Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SciFi for Beginners: The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Posted by Simcha 7:03 PM, under | 5 comments

Normally I wouldn't even consider reading a military science fiction book, which is a genre completely outside of my reading comfort zone. But after completing all of Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy novels I was desperate for something else of hers to read and so I had no choice but to start on her science fiction books next.

When I started reading Bujold's books I didn't realize how well known she was for her Vorkosigan series, of which three books won the Hugo award. In Israel, Bujold is one of the most popular scifi authors- something I discovered while selling books at one of the scifi conventions here, when her books were sold out almost immediately. So once I decided to give the Vorkosigan series a try I actually started looking forward to reading them. I did have a problem though, trying to figure out which book to start with. I looked up a few different lists of the series and each one seem to have the books listed in a different order. Finally I decided to go with The Warrior's Apprentice, hoping that I had made the right choice.

Seventeen-year-old Miles has been waiting all of his life to enter the Barrayaran Service Academy and begin his military training. Unfortunately Miles's physical disabilities cause him to fail his entrance exam, leaving Miles with no hope of getting into the Academy or of having the military career he always dreamed of.

In an effort to distract himself from his disappointment, and to win the admiration of the beautiful Elana, Miles sets off on a visit to his grandmother, at Beta Colony. But a simple off-world vacation goes horribly wrong when Miles- in an attempt to help a troubled stranger- ends up acquiring a ship, a pilot and a smuggling mission. Trailed by his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles sets off on the adventure of his life which has him disguised as a mercenary captain, capturing ships, training crew and fighting in a planetary war. Throughout all this, Miles must keep anyone from suspecting that he is really a seventeen year old boy, or that his family are the infamous Vorkosigans, otherwise he will be in bigger trouble than he can possibly imagine.

One of the most interesting things about Bujold's books is her tendency to makes heroes, and heroines, out of the most unlikely characters. Her central characters are often physically disabled in some way or just different from the kind of heroes you would expect to find in an adventure novel. In The Curse of a Chalion the main character is a weary, retired soldier with a diseased stomach and the heroine of Paladin of Souls is the middle-aged mother of a queen. I was curious to discover if Bujold's affection for such unorthodox characterization extends to her scifi books as well, and the answer appears to be yes.

Miles suffers from a number of physical defects, including brittle bones and stunted growth. Coming, as he does, from a family of powerful military men and women, these disabilities are particular difficult for Miles to shoulder. But Miles also has a compelling personality and a healthy sense of humor which help get him through his trials, and come out on top. I really enjoyed getting to know Miles and following his audacious stunts, from spontaneously purchasing a ship with his allowance money to accidentally creating a powerful mercenary army and fighting a war. He just blunders into the oddest situations and through the sheer force of his personality, and a lot of luck, somehow manages to succeed while gaining the admiration of those who he has dragged along with him.

In addition to Miles there were also a number of other characters in this book who really came to life for me. These included Miles's body guard, Bothari, who has cared for Miles since he was a child and Bothari's daughter Elana, who Miles loves despite their difference in station. Bujold has a real talent for creating engaging and memorable characters who stay with you for a long time after you finish the book. Even those characters who only appear in the story for a short time have a solid presence, hinting at the existence of a multifaceted personality-perhaps to be explored in another book.

While I very much enjoyed The Warrior's Apprentice I have to admit that I didn't necessarily understand everything that took place. I'm not sure if this has to do with my inexperience in reading science fiction or if there was another book that I should have read before this one which explained some of the concepts that I was having difficulties with.

For example, I didn't really understand the method of space travel that was used, involving jumping and worm holes. I also had trouble visualizing what was going on during the battle scenes, since I didn't know what any of the weapons were or what was being described. I also couldn't really visualize what the space crafts looked like, which made it difficult for me to follow certain parts of the story.

Because the story itself had really drawn me in and I felt a connection to the characters, my lack of understanding didn't prevent me from wanting to keep reading. After a while I just ignored everything I didn't understand and I got on just fine. I'm not sure if this would work for all scifi books but it worked for me here.

I did have trouble with the fact that there is a whole history that is hinted at but not explored in any way. I know that there are prequels to The Warrior's Apprentice that tell the story of Miles's family and explain the workings of the empire but I was confused by not being provided enough information in this book. It was clear that Miles came from a very powerful and influential family but I didn't understand the ramification of this or why people reacted so strongly when finding out who his parents are. For this reason I think I should probably read one of the prequels next, to understand the backdrop of the story better, but at the same time I want to read the book that comes next in the series because I want to get back to reading about Miles.

While I'm deliberating about which book to read next I do know that I will definitely be continuing with this series. The Warrior's Apprentice exceeded my expectations and provided me with a highly entertaining and enjoyable reading experience. Miles is a wonderfully fun and engaging character and I can't wait to read about more of his adventures.


Cordelia's Honor (containing Shards of Honor and Barrayar) would fill in a lot of the blanks. They tell the story of how Miles' parents met and fill in a lot of story about the importance of the Vorkosigans and the world. Those two happen to be my all-time favorite Bujolds partially because they have a large portion of romance in them.

Hm...I am pretty sure that I came across this name when looking at the library's webpage. I must go back and check at once

Kathy: You're right, it probably would be best for me to read Cordelia's Honor next so I will have a better understanding of the world. And the fact that it's your favorite now really makes me want to read it.

Blodeuedd: If you read scifi or fantasy you really should give Bujold a try. If you do, let me know what you think

I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for 40 years, and I would have to say that Lois McMaster Bujold is at the top of my list of wonderful authors. Her Chalion series leave me chuckling and crying at the same time, while Miles Vorkosigan's wonderful, brilliant mania never fails to delight me. Do yourself a favour and read anything she writes. Cordelia's Honour would definitely be my favoured starting point for this series.

David: I loved the character of Miles and really want to read more about him but I think, as you say, I should first read Cordelia's Honour. I actually just ordered it so I hope to get to read it soon. I also have an interview planned with Bujold and I want to read as many of her books as I can before then.

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