Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior’s Apprentice is part of Lois McMaster Bujold’s extensive sci-fi series, “The Vorkosigan Saga”. Confusingly, it was the first novel published in the series, but is the third by the internal chronology. On the other hand, it’s full of wry wit, some wonderful emotional moments, and even the odd space battle, so I’m not complaining overmuch.

The main focus of the text – and indeed the majority of the series – is Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is the survivor of an attack made in the womb, a man whose bones are, if not glass, certainly friable, and leave him all of five foot tall. He makes up for it, in those first few pages, with an effervescence and a raw mental energy which seems to pour off the page. Miles is aware of what he perceives as his deficiencies – perhaps too aware of them, concerned with how he is perceived externally and a little insecure. This makes sense for a teenager caught in a society which is deeply suspicious of physical difference, of course – and Bujold weaves Miles’ search for external validation cunningly into the overarching narrative. That he comes from the social aristocracy, a space where military service is, if not a requirement, then a strong expectation, serves to accentuate this need, and also provides a socially acceptable means to attain it.

Miles has a wry, sardonic internal voice. There are tinges of bitterness there, as one might expect, and some emotional blind spots, deserved or otherwise. He seems to live in worship of his father, a famous military tactician and advisor to the Emperor (last seen living his own story in one of Bujold’s other works in the saga; the multigenerational nature of the story being told lets the reader pick up a lot of quiet background, if they’ve done the prior reading). But at his core, he’s a dervish of planning, of enthusiasm, with a coolly analytical focus, which is matched only by a sharp humour – the latter often needed as a break between moments of high tension and more gentle exposition.

Miles serves Barrayar, a planetary system gradually coming out of a period of accidental isolation (and a follow up military occupation) and being exposed to the wider galactic community. This lets Bujold play with some tropes – the Barrayarans are fish out of water, of sorts – and let loose some fascinating sociology. A world which had fallen back to the level of technology epitomised by the cavalry charge now has access to heavy duty armaments and galactic medicine. In other words, this is a breakthrough society, one which has unusual social pressures – such as a dislike of mutations, a highly formal military caste, with an active need of duty, and sense of non-egalitarian social class – wrapped in a high tech wrapper, butting heads with societies with rather different points of view.
Bujold takes us along for the ride with a military fleet, and though I’m no expert, she manages to provide the feel of the institution rather effectively. It’s not explicit, but the sense of need for uniformity, for control, and for a sense of place wafts through the prose, alongside notions of duty and a rather determined effort to get paid.

On that note, the plot is cracking stuff. Miles manages to get up to his eyeballs in trouble, mostly accidentally, and usually as a consequence of solving whatever his previous problem was. The rising tension and pressure as he works out exactly how deep into trouble he is is artfully done – each time the stakes are raised feels like a natural progression, and the final crescendo is deeply satisfying. There’s some nice scenes of space combat as well, perhaps a little abstracted – but Bujold makes up for this with the personal moments, with Miles worrying over his decisions, with the understanding of the suffering of casualties, and if not of their necessity, of their inevitability.

This is a complex character piece, in a believable and intriguing sci-fi world, with an energetic plot which is both rather clever and compulsive reading. Definitely one to pick up. 

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