happens. Forward momentum!

Miles is easily one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. Love the little bastard.
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4. heresiarch
"Yeah, it gets him into trouble as often as not, but it's so great to see a character who'll just keep going no matter what happens."

He doesn't, though. That's why A Civil Campaign is as good as it is, and why it's such a great cap* on the series--Miles has to finally confront the fact that treating his entire life like a military campaign to be won on brilliance and daring isn't necessarily that great of an idea. He learns that to win at love, he has to surrender.

*Diplomatic wasn't utterly terrible, but I felt like Bujold was trying to force Miles back into a mold he'd outgrown.
Soon Lee
5. SoonLee
Will this get its own index on the frontpage? Any plans to include "Falling Free" as part of this series re-read?

This too is the book I recommend as starting point for the series; "Shards of Honor" focusses more on Cordelia & Aral, the rest of the series is centers on Miles.

ccovington @2:
"Mountains of Mourning" - the first hit is free!

heresiarch @4:
Wholehearted agreement that "A Civil Campaign" is the cap to the series, with perhaps "Winterfair Gifts" as a coda. Subsequent books have a very different feel (and I still like them a lot) & seem to me to be more preludes to "Miles: The Next Generation".
6. sunjah
I started with The Warrior's Apprentice, and it was a great place to start. Then I read Shards of Honor and Barrayar and liked them fine. Ten years and two children later, however, I appreciate SofH and B so much more than I did then.

I force myself to reread the beginning of Memory, but I can never manage to read straight through Mirror Dance. That's ok, since the key phrases are burned in my mind anyhow...
CD Covington
7. ccovington
SoonLee @5 - Oh yes. It's the next one that'll cost ya! ($7.99 plus shipping ;) )

Re various comments: why do people dislike the opening of MEMORY? I just read the first 4 chapters last night, and it wasn't ... bad, just a lot of infodump, I guess? I skim all the backstory parts, anyway.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
SoonLee: I don't know about an index, it's not really enough books to need one, is it? Certainly when I re-read all of Cherryh's UA books it didn't get an index.

And I decided not to read Falling Free right now, because it isn't really part of the series. You can expect a post on Ethan of Athos any minute though.
9. JoeNotCharles
ccovington: I get the impression the quality is fine, people just find Miles' self-inflicted pain too unbearable to read about.

OtterB: I also started with "Mountains of Morning" - more specifically, with the anthology Borders of Infinity, which is an excellent place to start. I picked it up from my local library as a kid, fooled by the back cover copy: "Meet Miles - soldier, spy, mercenary captain, prince of a galactic empire..." Which is all true, but not in the schlocky popcorn way I was expecting. I was expecting some light, escapist reading about a super-competent action hero. (One of the cases where the cover copy was misleading in a GOOD way.)

From there I moved on to Mirror Dance, which was the first I happened to pick up (I think it may have been new in paperback at the time). Still one of my favourites, but definitely a poor place to start the series: for one side, it totally spoils the ending of Brothers in Arms, and from the other, there are some cryptic conversations about Sgt. Bothari which don't make any sense without having met him.

The one area I'd point to where the writing has definitely improved is in how well Bujold sells the audacity and competence of the characters. In Shards of Honour, I simply can't believe that Cordelia could singlehandedly take out a group of trained Barrayaran soldiers in the way that she did, and in the Warrior's Apprentice, Miles' ability to con the entire mercenary company seems too over the top. (In fact, I can't accept that his entire smuggling scheme would get off the ground - I can believe that Bothari has enough ingrained deference to not step in, but I can't believe that, knowing his character, Miles' parents wouldn't have sent along a second minder who would be able to reign him in at least a little.)

This isn't a fatal flaw in Shards of Honour, but in Warrior's Apprentice the whole book is built around that so I can never really let go and enjoy it completely, despite all the individual great scenes.

In comparison, Miles' deceptions in Cetaganda are even more audacious, but Bujold is able to justify them well enough that I can accept them fully. And in Barrayar, when Cordelia isn't any more experienced than in Shard of Honour, I don't blink at how she gets the drop on Vordarian himself, because Bujold was able to set up the confrontation much better.
CD Covington
10. ccovington
JoeNotCharles, that makes sense. I've heard the same about the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign. And I think knowing just how badly Miles is about to screw himself over makes those opening chapters that much harder.

