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Under Pressure

The Warrior’s Apprentice  (Miles Vorkosigan, volume 1)

By Lois McMaster Bujold 

16 Mar, 2018

A Bunch of Bujolds


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1986’s The Warrior’s Apprentice was Lois McMaster Bujold’s first Miles Vorkosigan novel.

Miles was exposed to a lethal gas while still in the womb and his bones did not develop properly. They are short and brittle. He looks odd; he looks like a mutant, which is a bad thing to be on his native world of Barrayar. During Barrayar’s time of isolation from other human-settled worlds, mutants were killed at birth. Modern medicine has better answers, but hatred of muties (and of people who are visibly deformed or disabled) is still ingrained in Barrayaran custom. 

Mile must deal with daunting physical limitations. What may be worse is the disdain and even hatred of his fellow Barrayarans, who see his very existence as an affront to all that is right and good.

Miles is an aristocrat; a period (or a lifetime) of military service is customary for Barrayaran aristocrats. Miles wants to be a soldier like his peers. He may lack physical prowess, but he has charm, brains, and cunning. Those sterling qualities are enough to take him to the top in the academic courses at the military academy … but don’t help him pass the final physical test. He breaks both legs on an obstacle course. There will be no Vor military career for Miles. What to do with the rest of his life?

A trip to his mother’s native Beta should be a harmless diversion … and even if it were not, he is accompanied by his bodyguard, the formidable Sergeant Bothari, and Bothari’s daughter Elena. If anything were to go wrong, it would probably involve some hilarious cultural misunderstanding between Miles’ Barrayaran companions and the Betans. 

What happens is war in SPAACE.

Chance introduces Miles to a desperate pilot holed up in a spaceship slated for the scrap heap, Miles decides to intervene. It would be FUN to own a spaceship. Miles acquires the ship with rapid patter and financial shell games. He also adds a Barrayaran deserter marooned on Beta to his growing entourage. 

The ship has to pay its way, preferably far from its former owner, who is in the process of discovering just what sort of magic beans Miles traded for the ship. A job running a wartime blockade offers. Things snowball from there. Miles manages to finagle his way out of each looming disaster, but each solution brings unexpected consequences. Which in turn must be met with more last-minute improvisation, usually involving complicated lies. 

He ends up talking his way into command of a mercenary army, which finds itself smack dab in the middle of the Tau Verde system’s civil war. Oh, and the mercenary army? By Barrayaran law, keeping a private military force is treason.


The human sphere is not such a shiny place. Aside from Beta, the worlds we see are either backward or war-torn. Even Beta isn’t all that shiny. As Miles’ mom Cordelia found out, medical treatment can be weaponized on Beta. Miles is also menaced with Betan-style rehabilitation. He has conned a Betan businessman, who threatens:

I want blood. You’re going to therapy, because I’m calling Security right now!” 

So, crapsack setting? Not necessarily. Bujold needs some unpleasantness for plot purposes. There may well be pleasant worlds out there; odds are that Miles won’t go there. And if he did, plot-generating trouble would probably ensue. 

Arthur C. Clarke once said (in an essay that probably does not stand up to a reread) that the most ominous comment in a prospective employee’s work record is means well.” Miles definitely means well, whether trying to help a distraught pilot, a homeless veteran, or attempting to court someone whose mere proximity to Miles has convinced him that she is the One.

Bujold clearly likes her protagonist, but does not hesitate to cultivate the comic possibilities of her manic hero and his often entirely unrealistic aspirations. Despite the occasional tragedies [1] and setbacks, the novel is much funnier than the usual military SF. 

The Warrior’s Apprentice is available here (Amazon). I do not believe this edition is available via Kobo. I have no interest in other editions.

1: Including the unintended death of a POW. Miles orders Bothari to torture him for information and the torture has … consequences. For Miles as well. He has a conscience. 

Not that this does the POW much good. I am not inclined to cut Miles much slack on this, since it was his cunning idea to take Bothari off his leash in the first place. To quote Walter Mosley’s character Mouse: 

You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked … look, Easy — if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?