The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986): Lois McMaster Bujold

★★★

The Vorkosigan Saga: Book 3

Well, folks, here we go: it’s the first of the Miles Vorkosigan books. Some of you will look at the rating and squeak with indignation. Others warned me, wisely as it turned out, that it might take me a while to warm up to Miles. And don’t despair: after all, I thought Lymond was a complete swine when I first encountered him, and look how that turned out. Miles is not a swine, but he is implausibly brilliant. I need to spend just a little more time with a character before I can suspend disbelief to the amount required in certain sections of this novel. If Miles Vorkosigan at the age of seventeen can provoke such disruption to the galactic order, then heaven help us all, say I. This is undoubtedly the most impressive ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ report ever compiled, not just on Barrayar but throughout the known universe.

It’s interesting, coming to this novel after Barrayar. It was actually the earlier of the two, so it feels the need to explain events that readers following the internal chronology of the series have already witnessed: the poison gas attack on Vorkosigan House during Cordelia’s pregnancy; Miles’s gestation in one of the uterine replicators; and the consequent weakness of his bone structure. Here in The Warrior’s Apprentice we meet him as a young man, with a twisted spine and stunted growth, dutifully trying – and failing – to pass the physically demanding tests that will gain him entrance to the military academy. He’s resigned to his failure, but it comes as a blow to his family, especially to his aged grandfather Piotr, who – as we saw in Barrayar – took a while to accept his grandson. Miles has struggled against a number of disadvantages in his short life, but chief among them must be the superstitious horror of his fellow Barrayarans, who are repulsed by birth defects of any kind. Now his father offers him a chance to get away: a break on Beta Colony with his grandmother Naismith (and, because Miles is Miles, an omnipresent bodyguard in the form of Sergeant Bothari). Miles jumps at the chance, because he has also wangled the opportunity for his friend (and secret crush) Elena, Bothari’s daughter, to come along with them for her first trip off-planet. He also hopes their trip might allow him to find out a bit more about Elena’s mysterious mother, who is clearly such a significant loss in Bothari’s life, but of whom he refuses to speak.

Adventure – and discoveries – come in unexpected ways. Miles has barely landed on Beta Colony before an overheard conversation leads him to take an interest in the fate of a washed-up, alcohol-soaked jump ship pilot. Somehow, this seventeen-year-old tyro ends up with a pilot and a ship on his own account, and a debt that can only be repaid by taking a very secretive cargo to the planet of Tau Verde. (Mrs Naismith, like all good grandmothers, seems content to just let him get on with his fun.) The problem is that Tau Verde is currently ravaged by civil war between the Felicians and the Pelians, and blockaded from space by the presence of the looming Oseran fleet. Miles and his tiny band of would-be smugglers have to find a way to get their cargo down to the surface and to get paid – but of course, being Miles, the solution to one problem ends up begetting a whole galaxy of others. When faced with a challenge from a ship that’s patrolling the blockade, Miles responds with a perfectly simple pretence, only to find his creation taking on a life of its own. Before long, the entirely fictional Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet is in severe danger of becoming not only real but substantial, and Miles has accidentally become a new and powerful player in the blockade of Tau Verde

Now, I don’t think that Bujold is really all that interested in the original jump-ship and the cargo that Miles has to take to Tau Verde. This is all set-up, just to get our characters in the right place for the real fun to begin. And it is fun; enormous fun. Miles goes around, ‘radiating energy like a caged ferret‘ and casually outsmarting everyone around him, with the kind of strategic flair you’d expect from an experienced general three times his age. Elena, who has only ever sparred with her father, and who has spent her life constrained by Barrayaran misogyny, blossoms with remarkable speed into a fully-fledged officer. And everyone else seems to happily go along with the claim that these two teenagers are senior representatives of a powerful mercenary force. It’s absurd. I don’t believe for a moment that it could ever actually happen, but that doesn’t stop it being very amusing to read about. Melita coined the phrase ‘competence porn’ in her comment on Barrayar and that’s absolutely what this is. You just sit back and watch Miles being brilliant, trying to ignore the little voice at the back of your head that says none of this could possibly happen, no matter how many strategic games Miles played as a boy.

Without any knowledge of what’s to come, I’d say that Bujold needed to use this book to get her characters to a certain point – call it X. This is not natural development, but a gutsy 0-60 account of how they got there, full of bluffing and space-based derring-do. After two very thoughtful books about more mature characters, I found it a bit difficult to adjust to this new space-cadet style, and I certainly found it hard to believe that seasoned space crews would accept Miles’s posturing. But if I need to accept it, in order to progress to the next stage in the series, I will. And, because this is Bujold, the book isn’t just a breathless sci-fi romp through the stars. There are moments of extreme poignancy. We lose characters we really care about; we see Miles struggling to have faith in himself; and, most movingly of all, we see him bitterly coming to understand that he can’t live up to the magnificent feats he inspires in others: ‘Heroes. They sprang up around him like weeds. A carrier, he was seemingly unable to catch the disease he spread.’ Self-doubt is appealing in characters like this, who seem so dizzyingly accomplished. But perhaps the passage that moved me most was this eulogy given at a graveside: the one moment in the book where I found my eyes growing ever so slightly damp…

You shall lie warm here, watching the long lake change its faces, winter to spring, summer to fall. No armies march here, and even the deepest midnights aren’t wholly dark. Surely God won’t overlook you, in such a spot as this. There will be grace and forgiveness enough, old dog, even for you… I pray you will spare me a drink from that cup, when it overflows for you.

I am confident that I’ll grow fond of Miles over time, but The Warrior’s Apprentice does take a rather daring approach: expecting its readers to indulgently suspend disbelief for a character who hasn’t yet proven himself to them. By the end of the book, I think, he has proven himself; and he’s certainly set up some very interesting opportunities for his future career development. No doubt we shall hear more of the Dendarii in due course, and more of Miles’s foolish cousin Ivan (‘Not only was Ivan an idiot, but he generated a telepathic damping field that turned people nearby into idiots, too‘). But will we hear more of Elena? I do hope so. Her world has been rocked on its foundations, but we leave her at a hopeful moment when she has been able to come to terms with her complicated past, and to choose a future which allows her to fulfil her considerable potential.

Following Bujold’s suggested ‘internal chronology’ reading order, my next dose of Vorkosigans will come in the form of the novella ‘The Mountains of Mourning’, followed by the next full-length novel, The Vor Game. More soon!

Buy the book

Last in the series: Barrayar 
Next in the series: The Mountains of Mourning

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