The Warrior’s Apprentice: You’ll want to read more!

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Reposting to include Stuart’s new review.

The Warrior's Apprentice 30th Anniversary Edition (Vorkosigan Saga) Paperback – Deluxe Edition, May 3, 2016 by Lois McMaster Bujold (Author)Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's ApprenticeThe Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Editor’s note: This is Marion’s review of Shards of HonorBarrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice. Kat’s comments about The Warrior’s Apprentice are at the bottom.

Do you like fancy military uniforms? Shiny spaceships that blow things up? Brooding aristocrats with hulking stone castles and dark secrets? Snappy comebacks and one-liners? Voluptuous women warriors? Swords and secret passages? Surprising twists on standard military tactics of engagement?

If you answered “Yes” to three or more, check out the VORKOSIGAN SAGA. Lois McMaster Bujold started this series in the mid-80s. The VORKOSIGAN books start out as space opera, even having maps of the various planets and star systems with those so-convenient wormholes linking everyone together, and convincingly add a stratified, highly mannered aristocratic society on one of the principal planets. Later books have become more sociopolitical while still set against a dynamic interplanetary background.

The main character of the series is Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is a smart, physically damaged character with a lot to prove. He is an aristocrat, a crown prince and a highly skilled covert operative. He is a risk-taker and when he makes mistakes, they are profound. Sometimes he is a fool, but usually, when it matters, he is brilliant.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShards of Honor and Barrayar introduce us to Miles’s parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. In the midst of an interplanetary war, Cordelia, a native of the Beta colony, raised in a tolerant, sexually open, egalitarian, high-tech and seriously bureaucratic society, clashes with and ultimately falls for a warrior-prince from a rigid, military, patriarchal one. Shards of Honor tells the story of their meeting. Cordelia disregards the shock of her home planet and its nanny-state government, marries Aral and moves to Barrayar. In Barrayar, we observe the mutual culture shock that follows. Women have some power on Barrayar, but they do not have equality. The Vor is an elite of families charged with running the planet, and Aral’s family is classic Vor. Aral has as much committed the unthinkable with this marriage as Cordelia has. His father in particular is disapproving of what he sees as a misalliance.

Cordelia soon learns that there are many cliques, coalitions and conspiracies, and that Aral has enemies, some of whom would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between Aral and his new wife. At a formal reception, a new acquaintance, catching Cordelia apart from her husband, tries to inject some venom:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth quirked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of wine.

“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

Barrayar quickly leads us into a political coup and an assassination attempt on Cordelia and Aral, with a disastrous impact on the newly pregnant Cordelia. The damage to her unborn child does not stop her from fighting at Aral’s side, and her woman-warrior skills even win over her father-in-law at the end. Aral becomes the Regent for Prince Gregor, a physically perfect six-year-old destined to be emperor.

The Vor (and all the people of Barrayar) worship racial purity and physical strength, and are terrified of mutation, for reasons that are clearly and credibly delineated in the back-story. Cordelia’s baby is born with brittle bones that shatter at the slightest impact. In a society that values physical perfection, this is a serious drawback. Miles represents both a genetic failure — even though his weaknesses are not genetic — and his society’s worst fear. While the brittle bones can be dealt with medically, Miles Vorkosigan is the opposite of what a Vor lord is supposed to be, and he and his father both know it.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles, at 17, has just failed the physical exam for the Imperial Military Academy. Despondent, he goes on a family trip to Beta. In short order he rescues an on-the-skids jump-ship pilot, co-opts a mercenary fleet, styles himself “Admiral Naismith” and saves the underdogs in a nasty civil war, pausing long enough to suffer pangs of unrequited love and jealousy over his childhood playmate Eleni and pick up a Barrayaran military deserter who is a genius with engines.

It appears that Miles is a flippin’ genius at strategy and tactics (years of dodging the neighborhood bullies at home?) but his real gift is that of inspiring loyalty and getting people to work at their maximum capacity, or beyond it.

One of the best things about the early Miles Vorkosigan books is the idea that the bluffing, one-upping, dueling, raygun-toting, make-it-up-as-I-go hero is four feet tall and has bones that will crack if he sits down too hard. He talks as fast as a guy on his seventh energy drink, and like William Ryker on Star Trek, he never met a female alien he didn’t like. There is real darkness in these books, though. In the first two, rape is deployed as a weapon of terror, with some reverberations into later books. At times, the humorous, straightforward prose seems disrespectful of the serious nature of the plot, but no one will doubt Miles’s determination to make things right, even when he’s making mistakes.

These early stories play with the theme of the outsider, with Cordelia in the first two as a literal outsider, and Miles having the more painful role of the person within the culture who doesn’t quite fit in. The early Vorkosigan stories, those with “Admiral Naismith,” can be read as Miles trying to find a place for himself in the universe.

