How to Build Your Own Mercenary Fleet Entirely By Accident – A Review of The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Anyone who has ever made a promise to someone else knows how difficult it can sometimes be to keep those promises. Some promises can be fulfilled in the span of a few months; others, however, can take years. I try my best to keep all the promises I make, but I will not deny I’ve broken some of them.

Fortunately, the promise to read a book can be fulfilled at any time, especially when I make the promise to one of my friends. They’ll insist I read it, and most of the time I do get around to it eventually. This was the case with Hope when she first asked me to read the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold a year or two ago. At the time I managed to make it through the first two books, but hadn’t quite managed to make it to the third. I think this was mostly because I didn’t have much interest in space opera at the time, being incredibly focused on fantasy and urban fantasy – not to mention my reading habits weren’t quite as orderly as they are now.

This time, however, I’ve managed to get around to reading the third book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, after Hope reminded me that I really ought to get back round to the series, especially since I’d been on a space opera kick for some time now. In fact, she was surprised that I’d already managed to read the first two books, since I hadn’t exactly told her that I’d done so some time back. And after I’d wrapped up Whispers Under Ground, it was as good a time as any to get back on track to keeping that promise – especially since the Vorkosigan Saga has a lot of other books that need to be read before Hope can say I’m anywhere near being able to talk to her about it.

In the first novel Shards of Honor, Aral Vorkosigan meets Cordelia Naismith, who is stranded on the same planet as he is, and they have to rely on each other for survival. Aral is an officer from the space fleet of Barrayar, an empire named after its home planet, and with a culture and political system very similar to Europe in the seventeenth century with some elements from medieval and ancient Spartan culture. Cordelia is a scientist from Beta Colony, which has a culture very similar to that of the twenty-first century except idealized: no gender issues, minimal economic troubles, and the very best in technology. It’s easy to see that these two would clash, but they manage to work well together – well enough that they put an end to a war, and Aral takes Cordelia back to Barrayar with him, where he overcomes cultural and parental barriers to marry Cordelia and make her Lady Vorkosigan.

The second novel, Barrayar, continues the story a few months after where Shards of Honor left off. Cordelia is now pregnant, and is attempting to deal with that while at the same time trying to negotiate the maze that is Barrayaran politics – something she must now participate in, whether she wants to or not. given her husband’s position. She refuses, however, to fit into the traditional role of society wife played by the other Barrayaran ladies, and goes about living her life her own way. When a poison gas attack on her and her husband fails to eliminate them but endangers the life of her unborn child, she refuses to have the baby aborted, and instead turns to heretofore unused Betan technology (retrieved from events in the previous novel) in a desperate attempt to save her child. This attempt succeeds – to a degree. The gas, which destroys calcium, has caused permanent damage to the fetus’ bone development. The child will live, and will be able to think and reason like any normal person, but will be physically deformed. In Barrayaran society this is a death sentence, but Cordelia doesn’t care one whit for this particular aspect of her husband’s culture, and defies it outright – and all this while helping protect the future Barrayaran emperor. In the end there is peace, for a while, anyway, and Cordelia’s deformed child, little Miles, comes into the world with his parents’ love – and their fear.

The Warrior’s Apprentice jumps ahead several years, to when Miles attempts to enter the Imperial Service Academy in hopes of becoming am officer in the Barrayaran army. Miles knows he’s done everything he possibly can to pass the written exams, but the physical exams are another matter entirely, given his super-fragile bones and less-than-optimal physique. As expected, he does not pass the physical exams, which puts the army – his one goal all this time – forever out of his reach. In order to get away from the crushing disappointment of his failure(a failure which he believes finally did his grandfather in) Miles heads off to see his grandmother Naismith at Beta Colony, taking with him his mother’s – now his – bodyguard, Konstantine Bothari, and Bothari’s daughter Elena. They plan to make a side-trip to Escobar, the planet where Miles’ parents first met, in hopes of finding some answers regarding Elena’s own mother, whom Bothari does not speak about. It’s supposed to be simple, really.

But that’s not quite what happens – and really, most of it is Miles’ fault. First he “saves” Arde Mayhew, a jump pilot who’s not quite right in the head, by buying his ship in hopes of using it and Mayhew to get out of Beta Colony to get more answers about Elena’s mother. He then meets a deserter from Barrayar, Baz Jesek, whom he promises he’ll help get home to Barrayar. Things get even more complicated when he gets entangled with Carle Daum, a smuggler trying to get weapons in to Tau Verde IV, which is currently in the midst of a war, with the only warp hole in and out blockaded by mercenaries. Thinking this will provide cover for his original mission of finding answers for Elena, he agrees to help Daum. Things get far, far more complicated from there, until by the end Miles has gathered together an entire mercenary fleet, and he’s not quite sure how that happened, except that it did.

In my review of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, I’ve mentioned that I like clever characters, characters who are capable of figuring things out and solving problems without having to use excessive amounts of force – and who are more than capable of finding themselves in a lot of trouble precisely because they’re too clever. Locke Lamora is just that: a thief and conman who gets into a lot of trouble because he’s too damn smart. He always manages to find his way out of trouble, eventually, but so far every time he’s done so a lot of people – important people, people the reader cares about – have the nasty tendency of dying.

