Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published : Baen, 1986
Series : Book 4 of the Vorkosigan Saga (internal chronology)

The Book :

“Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father's legend and surmounting his own physical limitations, Miles Vorkosigan faces some truly daunting challenges.

Shortly after his arrival on Beta Colony, Miles unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter and in more debt than he ever thought possible. Propelled by his manic "forward momentum," the ever-inventive Miles creates a new identity for himself as the commander of his own mercenary fleet to obtain a lucrative cargo; a shipment of weapons destined for a dangerous warzone.”

I had a plan to read the entire Vorkosigan Saga, start to finish, months ago.  I read through Falling Free, Shards of Honor, and Barrayar, and enjoyed them.  And then… I think I got distracted?  I kept planning to read the next one, but I never quite got around to it.  At any rate, I do still plan on reading the whole series.  I have the next four books (by internal chronology) lined up and ready to go.  I think I took a break from the series at a good point, at least.  Barrayar ended Cordelia’s adventures, and The Warrior’s Apprentice kicks off Miles’s story.  I still think that Shards of Honor and Barrayar are the best starting place for anyone who wants to get into the series, but keep in mind that I haven’t read them all yet!

I’m reading this series in order of the internal chronology.  Therefore, there will be some spoilers of Shards of Honor and Barrayar in this review.

My Thoughts :

The Warrior’s Apprentice was clearly the start of a new generation of adventures in the Vorkosigan Saga.  All of the babies and toddlers from the time of Barrayar have now become teenagers and young adults.  Of course, there was the irrepressible 17-year-old Miles Vorkosigan, but there was also Miles’s crush, Elena Bothari, his irritating cousin Ivan, and the young Emperor Gregor, who was just coming into his power. Starting with this novel, I began to be impressed by the increasingly complex web of interpersonal relationships that this kind of generational saga can portray. Nothing from the previous novels was forgotten, and the old conflicts, secrets, and vendettas still played a role in the story.  In fact, some of the tensest moments in the story for me involved the younger generation innocently prying into secrets that were better left buried.

It is Bujold’s deft hand at characterization that makes her expanding character base and their web of relationships engaging and easy to follow.  Some of the characters were ones that I was already familiar with from the previous novels, such as Miles’s parents and the troubled Bothari.  Others, such as the group of the ‘Dendarii Mercenaries’ were not really as deeply characterized, but still managed to be easy to tell apart.  Of the Barrayar babies, Miles, Elena, Ivan, and Gregor were memorable from their first impressions alone.  Though Miles and Elena were the most present in the story, I was still left with the impression that Ivan and Gregor would be interesting characters to explore further in the future. Altogether, in terms of establishing relationships and characters, I think this novel was a highly successful introduction to Miles’s life.

Though many of the secondary characters had their own subplot arcs, it was Miles’s coming-of-age issues that formed the backbone of the novel.  While Miles is pretty hyper-capable, I liked how his state of mind was portrayed.  He was an essentially well-meaning young man who had, as a result of the environment of his upbringing, a good amount of unexamined prejudices.  While he is highly skilled at strategy, he also doesn’t always clearly perceive the full consequences of his actions. Basically, a lot of his flaws are a result of his youth and inexperience, and I enjoyed watching him start to overcome them.  The main problems he personally struggles with in this novel are his desperation to prove himself to his parents and his awkwardness in dealing with a crush on his childhood friend Elena.  

Much of his intense desire to prove himself seemed linked to his parent’s attitudes regarding his physical handicap. As we know from previous novels, Miles’s body was harmed before his birth by poison gas associated with an assassination attempt on his father.  His parents felt extremely guilty about the damage their political career inflicted on their son.  The dynamic that played out here was actually very realistic, though the specific situation was, of course, science-fictional.  From the parents’ point of view, his physical disability was evidence of their failure to give him a good start in life.  Their guilt is not because they feel their son is inadequate, but because they gave him a much more difficult life than they intended. From Miles’s point-of-view, things look quite different.  As Miles said, after his father once again apologized for the damage:

 “Apologizing to me again, thought Miles miserably. For me. He keeps telling me I'm all right—and then apologizing. Inconsistent, Father. He shuffled back and forth across the room again, and his pain burst into speech. He flung his words against the deaf door, "I'll make you take back that apology! I am all right, damn it! I'll make you see it. I'll stuff you so full of pride in me there'll be no room left for your precious guilt!" ~The Warrior's Apprentice, Near the Beginning

Miles adventures essentially started with the twin goals of proving himself to his parents and impressing Elena.  His flirting with Elena was almost painful to read, because he was so awkward and inexperienced at courting.  While he didn’t have a consciously sexist attitude, his upbringing on Barrayar inevitably left him with some strangely incongruent ideas about the opposite sex.  His experiences over the course of the novel forced him to examine his own ideas and assumptions more closely, and, I think, to become a better person for it.  

While Bujold’s characters and their development is proving to be the main draw of this series for me, the adventures themselves are also a lot of fun.  I’ve seen mention of Miles and his ‘forward momentum’ several times before, so I’m guessing this is going to be a continuing dynamic.  Miles dives into any interesting situation he finds with both feet, relying on his charisma and his strategic flexibility. This story was a bit lighter and more humorous than Cordelia’s adventures in the previous two volumes, and Miles seemed completely unstoppable.  I commented on Barrayar that Cordelia seemed a little bit too much like an unbeatable action hero, and Miles’s adventures left me with the same feeling.  He’s able to manipulate pretty much everyone around him, and he manages to gain a lot of trust based on some pretty flimsy lies.  All the same, though, Miles is simply a ton of fun to read about.  His story, so far, is consistently both exciting and humorous, with just enough moments of seriousness.  I am looking forward to reading more about Miles’s life!

My Rating : 4/5

The Warrior’s Apprentice is another entertaining installment in the Vorkosigan Saga.  This novel kicks off Miles’s story, as he heads out as an inexperienced 17-year-old in search of adventure.  There’s plenty of adventure to be had, and he soon manipulates his way into someone else’s war by pretending to be the owner of a mercenary fleet.  While Miles’s unstoppable successes were on the edge of credibility, the story was full of fast-paced, often humorous fun.  I enjoyed the adventures, but my favorite part of this novel was the characters.  The Warrior’s Apprentice introduces a new generation of players, including the now-grown babies and toddlers of Barrayar.  Bujold’s characters are as well-drawn as always, and I particularly liked how the addition of the new generation built on the web of relationships and loyalties from the generation before.  I’m actually already near the end of The Vor Game, and I can’t wait to see how Bujold’s saga unfolds!  

PS: Isn't that cover just atrocious? 


  1. That cover is the version I've got at home and, yes, it is pretty gawky. It looks like it's aping a star wars poster and not in a good way. The book does flirt on that edge of credibility, as you say, but the characters are endearing enough and the story still feels light enough overall that it isn't a big problem. I read this one first before going into any of the saga with his parents because I didn't know if a prior investment in Miles was necessary to really get the mileage out of the prequels. It does seem like you enjoyed this much more than I did because you already had an investment in the world Miles is acting in, however.

    1. Yeah, I think that if I had not read Shards of Honor/Barrayar first, I would probably have rated this one a bit lower. I'm getting the impression that while each of the Vorkosigan novel's stories are independent, there is a continuity of character that you miss when reading them out of order. So, I wouldn't say it is absolutely necessary, but having read the first two definitely made me enjoy this one more than I would have otherwise.