The Warrior’s Apprentice

The problem with the Vorkosigan saga is that I had no idea where to start. The series has, I think, fifteen books and a handful of novellas and shorter works, and thanks to the Baen Free Library I had most of them, confusingly bundled as omnibus editions. Chronologically seemed a good bet, but do I want chronologically in order of publication, or in order of the internal chronology of the books?

I consulted the internet, which suggested The Warrior’s Apprentice, the beginning of Miles Vorkosigan’s story, was a good place to begin. Miles is the scion of an aristocratic family on the planet of Barrayar, and the book opens with his failure to enter the military academy there. In true heroic fashion, Miles is daunted by this setback, but recovers to go and visit his grandmother on Beta Colony, where he accidentally acquires a ship, and goes on to acquire a crew of mercenaries, retake an asteroid mining factory from invaders, gather an entire mercenary fleet, break a military blockade, and go on to beat charges of treason and uncover corruption among the ruling class of Barrayar.

Did I mention he’s seventeen?

Written down like that, it sounds faintly ludicrous, but as you’ve guessed given these books are hugely successful award-winners and there are many of them, Bujold carries it off. It’s mainly because of Miles, whose point of view we follow for the whole book. He might be a priveleged child of the upper classes, he’s also disabled, and fails to enter the academy when he breaks both legs due to his own physical shortcomings but also out of frustration and pride. He’s in love with Elena, the daughter of his faithful bodyguard Bothari, and the early chapters are filled with his flowery descriptions of her shining hair, long-legged beauty, etc, etc, to an extent which might be annoying if it didn’t remind us of Miles’s youth, and it if weren’t neatly subverted by the way it doesn’t all work out in the end. Elena herself is also well-drawn, with her own story and agency, and gets to escape her social standing and become the brave warrior and leader that Barrayan society would never let her be (albeit as second-in-command to a man).

It rattles along just on the right side of ludicrous for a while. Miles just happens to turn up in the right place to end up with a ship and a pilot, but since that sets the rest of the plot in motion, it can be forgiven. While there’s a lot of luck involved in Miles’s success, it’s backed up by audacity and nerves, and since we always see Miles’s side of events, we can see exactly how close it is to all falling apart. Miles grows into his new role as “Admiral” Naismith of a mercenary fleet without becoming instantly self-assured and able to cope, and suffers moments of doubt and black depression. While his aristocratic upbringing helps, he couldn’t bluff his way through his adventures without his own intelligence and knowledge of human nature, and the help of Elena, Bothari, and a host of other characters he picks up along the way.

Still, I might have written it off as merely an entertaining bit of military space opera, except for the turn it takes about two-thirds of the way through, when a dangling plot thread about the identity of Elena’s mother pays off in an unpleasant and gruesome way, and hints at a deeper story involving Miles’s father, a past war, and the whole Barrayaran military. The last third of the book returns to Barrayar and the complex political state of the empire, and it’s far more intriguing than the mercenary plot of the middle of the book. It comes close to info-dumping when Miles’s cousin turns up, as Ivan is quite dim compared to Miles and therefore good for Miles to explain the working of the plot to, but the ending is just about saved from being too neatly wrapped up by what Miles’s father has to do to save him from charges of treason, and by the interesting glimpses into the workings of the court and the Emperor himself.

It’s not a brilliant work – the writing is often clumsy, and too many lines are said adverb-ly. I got stuck on lines like “He came to a species of attention, querying his bodyguard with puzzled eyes”, and a character exclaims at a pivotal moment, “I love you as I love breath […] but I can’t be your annex”. Yes. Still, I know there’s an awful lot of love for these books, I hear the prose gets better, and even if the rest of them don’t bring interstellar political and military intrigue, they may work on a Sharpe-in-space level, and that’s not such a bad thing to be.

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