Miles is, in many ways, a lot like Locke, though very much unlike Locke, too. Miles isn’t physically strong, and so has to rely on others to do the heavy lifting, as it were – in fact, in this department he’s worse off than Locke, because Miles’ physical condition is worse off than Locke’s and that leaves him unable to do anything similar to Locke’s “I just have to wait for Jean” stunt. Their morals, too, are very different: Locke serves only himself and the people he cares for, with no loyalty to any government or leader whatsoever save his god. Miles, on the other hand, is generally concerned about the greater good, and has very complex (Barrayaran) notions of honor and service. They are, however, capable of inspiring great loyalty in the people around them, and they themselves are very loyal to the people they care about – enough that they’re not above putting themselves in the line of fire for those people, if it meant sparing them greater pain.

Simply put, I adore Miles as a character, mostly because he falls right in line with the kind of character I really enjoy at the moment. To be sure, he’s not entirely perfect: he has a tendency to enter crippling bouts of depression and self-doubt, moments when his ability to think clearly is clouded by his emotions, and it usually takes someone else lifting him out of that funk in order to get him functioning again. He’s also not exactly the most circumspect of characters: constantly making half-baked plans and hoping they work, and it’s only by sheer luck that he has the people he does to make those plans actually work in the first place. He’s also somewhat hobbled, so to speak, by his own self-loathing: he wishes he could be more than what he is, less of a monster and more a proper son, if only for his father. At the beginning of the novel, during a conversation he has with Aral, he wishes that he could make his father eat his guilt, to make Aral realize that if he would only let go of the fact that Miles is what he is, then everything would well and truly be all right.

As much as I like Miles, though, the other characters around him are just as important, and fortunately, are just as interesting. His bodyguard Bothari is interesting just the way he’s portrayed in the novel, but it takes having read Shards of Honor and Barrayar to truly understand what’s so special – and frightening – about him. Elena, however, is new, and therefore interesting. Though her father is very old-fashioned, determined to fulfill every single aspect of Barrayaran tradition to see her settled down, Elena was also partially raised by Cordelia, who is the very farthest thing from “traditional Barrayaran” as anyone can get. Like Miles, therefore, she exists in a sort of cultural limbo: wanting to do, and capable of doing, to a degree, things that Barrayaran culture prevents her from doing simply by virtue of her gender. Miles has a very high opinion of her, viewing her as everything he could have been had he not been deformed, and this admiration fuels the enormous crush he has on her.

Another character who plays a rather small but important role is Miles’ cousin, Ivan Vorpatril, who manages to enter the Academy but is nowhere near Miles’ equal in terms of intelligence. Miles knows this, and inasmuch as he loves his cousin, he also finds it a very bitter pill to swallow that Ivan should make it into the Academy simply because he’s everything a Vor (the aristocratic class of Barrayar) should be, and Miles is not.

And then there are the “strays” that Miles starts picking up (sometimes even in his sleep) the moment he arrives at Beta Colony. Arde Mayhew reminds me somewhat of Miller from James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes: rough around the edges, and old, but unwilling to accept that fact. He’s been chewed up by life and spat out again, and all he wants to do is just keep on doing what he loves, but the world won’t let him do that. There are some very good reasons for that – it’s pretty clear that he’s not quite right in the head – but he tries his best to keep himself together, he stays loyal to Miles, and he pulls off some pretty spectacular piloting in the middle portion of the book that gives Miles a very big boost. There’s also Baz Jesek, the Barrayaran deserter, who manages to finally overcome his fear of battle and becomes one of Miles’ most trusted commanders. The mercenaries are also very interesting, though Bel Thorne, a Betan hermaphrodite from the first group, is particularly intriguing, if only because there are currents of intelligence there that might be almost as good as Miles’. He’s not fully developed in this novel, however, but I do hope he gets a bit more development in later novels.

As for the storytelling, it’s every bit as good as the storytelling in any of the books I’ve come to love and enjoy – and believe me, I really love a good story. The twists and turns seem almost improbable – for instance, how Miles manages to pick up an entire mercenary fleet by building up a lie is almost too good to be true – and there are times when even Miles himself doesn’t seem to quite understand how that happened, but I suspect it’s because he’s surrounded himself with people who are not only skilled but very, very loyal – the Botharis, in particular, but later on Jesek and Mayhew help a great deal too. When Miles briefly flakes out after Bothari is killed, it’s Elena, Jesek and Mayhew who hold Miles’ impromptu mercenary fleet together. It’s only towards the latter end of the novel that the reader really gets to see Miles’ true strategic brilliance, but hopefully the later novels will put this brilliance on display earlier on in their story lines. After all, I’d like to think that much of what makes Miles great isn’t just deus ex machina, no matter how funny the idea of him constantly picking up strays is.

As for the world, it’s incredibly interesting. Much has already been described and laid out in the first two novels, and they are only expanded upon here. That expansion, though, is big enough to show a solid, well-developed universe, but at the same time with enough room for expansion – just the way the worlding of a space opera-type novel should be. And now that Miles has put together an entire mercenary fleet, and put it at the disposal of his childhood friend and the Emperor of Barrayar, Gregor Vorbarra, there are certainly more adventures that lie ahead – and Miles will most certainly be at the head of them all.

Overall, The Warrior’s Apprentice is a fun continuation of the stories begun in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and a wonderful introduction to Miles Vorkosigan and his Dendarii Mercenaries. This is, however, only the beginning: now that he’s got the fleet, he’s got to do something with them, and those stories will, I am quite sure, be very enjoyable, interesting ones, headlined by equally enjoyable, interesting characters.

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