The Warrior’s Apprentice is the third book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Barrayar and is the first book (chronologically and in publication order) about Miles Vorkosigan, published before Barrayar was in 1986. Miles is the son of Cordelia and Aral and we join him as he tries (and fails) to gain admittance to the Imperial Military Academy and has to turn to other ideas.
Tsana: When I first read the Vorkosigan saga, this was the first book I started with. It seemed like a good place to start at the time — it introduced Miles, who everyone talked about as the main character, and it was one of the first books written and published. I didn’t read the first two Cordelia books, Shards of Honour and Barrayar, until the very end, which meant that the impact of some of the references to the past in The Warrior’s Apprentice was completely lost on me. I am very glad to be rereading the books again in this order. What were your impressions of The Warrior’s Apprentice, having picked it up for the first time?
Katharine: I honestly wonder what I would have thought of Miles for the first section of the book, without having being brought to him via his parents. From this journey I’m already protective of him because we saw the struggles his parents had… without that, I think he would have won me over when he first uses his crazy schemes to save Mayhew… but before then, I might have found him a little too… what’s the word… Fervent?
Tsana: Hah, fervent is certainly the word to describe him (and you haven’t even seen half of it yet)! But that’s understandable just from knowing about his disability and desire to prove himself in the militaristic and ableist society of Barrayar. That said, there wasn’t as much ableism in the book as there could have been. Miles spends most of it off-world where other people just think he’s a bit weird instead of making the sign of the devil against him like we see Barrayarans do. What were your impressions of this?
Katharine: I found it interesting that as soon as he drew any ire it was the first thing they went to - calling him awful things about his (lack of) height or crookedness. But overall I think the novel did a good job at introducing the reader to him - we start the novel off with him not being successful in gaining entry into the Imperial Military Academy on Barrayar because of his disability, and then for the rest of the novel we see him, more or less, in situations where it doesn’t hold him back at all.
Tsana: I remember someone somewhere (I think it might have been on Galactic Suburbia) saying that in zero-G his disabilities didn’t matter anymore. But we don’t really see that in this book. What we know about Miles’s limitations are that he has very brittle bones — he breaks both his legs in the opening scene — and that he’s short with a crooked spine. We also briefly learn that he’s allergic to some medication, but that doesn’t feature too much. While none of those things stop him doing anything other than passing the Imperial Military Academy physical exam, he’s also not put into any equalising situations, not really. Galactics (ie non-Barrayarans) might not care so much that he’s different, but he still has to prove himself in a normal fashion without any sudden advantages. The only advantage he had in his life was more time to read and study growing up due to being unable to play outside as much. The rest of his advantage is all personality and intelligence (the latter having nothing to do with his disabilities).
Katharine: And all thanks to his parents - there’s several references that show he knows what they would do or think in a situation and he seems to take their way as gospel - he uses what his mother would think in a situation to reassure Elena, for example.
Tsana: Yes, it definitely helps that his parents are good role-models. He probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly so far with his crazy schemes if not for his father’s military and political strategy rubbing off on him.
Katharine: And his mother’s ability as a warrior - he wouldn’t have got nearly as far in his schemes without being able to see women are equal from the very start - something that threw a few of his adversaries off. Should we lift the spoiler zone so we can get into the nitty gritty?
<spoilers start here>
Tsana: Let’s get spoilery!
But yes, seeing women as people certainly helped when Miles encountered female soldiers pretty much as soon as he encountered any non-Barrayaran soldiers. It didn’t stop him being a little bit weird to Elena though. But perhaps we can make allowances for the fact that he is only 17.
Katharine: Goodness, that’s so easy to forget - he did pretty dang well for 17. But okay - right from the start after coming up with an idea to get Elena off-planet he is already causing political strife on Beta Colony and adopting a stray. Thoughts?
Tsana: It’s a lot of political upheaval for a 17 year old to be causing. But it all starts not too unusually (if not innocuously) as a rich politician’s kid with diplomatic immunity trying to help someone on a whim by throwing his money and influence around. Things spiral out of control, but I think that was pretty much how it started. Maybe that’s why his grandmother didn’t stop him, even after he decided that delivering weapons to a war zone was a good idea. Actually, I’m not sure how she countenanced that. What do you think?
Katharine: I think his grandmother has given up all hope for her daughter and her family and just reckons it’s best to leave them to their own fancy/folly. She seems pretty cluey though - what with her innocent comments of what fun she and Elena will have on Beta Colony in order to play Bothari. Quite sly, really. Speaking of, though, I found Cordelia to be a little different in this novel. I don’t think she should have been in it more as then it’d be too much to fit into one novel, but she seemed almost a bit dreamy and/or restful in this one?
Tsana: I’m not sure. Remember, Barrayar was written long after this book and that book showcases her being tough as nails even more so than Shards of Honour. But also, there isn’t a civil war on either. Perhaps it’s just a case of the character developing a bit more after The Warrior’s Apprentice was written. I didn’t find her to be too out of character, but she certainly wasn’t overly present. I think it would have been more noticeable if she’d been around more — a (inadvertantly) clever choice by Bujold?
Katharine: Oh absolutely - and I’m not sure I found it out of character, just something to worry over, as if she’s sick. But I’m reading too much into it as you say, we’re reading them out of their original order (and it’s so much better this way!) So back to Miles getting by on his wits. Early in the book he gets Mayhew, and a ship, in exchange for some pretty rubbish land. What are your thoughts on this, and what do you think his parents would think?
