Guest Review: Lois McMaster Bujold – The Warrior’s Apprentice

Wiebe is back with another review and this time he is tackling a classic!

loismcmasterbujold-thewarriorsapprenticeMiles Vorkosigan’s physical infirmities have destroyed his lifelong dream. After flunking the physical and being dropped from the Barrarayan military academy, he takes what he thinks will be a pleasure trip. However, Miles has a towering talent for leadership-and for chaos-and he and his companions soon run afoul of spacegoing mercenaries. One thing leads to another until miles, now a self-appointed admiral with an alias, finds himself leading his mercenaries on an impossible mission. If he can’t be an officer in the Barrarayan military, perhaps miles will make a very good space pirate.

There is still one problem, however. Miles is a member of the Barrarayan aristocracy, and the law of his home planet forbids members of that class from having their own armed forces…and breaking that law carries a death sentence. 

My wife, the Fantastical Librarian, suggested Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice to me when we were shopping in the Forbidden Planet in London. She knows I like military SF and said this was said to be a very good series. It is also a very old series, this book is from 1986. The age might explain why I never encountered this book in a store here in Holland. Lois McMaster Bujold still writes award-winning books for this universe so it must be good. Unwittingly, I have read book three in this universe, but fortunately the first book that features Miles Vorkosigan as a protagonist. Reading it I could sense that I missed some of the intricacies of the setting, but that did not detract from my understanding and enjoyment of this book.

And, oh my, Miles Vorkosigan is a brilliantly written character. As stated on the back of the book, he has health issues that set him apart from his peers. He is small for a man and has brittle leg bones due to an attempt to assassinate him when he was a kid. The political intrigue behind this is hinted at and leaves me wanting for more exposition. But the universe is rich enough that a full understanding will come with reading more of this series’ books.

Miles has two distinctive character traits. One: he has a physical disability in a world without many who do. Two: he is a bit of a genius and lateral-thinker. Both are very hard to write without me disconnecting from the narrative, because I want to argue with the way they are framed. But on both counts McMaster Bujold threads that fine line perfectly, making Miles already one of the most beloved and memorable characters I have ever read about. It is strange that I have no “older” characters to compare him to. So I have to say he reminds me of Jorg Ancrath from The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence or Darrow from Red Rising by Pierce Brown.

Reading along with the first person perspective of the cynical, self-loathing but brilliant protagonist is a bit like following a tornado. You can’t but help hurrying along the text to see what he will come up with next. And for the writer it must be very hard to write convincingly about the universe and the actions the protagonist takes, without it falling flat. It is so easy to fall into the trap of making your character look brilliant by making his opponents stupid. Or to manipulate the situation to fit his exact needs. I am glad that I finally got introduced to this protagonist and am looking forward to the next book that is en route to my house as I write this.

There are many secondary characters that accompany Miles through his mad dash throughout the universe. They are all overshadowed by his temperament (and one even says so to his face), but they all have their own personality, histories and identity. They all feel like real people, maybe caught up in the tornado, but with their own goals, motives for actions and so on. They do not exist to make Miles look good, just to help him back up when he falls on his ass.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is outstanding on all the things that make military space opera work for me. The universe is rich, even though we only glimpse a part of it. It does not bury you in overwhelming information dumps, but tells you just enough to leave you wanting more. The political structure is rich, intriguing and hints of many possibilities for when Miles gets older and more involved. Even the odd, hereditary government of Barrayar adds to its strange and rich universe. Then there is the military aspects and associated action, which I found very well done. The tech is not too much elaborated upon with scientific terms, but it breathes convincing future-tech. Add to that the characters and writing style and you have this exceptional book. Now I have to go thank my wife (Editor’s note: You’re welcome and… I told you so.) and find more money to buy the rest of this series.