Miles Vorkosigan has a mixed bag. On one hand, he’s the Barrayaran heir to a title. He has parents who care about him and have given him a first-class education. When he travels off-world to Beta Colony, he gets sweet diplomatic immunity and a tough bodyguard. Then again, the bodyguard is there in case someone tries to kill him. That’s the other hand. Exposure to a toxin in the womb has left Miles with weakened, underdeveloped bones that are prone to breaking. His diminutive stature doesn’t work in his favour on Barrayar, where people are rather reactionary about that sort of thing. It also washes him out of getting into the military academy, leaving Miles to consider how else he should spend the rest of his life.
The actual plot behind The Warrior’s Apprentice sneaks up on you. At first his trip to Beta Colony seems like a diversion, something to help establish character and setting before we proceed to the real task of finding out what Miles will do in lieu of becoming an officer. It’s not until you’re neck-deep in Miles’ increasingly complex scheme to pose as a merchant/smuggler/mercenary that you realize this is the novel, and it’s wonderful.
Lois McMaster Bujold is great at fusing elements from different cultures and time periods to create unique yet familiar societies. One of the difficulties in writing other cultures is the “uncanny valley” problem. Different cultures have different traditions, yes, but some human behaviour recurs across cultures. Most societies have swindlers and schemers, heroes and helpers, people who know how to make money, and people who are excessively indolent, motivated, knowledgeable, or creative. It takes a good deal of thoughtfulness and effort to portray such variations within the parameters one creates, or adopts, from one’s synthetic or existing cultural template.
Bujold does this multiple times, from Barrayar to Beta Colony to Tau Ceti and beyond. She juxtaposes the reactionary culture of Barrayar with the progressive, collectivist tendencies of Beta Colony. Miles, of course, being a literal mixing of these two cultures, is an interesting test bed for their confluence: he is a Barrayaran noble, but he has some very Betan ideas about how people (especially women) might be allowed to behave.
I suppose we could call The Warrior’s Apprentice a bildungsroman. I don’t know if that’s the most interesting way to look at it. Miles is definitely the central character and protagonist, but he’s just so bemused by everything that happens. He dives into something that looks like it will be a minor diversion, only for it to develop into an interstellar incident that results in charges of treason…. This is amusing, and it’s worth noting how Miles grows. (Some things about him never change though—he retains that habit of small acts that are supposed to be diversions coming back to bite him.)
Still, Miles is only as good as the people who work with him. And that’s where the most enjoyment with this book lies: the supporting cast. From the terse Sergeant Bothari to his daughter, Elena, and all the people they meet on this adventure, the supporting characters react to Miles’ larger-than-life wit and confidence with a charming mixture of compliance and incredulity. Miles displays a talent for leadership that will serve him well. But he also shows how much he relies on other people. Without Jesek’s technical skill or Mayhew’s piloting prowess or Elena’s fierce commitment and perseverance, Miles would not succeed. So while it’s true that Miles Vorkosigan is himself and interesting and appealing character, it’s really the community he creates around himself that is the star of The Warrior’s Apprentice.
Despite Miles admittedly interfering in another society’s civil war, this book doesn’t have quite the same far-reaching scope as Barrayar or Shards of Honour does. If that’s the criteria you’re using, you might well rank this book among the “lesser” books of the Vorkosigan saga. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. That’s sometimes what happens with skilled authors of series this sprawling. I’m discovering that when it comes to Bujold, even a lesser book results in an afternoon or two well spent.