Tsana: It’s hard to say because by the time they do find out so many other things have piled on top of that first decision/scheme. But I suspect they would have been indulgent, especially if he’d managed to do OK shipping cargo about to places that weren’t warzones. What do you think lead the people around Miles to allow him to fly into a warzone anyway?
Katharine: I don’t think any of them really understand what they’re getting themselves into. I’m sure Bothari must, but… really. Surely if I had a bodyguard their true orders would be like a mangled version of the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’, something like, you can’t stop me from doing anything until it dangers me. And this would surely count!
Tsana: As endangering Miles? I’d say! But maybe it’s because Bothari has seen so much worse in Aral’s service and during the various wars he’s been in. Speaking of Bothari, I actually completely forgot that he died in this book (I think I got him confused with another Armsman that comes along later) and I spent a while while reading trying to remember what happened to Elena too. But the big confrontation between Bothari, Elena and the Escobaran Elena was… very strange to see from Miles’s perspective, especially since our prior knowledge of the situation came from Cordelia. How did you find it?
Katharine: I was actually spoiled for his death by accident when I was setting up this document for us to work in - so annoyed with myself! But I think it’s good I did because it happened so quickly I think I would have had to read back to properly understand it. I would have kept thinking something, somehow would happen to fix everything and he’d get to explain/confess to other!Elena and… yeah, wow. I think what I love about this series is that everything doesn’t work out perfectly. We come to expect so much from books when in reality… sometimes (or most of the time?) things are just left awkwardly and drift into no resolution.
Tsana: And if you see it from Escobaran Elena’s point of view, how can there be forgiveness? Unlike us and Miles, she doesn’t have any way to see Bothari as anything other than a monster. I don’t think that relationship/interaction was in any way salvageable. But I was hoping that she might be a bit more sympathetic towards our Elena, who had quite a shock in the revealing of the past. Poor Elena. Already feeling stifled on Barrayar it’s no wonder she didn’t want to go back with Miles.
Katherine: Actually I’m surprised she didn’t just assume nothing had changed and shot the lot of them as soon as she entered the room. I don’t think I would have found it very believable if Esco!Elena had found a few moments of sympathy - there’s nothing in that for her. The kids don’t know the real story (and of what they’d heard, if I were them I would have then at some stage asked Aral and Cordelia for their side of things), and even if Esco!Elena did find out the real story there’s no justice in it for her. Regardless of Bothari not being of his own sound mind, he did get some sick joy in the crueler side of his ‘talents’. And I don’t think it was ever healthy for anyone to allow him to have some fake dream life for however long… Bothari never really had to face his demons. Esco!Elena will never get justice, she has an unwanted daughter (no matter how lovely Elena is) who will only ever be a reminder of how she was used… and… yeah, I have a lot of feelings about this one.
I do feel for our Elena - she never really felt close to Bothari and then to find out what he did… she’s always been near Miles but says he’s overwhelming (well she says it much more poetically than that) and in a juxtaposition of Miles’ parents, unlike Cordelia, Elena says no, I can’t have that life (political, etc) and turns away.
Tsana: I agree. I don't think Esco!Elena should forgive Bothari or that Bothari deserves forgiveness. The real story behind those events isn't all that mitigating; if anything, it's more horrible. Esco!Elena's disgusted reaction to Bothari having imagined they were married is spot on. Bothari is not the good guy, but we have enough insider knowledge to see how he turned out to be the good guy for Miles only.
With Miles and Elena’s relationship, I suspect part of the reason Miles is in love with her, aside from her gorgeousness, is that she’s the only girl around and one of not many agemates he grew up with. She’s also obviously a lot less threatening and annoying in her existence than Ivan is. Especially for 17 year old Miles before he has his adventures, Ivan represents everything Miles can’t have and feels that he is more deserving of.
Katharine: I do kinda love that at the end of the day Ivan and Miles work quite well together though. That was amusing. The novel almost feels like it’s wrapping up but then Miles realises what an idiot Ivan is, and the black ribbon, and ha! Bujold certainly doesn’t follow the expected ‘beat’ of a plot, and it’s such a good wakeup call to have. Like oh, more adventure awaits!
Tsana: And then even more adventure! I wanted to read the next book straight away! But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of my favourite scenes was the training exercise at the very end, after Miles is finally sent to the military academy. The examiners try very hard to “kill” Miles and his partner (but mainly Miles) and get outsmarted. It was a fun, lighthearted note to finish on, don’t you think?
Katharine: Absolutely! And it’s the same guy from the start of the book, and he’s not too proud to dismiss Miles’ casual offer of friendship at the end. Really lovely way to end, though I hope Elena shows up again at some stage… She has to, right? I love how eager she is for a fight, yet still able to think on her feet and give it a good go. I’d love to see a novel with her as the main character, actually...
Tsana: See while trying to remember what happens next, at one point I got Elena and Ellie Quinn (the one whose face got burnt off) confused… But I think they both show up later. The Dendarii Mercenaries certainly do. Otherwise, the whole solution to Miles not being tried for Treason and instead giving the Mercenaries to Gregor would have been a complete waste! But we’ll have to keep reading to find out more.
Katharine: Dun dun dun…
In May we are going to read a novella, "The Mountains of Mourning", as well as the next novel, The Vor Game. Expect to see two separate discussion posts for these.
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