On the topic of reading out of order, I read ACC before KOMARR. Which sort of spoiled, basically, the entire plot of Komarr. But I survived ;)
11. sylvia_rachel
I would agree that this is MilSF that people who don't read MilSF will love.

sunjah @ 6 -- I can read the beginning, though I prefer not to, but I find it almost impossible to read the scene in Illyan's office. Even knowing, as I already did when I first read Memory, that Miles is going to survive this experience to be in several more books, etc., I just keep hoping that this time he won't do the thing I know he's about to do ...

ccovington @ 10 -- ACC was the first Vorkosiverse book I ever read, so in a way the whole series had been spoiled. But the wonderful thing is that it totally didn't matter -- it just made subsequent re-reads of ACC more interesting.

I'm pretty sure that I read TWA right after first reading ACC and before reading any of the rest of the series. So I vaguely knew that the story would involve Miles reinventing himself as Admiral Naismith, but because I first met Miles-the-Imperial-Auditor at age 30+, it was quite jarring to then encounter crazy teenage Miles ... until I started to notice the similarities. At a certain point, I don't remember where, the lightbulb went on: Oh! So that's what made him think mounting a military campaign on Ekaterin was going to work!
12. Quillain
I love the Vorkosigan Saga with an intensity that is probably a little unhealthy. But the books mean so much to me, have taught me so much about myself, that I will always love them like a person.

My fiancee started reading the series to me entirely so I could appreciate the dinner scene in ACC. Mirror Dance was my favorite -- it nearly destroyed me (in a good way!).

I think if you look at the saga as one long story, that's the climax, Memory (also very good) is the falling action/things ending/everything coming home to roost, and ACC is the coda, kind of a little "dessert" for the readers. (I find Ekaterin uninteresting and too perfect, and strongly disliked Komarr and have not read DI or "Winterfair Gifts.")

I look forward to rereading the series in a few years, but I'm sad that I'll never get to read it again for the first time. I am also sad that Simon Illyan is not real, because I would marry that man on the spot.
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13. heresiarch
Soon Lee @ 5: "Subsequent books"

"Books"!? Okay, you need to be a little more careful with your plurals. I just spent twenty minutes hunting down a complete list of Vorkosigan books. There is only one book post-ACC: Diplomatic Immunity.

Quillian@ 12: "I look forward to rereading the series in a few years, but I'm sad that I'll never get to read it again for the first time."

I know exactly what you mean--I just reread them a few months ago, and, as much as I enjoyed it all, I kept thinking how envious I was of anyone finding them for the first time.
Soon Lee
14. SoonLee
I apologise. I appear to have misposted. In my universe, the "Miles:The Next Generation" books are even more beloved than TOS.

In fact, the Aral & Helen ("The Terrible Twins") associated merchandise are so popular, they come with McDonalds Happy Meals. I have said too much.
Stephanie Leary
15. sleary
bluejo, if you can go back and tag the Shards post with "Vorkosigan saga," that tag link will serve as an index to this series.

SoonLee@14: May I come live in your universe? I'd vastly prefer Aral and Helen merchandise to talking chihuahuas.
Nicholas Alcock
16. NullNix
Am I strange for obsessively rereading the section of ACC from the disastrous dinner party to Ekaterin reading Miles's begging letter? It's partly for reassurance, I suppose: no matter how badly I've screwed up socially, look! it could have been worse!

Miles having spent a lot of time acting is entirely, completely plausible. That comes free with long-term disability, although I'm damned if I know how Lois knows that (disabled relative? sheer insight? perhaps it comes free with being a human being, disabled or not, I'm not sure...)
Aaron V. Humphrey
17. alfvaen
Not that this post isn't two and a half years old, but I thought I'd mention that I'm doing a reread blog of the Vorkosigan series, and I'm sixteen chapters into TWA right now. (Though, as I keep saying, "Forward Momentum" would have been a better title in many ways.)

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