The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior’s Apprentice is technically the second book of the critically-acclaimed Vorkosigan Saga but can work as a good entry point for the space opera series. Here is a reading guide from Bujold.

Miles Vorkosigan comes from an illustrious military family in feudal Barrayar, but he’s born with physical limitations and doesn’t manage to make it into the Imperial Military Service. He tries to recover from this failure by spending time on his mother’s homeland, Beta colony, and somehow manages to hatch an over-the-top plan involving a freighter and a cargo to be shipped into a dangerous war zone, as well as a new identity for himself, “Admiral Naismith”, leader of the non-existent Dendarii Mercenaries.

If there ever was a perfect book to illustrate what “character-driven” means, it’s this one. The plot is basically Miles trying to stop the improbable, shaky house of cards he built from crashing down. Therefore, the story is not exactly action-packed; its central elements are strategy and creative problem-solving from the main character. The setting, a traditional space opera background, throws enough challenges at Miles for him to deploy his intellectual resources.

Miles is a fascinating character. His pain and disabilities gave him this cynical, self-deprecating type of humour. He clearly has strategic acumen but you can feel that it has not matured yet, and it’s more to the level of playing with different layers of bullshit than some kind of elaborate long-term plan. His motivations to do what he does are understandable and relatable: gaining the respect of his legendary father, being loved back by his childhood friend, proving himself to the world…Bujold does a wonderful job at making his ambition clear with a subtle and masterful touch.

The casting of characters also includes Miles’ family, notably his parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. One of my favourite aspects of the story was to see the love and support system they both provided for their son. There are also undercurrents of pain and guilt that create a complex and touching relationship. Miles is also helped by Konstantin Bothari, his mysterious and dour bodyguard and his daughter, Elena Bothari, whom he’s in love with.

The prose is smooth and witty; it’s a treat to dive into this story and get carried by Bujold’s impeccable writing. I knew her work in fantasy and was pleased to discover her anew in a different genre, with different codes, but with the same talented quill.

I would recommend The Warrior’s Apprentice if you like space operas, characters-driven stories, and/or cunning main characters. The book stands well on its own, there are a few open plot lines that justify sequels but it can be read as a standalone.

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