Saturday, 11 February 2012

Review | The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

...And what a selection of covers this book has. Many looking remarkably like the result of Cthulhu taking up fingerpainting. But we'll leave that aside, as the old adage tells us to - and because The Warrior's Apprentice is the first novel of the Vorkosigan series' main sequence. In my stint as reviewer, I've covered a few of the Vorkosigan novels - space opera in a profoundly character driven vein - including the remarkable Memory, but never the series' first Miles novel. This, then, is the sovereign remedy for that particular omission!

I've described the Vorkosigan novels as space operas, but that isn't wholly descriptive - or accurate. Fans shouldn't expect the normal tropes, critics shouldn't expect the general complaints. The Vorkosigan books are shoehorned into space opera because it is soft science fiction, and has the right trappings: it's driven by the characters, not the science, and has some of the best figures in SF. Looking solely at The Warrior's Apprentice, you might forget that: there's more than a few space battles, mercenary double crosses, and a decent dose of -well - action.

The novel begins where its protagonist's plans end: a young Miles Vorkosigan fails to enter a military academy, his dream. The son of a great man, he has all the ensuing problems. And then some. Physically deformed on Barrayar, a planet where all mutation is despised, Miles' bones are weak - extremely weak. Which (as you can imagine) proves somewhat of a problem! Now, at this point you're probably guessing that Miles gets a chance. Of course he does - because if he didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story... Miles sees said chance on Beta Colony, when a pilot barricades himself on a ship about to be sold for scrap. He manages to secure the ship (with some artfully-mortagaged  radioactive land) and sets off on what promises to be an easy trade, paying off his new debt.

It isn't. Before long, Miles, Elena, and the all-too mysterious Sergeant Bothari are involved in a mercenary war - and on top of a mixture of lies, deceptions and sheer bravado that feels (to Miles) awfully like quicksand. Which, of course, is brilliant fun.

While the plot is interesting and - occasionally - thoughtful, at its heart, it's just an arena for Miles - the main focus of the novel. I've mentioned it was character driven, and Miles is definitely a driving character: manic-depressive, likeable, and somewhat of a genius, the reactions he inspires in others are likewise hilarious. (Arde's response when Elena is unable to tell the difference between Miles-normal and Miles-on-stimulants). Miles keeps on going, keeps on digging himself in deeper ('forward momentum'), and comes out with plans you'll never anticipate. And the best part of it is that they're human responses - not future pseudoscience. Not to say that's necessarily a bad thing, but when a cunning plan is in action? You want to see it.

It's not all fun and games, however. There are tragedies here too: The Warrior's Apprentice is enjoyable, profoundly character driven space opera with serious touches. Miles is one of the best characters in SF, and this is the beginning of his rise to prominence. It's easy to see why. If you're looking for a short, driven read - or simply an antidote to stereotypical protagonists - The Warrior's Apprentice comes fully recommended.

You can find it here: UK US