The Warrior Apprentice is the first book in this series featuring Miles Vorkosigan as a main character, although he appears briefly as a child – a very active child – in the epilogue of Barrayar. By the way, this was also my first Bujold book, the one through which I fell in love with this universe and characters and was prompted to backtrack to the origins of the story before moving forward once again: it’s indeed not necessary to read Shards of Honor and Barrayar before The Warrior Apprentice, since the author does a wonderful, info-dump-free work of summarizing previous events, and in truth the latter of the two ‘prequels’ was published after this one, but this revisitation is teaching me that following the internal chronological order of this series adds further layers to the overall background and enhances the reading experience.
As the book starts, Miles is seventeen and in the final stages of the admission course for the Barrayaran Imperial Academy: while he breezed through the written tests thanks to his keen intelligence, the real hurdle for him comes in the form of the obstacle trail all prospective cadets must run – the damage he sustained as a result of the assassination attempts on his parents left him with brittle bones, besides a short stature and a somewhat bent spine, and he’s painfully aware of such shortcomings. Not surprisingly, he ends up with both legs broken and the burning failure of his dreams: to lift his spirits, his father suggests a trip to Beta Colony – Miles’ mother’s planet of origin – and the young Vorkosigan leaves home accompanied by the bodyguard Sergeant Bothari and the man’s daughter Elena, Miles’ longtime friend.
A chance conversation overheard in a public place leads Miles to acquire an obsolete cargo ship, which requires him to accept a delivery of weapons in a war zone, which in turn brings him to take over a small mercenary outfit and so on and on in what looks like a growing avalanche of circumstances that keep reaching ever-dizzying heights. If this brief summary of the events in The Warrior Apprentice sounds somewhat over the top, well… yes, it does, but believe me when I say that Lois McMaster Bujold’s control of both narrative and characterization will keep you so totally enthralled that any kind of logical objection will evaporate like fog under the sun. Characters are indeed this author’s strong suit and Miles’ evolution here is so compelling that it’s quite easy to overlook the more demanding requirements in your suspension of disbelief: there is a phrase that is used often in this story, forward momentum, and that’s what carries it – and Miles’ journey – all the way to the end. As one character tells him at some point:
“Your forward momentum is going to lead all your followers over a cliff someday […] On the way down, you’ll convince ’em all they can fly.” He stuck his fists in his armpits, and waggled his elbows. “Lead on, my lord. I’m flapping as hard as I can.”
And this sums up quite nicely the impact that Miles and his adventures can have on the readers, even on a revisitation, where there should be no more surprising discoveries…
Miles Vorkosigan is an irresistible character, not in spite of, but because of his disabilities: granted, here he shows an uncanny aptitude in thinking on his feet, overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles, gaining allies on the sheer strength of his personality and always coming up on top – and with someone else it would be easy to tag him as the proverbial Gary Stu, but the face he presents to the universe – the bold, brazen dealer and shaker – is balanced by his private insecurities and a fragility of the soul that’s even worse than the one of his bones. Miles is painfully aware that he’s a… sub-standard human being – at least by Barrayaran canon – and he’s the first to acknowledge that everything he’s accomplishing here is based on a fraud, but he knows that once in motion he cannot stop, that if he arrests that forward momentum, everything is going to come crashing down, and he drives forward not with courage but in fear, in sheer terror of what would happen if he stopped. His desire to prove himself, to demonstrate his worth, is what always propels him, and it’s impossible not to feel for him and to cheer him on, no matter how preposterous the course he takes. And once he confesses that he’s striving to show his worth to his father, despite knowing the man loves him without reservations, it’s a poignant moment in which we see clearly behind the mask of recklessness, and our heart bleeds for him:
When I couldn’t serve Barrayar, I wanted—I wanted to serve something. To—” he raised his eyes to his father’s, driven to a painful honesty, “to make my life an offering fit to lay at his feet.” He shrugged. “Screwed up again.”
“Clay, boy.” Count Vorkosigan’s voice was hoarse but clear. “Only clay. Not fit to receive so golden a sacrifice.” His voice cracked.
Miles’ need for recognition mirrors Elena Bothari’s equally strong need for independence and agency: as a woman on Barrayar, she must bow under the social pressures that relegate women in an ancillary position – wives, mothers – and the further pressure of her father’s strict adherence to those rules. It’s clear she chafes under that double pressure, so that working alongside Miles with the mercenaries finally allows her to tap all the suppressed talents she could not employ in Barrayar’s backward society: at some point Miles muses about the waste of such potential, and being the great guy he is rejoices in seeing Elena blossom into her true self. There is a fascinating dichotomy here between these two characters, since Miles wants to excel for acceptance in his own society, while Elena realizes that to do so, to be allowed to do so, she must cut her ties to her home planet – and on that path lies some heartache…
This would not be a complete review if I did not mention Sergeant Bothari: he’s been present since the beginning of this saga, but it’s here that the many layers of his troubled personality take on a more substantial shape and present one of the most dramatic, most heart-wrenching aspects of this story, the dark counterpart to Miles’ crazy adventures. A man deeply wounded in spirit and mind, Bothari keeps hold of his sanity by strict observance of the rules: his personal story is one that elicits both horror and compassion, and I appreciate how Bujold does not pass judgment on him despite his terrible sins, but shows his light and darkness with the same equanimity, allowing him a sort of… redemption that felt right and painfully emotional at the same time.
The Warrior Apprentice can be viewed as a coming-of-age tale and it’s certainly the start of Miles’ adventures, but this time around I perceived a… seriousness I had missed before, the realization that this series gains a great deal when returning to it, revealing many hidden “treasures” I missed before: this discovery of new depths in a beloved story is what makes me look forward to what still lies ahead of me.