The Warrior’s Apprentice
Lois McMaster Bujold
Narrated by Grover Gardner
First Published 1986
From Goodreads: 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.
With The Warrior’s Apprentice, we are introduced to the primary character of Lois McMcaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga– Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. Thanks to an assassination attempt upon his parents’ lives before his birth, Miles suffers from severe health problems– his growth was stunted from day one, his bones are brittle and break easily (and have been broken many, many times in his short life), he has episodes of debilitating osteo-inflammation, and idiosyncratic reactions to commonly-used painkillers and sedatives. And he lives on a planet where people fear and hate those with physical deformities.
But his parents, Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, refused to give up on him and made it clear that Miles could grow up to be whatever he wanted to be. And yet following in the footsteps of two living legends is hard to do, and because military service is treated like a sacred calling on Barrayar, Miles has his heart set on making it into the Barrayaran Military Academy.
Though he passes the written tests with flying colors, Miles makes a miscalculation on the physical test, breaks both of his legs, and washes out of the program before he can even enter it.
So what’s a mentally gifted but physically disabled seventeen year-old who dreams of military glory, but has been denied the chance to achieve it do with himself? He heads out for parts unknown, winds up in possession of an aging ship, and discovers that events can snowball beyond anything he could ever imagine or control.
Thus begins the tale of Miles Vorkosigan– strategical genius, charismatic fast-talker, mercenary leader, and loyal son of feudalistic Barrayar. It might be impossible not to like Miles, and it’s not just because he’s a sarcastic smooth talker who finds a way out of almost about every terrible situation he finds himself in. Part of Miles’s charm as a leading man comes from how very human he is: he deals with terrible pain on a daily basis but refuses to let the world see how much it hurts; he has a knack for talking people into doing what he wants them to do, but can’t anticipate the repercussions that might entail; he is a seventeen year-old boy who wants to make his beloved parents proud, but without his path to military service he doesn’t know how to do it. Add to that his unrequited love for his childhood friend Elena and the fact that he often takes his lifelong bodyguard, the strange and ugly Sargent Bothari (Elena’s father) for granted, and you have a character who is deep and believable within a few chapters.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s gift for character shines in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Even secondary and tertiary characters are completely believable in their actions and words, and you quickly come to like them, even if they started out as bad guys. Miles grabs his ‘forward momentum’ by the throat and never lets go, and the rest of the cast is dragged along in his wake and ends up being changed by it– usually for the better.
The primary example of this changing, I think, is in the character of Elena Bothari. Not quite a year older than Miles, she has been his friend since they were little. Miles’s feelings for her have grown into something more, but Elena can’t see past their differing social status. Miles is the son of a prestigious Vor Lord of the military caste, while she is a retainer’s daughter who is at the level of a servant. Elena also suffers from the Barrayar’s inbred misogyny. She’s physically and mentally capable of surviving the military academy, but Barrayar does not allow women to serve. And the final straw comes from Elena’s own father. He is strangely strict and does not allow her to travel very much, or even meet many people outside of the Vorkosigan estate. So while Elena might dream of a life among the stars, it is unlikely that she will ever leave her home planet.
Elena’s life takes a sharp turn in an unexpected direction, though, and by the time the book is over, she is almost unrecognizable. From the naive country cousin she was at the beginning, Elena grows to be a smart, capable woman who is coming to believe in herself and her newfound abilities as a member of the mysterious Dendarii Mercenaries.
The desire to prove one’s worth is a major part of The Warrior’s Apprentice, but compassion is not far behind, and appears most profoundly in the story of Sargent Bothari. If you’ve already read Shards of Honor and Barrayar, then you will know the secret of the sargent’s past, what the Vorkosigan family means to him, and why he is so loyal to them. You will also know what kind of monster he is. Miles, having seen Bothari only as ‘protector’ has never encountered the sargent’s dark side until he fails to anticipate what Bothari is capable of and tips off an event that will haunt Miles for a long, long time.
With this first taste of Bothari’s darkness in mind, the past and present collide in an unexpected fashion. The truth of Elena’s birth and Sargent Bothari’s past are brought to the light in the worst way possible, forcing both Elena and Miles to try to come to terms with facts that are impossible to come to terms with. What happens when you discover that your protector– a man you have come to love like a father– is guilty of a horrific crime? And how do you comfort your friend in a situation when comforting her is impossible?
There are no easy answers to these questions, as Miles discovers, but it is the compassion that Cordelia has given Miles that helps him to understand all the points of view at play in these tragic circumstances. That same compassion allows Miles to see how Elena has grown and that while she will always be his oldest friend, she can never go home again.
Now that I am utterly hooked on the Vorkosigan Saga, I have been searching for copies of the books in my local bookstores and online, but they seem to be out of print. This is a shame, for Bujold is truly one of the great science fiction and fantasy authors currently working. In a time where readers are crying out for diverse characters, it saddens me to see that these books, with their diverse cast of characters, are not in stores. The universe of the Vorkosigan Saga includes a variety of cultures that feel very real in their future histories without being exact analogues of places like Russia or Japan. Both good guys and bad guys come from each of those cultures and while, say, the Cetagandans are perennial enemies of the Barrayarans, they are not reduced to caricatures. Cordelia’s logical and moral influence over Miles compels him to see the person before him, and not the stereotype. This trait more than just about anything else is what helps Miles inspire loyalty in his followers, and it is something we could all stand to do more often.