The three early books should be read close together so that you understand the story of Miles, and why he drives himself so hard. The action is brisk, the characters are good, and there is quite a bit of funny dialogue. I quibble a bit at some of Bujold’s anachronistic word choices, but really, things are usually happening so quickly, and are so interesting, that I don’t get thrown out of the story.

A final warning; a Vorkosigan book is like a potato chip. If you start with these three, you’ll want to read more!

~Marion Deeds


Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's ApprenticeIn The Warrior’s Apprentice, we finally get to meet Miles Vorkosigan, one of the most famous characters in all of science fiction. He’s not the kind of hero you’d expect, but he’s tons of fun. Always trying to compensate for his deficiencies makes him little manic and that creates chaos. The audio version is awesome.

~Kat Hooper


Lois McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan Saga 1. Shards of Honor Ethan of Athos, The Warrior's ApprenticeIt’s a cliché and publisher’s catchphrase to call anything a “rollicking SF adventure,” but if any book ever was that, this would be it. Lois McMaster Bujold has quietly and steadily created one of the most popular SF adventure franchises of the past few decades with her stories or Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, but it was The Warrior’s Apprentice, her second novel, where she introduced her greatest character and got the whole series going. Given how many SF paperbacks are published and disappear into the ether without a trace, and considering that for all those published books there are dozens of unpublished manuscripts that will never see print, it really is quite impressive what Mrs. Bujold has accomplished with the MILES VORKOSIGAN SAGA.

After all, the ingredients for the story don’t sound that special: a young scion from a military aristocratic family has suffered serious physical handicaps due to a chemical weapons attack before he was born, and faces a host of adversity by using just his wits and his skills to motivate (or use) others to get out of an ever-spiraling series of predicaments. Of all the different subgenres of SF, the military one has always been of least interest to me, as the whole culture of discipline, order, obedience, and bravery in action just doesn’t get me excited, but Bujold has chosen to explore this corner of space with such effortless skill of characterization and plotting that it’s almost a mystery why she didn’t choose more challenging subject matter.

What distinguishes this space opera is not just its memorable and extremely likable characters, but also how smoothly it transitions from daily conversations to intense space battles, awkward romances to complex political scheming, and from wry humor to sudden tragedy. Those are the keys to making a series that fans (as opposed to just “readers”) want to pick up everything Bujold chooses to write about Miles and his fellow characters. She imbues them with depth and complexity, yet keeps them very accessible and believable. I think Miles Vorkosigan is someone we’d all love to meet and get to know, even if we are fairly certain he’s several degrees smarter and more strategic than we will ever be. He is a great character and an incredibly fascinating person, one as vivid as anyone you know in real life, and someone you root for to survive each scrape and make it out the other side in better shape, even when he doesn’t get everything he wanted.

So it was with great pleasure that I revisited The Warrior’s Apprentice for the first time in about 25 years, having completely forgotten all of the plot details and even the names of the characters. It’s a great series to read when you are in your teens, but I found it has a lot to offer for older readers as well, especially when you’ve experienced unrequited love, setbacks, discrimination, pre-judgement, high expectations given your background, and a series of impossible situations.

There’s a difference between writing from the perspective of a young and clever man of 17, and writing about one from the perspective of an adult who has been through all that. There are just so many details that ring true in the characters’ inner thoughts and behaviors that make more believable the implausible escapades of Miles as he inadvertently creates a mercenary fleet through a series of lies and cons and clever stratagems. And there are some very compelling side stories such as his unrequited love for Elena, his relationship with the stoic and disturbed Sargent Bothari, and how he brings onto his side all the other “strays” that he picks up along the way in this, dare I say it, rollicking SF adventure that is just the beginning of an amazing and award-winning space opera series. The audiobooks are narrated by Grover Gardner, and it is good to have a consistent voice for the characters throughout the series.

~Stuart Starosta

Publisher: Miles Vorkosigan makes his debut in this frenetic coming-of-age tale. At age 17, Miles is allowed to take the entrance exams to the elite military academy; he passes the written but manages, through miscalculation in a moment of anger, to break both his legs on the obstacle course, washing out before he begins. His aged grandfather dies in his sleep shortly after, for which Miles blames himself. Miles is sent to visit his grandmother Naismith on distant Beta Colony, accompanied by his bodyguard, Sergeant Bothari and Bothari’s daughter, Elena. Miles passes himself off as a mercenary leader as he picks up a ragtag crew, and soon Miles’ father Aral is under political attack back home as garbled rumors of Miles’ mercenary operations trickle back. Miles must abandon his new fleet and dash back to Barrayar to stop the plot.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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