When we left Miles at the end of The Warrior Apprentice, he had been finally granted admission to the Imperial Academy, a goal that had previously eluded him because of his physical impairments: now, three years later, he just graduated with brilliant results and is looking forward to his first posting, hoping for a commission in space. What he gets instead is the assignment to a remote arctic weather station on the freezing Kyril Island – otherwise known as Camp Permafrost. The reason for such a lackluster post is the need to teach him some humility and how to obey and respect the chain of command, two qualities that are sorely lacking in the young ensign Vorkosigan.
Disappointed, but determined to show he can work within the system, Miles reaches the lonely compound and sets himself to learning all he can about weather patterns, certain that after the 6-months stint of this unsavory assignment he will get the career he hopes for. The universe being what it is, and Miles being who he is, things don’t go exactly that way and he’s soon forcibly returned to the capital, once again back to square one – but not for long. A series of complicated events, including young emperor Gregor’s attempted escape from his pressing duties, force Miles to revive the old Admiral Naismith persona and to launch into a series of breakneck events which include a hostile takeover of the Dendarii mercenaries, an attempted Cetagandan invasion and several dastardly schemes from various players.
The Vor Game is the typical kind of Miles Vorkosigan adventure we can expect from the early incarnation of this character: a whirlwind chain of circumstances that seems like the direct continuation of what we saw in The Warrior Apprentice, with Miles at the center of it all like a master puppeteer holding each and every string, and as such it might look both impossible and absurd – and in some measure it is, because it defies reason that a single individual, and one so young, would be able to influence galaxy-spanning events simply through sharp wits and improvisation, always landing in the right place at the right time and always able to do that on his feet. At times, I’m reminded of those initial scenes from the 007 movies, when we see Bond parachute from an airplane, land on a snowboard headed down a frozen slope and execute a perfect stop in front of some glitzy palace he enters wearing the spotless tuxedo that was hidden under the snow suit. But unlike those preposterous Bond scenes, Miles’ antics – implausible as they sound – hold up to scrutiny because of Lois McMaster’s Bujold excellent control of the narrative balance, the sheer impetus she can impart to her stories, and her main character, so that we are taken in the very center of things, not as simple spectators but entranced participants, and it all makes sense. Or at least to me it does, most probably because I already know how Miles’ journey progresses and that the insouciant freedom he’s enjoying now will not last long when more pressing – if not dramatic – concerns will change both his outlook and the course of the overall story. If this represents his “age of innocence”, it’s not going to go on forever…
Moreover, there is a subtle difference here: despite the happy-go-lucky attitude he’s still displaying, Miles is showing the first signs of maturity, of becoming more attuned to what it means to be a Vor, which does not only entail privileges, but above all responsibilities, as he demonstrates with his actions on Kyril Island, where he risks his life in the name of non-negotiable principles. It’s something whose seeds were planted in The Mountains of Mourning, and here we see them starting to grow and infuse Miles with some necessary doubts and uncertainties which act as a vital balance to his innate recklessness. Another fascinating side of his nature comes from his ease in switching between the various characters he’s called to portray: the lowly ensign Vorkosigan and the young Vor lord; Admiral Naismith the commander of the Dendarii Mercenaries and the bogus gun smuggler he plays for a while. Apart from the entertainment value of these kaleidoscopic changes, there is a very serious question about his personality and which one of those he wears is actually true, or if all of them reflect a side of his being: there is a scene here in which he plays the part of the evil schemer, only to have his childhood friend Elena wonder (and worry) if there is not some crumble of truth in that portrayal.
What becomes blatantly clear in this novel is that Miles is not someone who can fit any given mold, that his drive and energy cannot be channeled too tightly and rather need a different outlet according to the circumstances – he’s a loose cannon, granted, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous, so that the solution finally devised by his superiors is not to try and confine him into rigid schemes, but to use this flexibility, this ability to think outside normal parameters, to their advantage. There is one of the antagonists he faces in this novel, a crafty “dark lady” who looks like Miles’ mirror image, someone with his same skill at lateral thinking but devoid of any moral standards: the fascination she exerts on the young Vor is an intriguing element, because we can easily imagine him thinking, as he observes her, that the tiniest shift in circumstances might have turned him into the kind of person she became.
The Vor Game is not only about Miles, however: there is some considerable space given to young emperor Gregor Vorbarra, a few years Miles’ senior and a longtime friend and companion. Gregor is the opposite of Miles: thoughtful, somewhat introverted and very lonely in the gilded cage where he holds great power but enjoys little freedom. Some of the best dialogues in this novel come from their exchanges, where Gregor admits to feeling trapped in his role and to his envy of the younger friend’s freedom – these exchanges serve both as a way for Miles to see his own life and limitations in a different perspective, and as a means to show he’s capable of his own brand of introspection and even wisdom, when he’s able to offer consolation and a way of looking at things with some of his hard-earned optimism.
On hindsight, this novel marks the end of Miles’ carefree youth (in the omnibus version of the series, The Warrior Apprentice and The Vor Game, together with the novella The Mountains of Mourning, are appropriately collected under the title Young Miles), and as fun as these have been, both in my first reading and in revisiting them, I can only look forward to the more serious stories, where the usual fun will still be present, but more pressing issues will put this wonderful character to the test.