The warrior’s apprentice

The warrior’s apprentice / Lois McMaster Bujold. Originally published 1986.

The warrior’s apprentice is the second Vorkosigan book to be published, and is the first to star Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, hero of the majority of the series. Published shortly after Shards of honor, The warrior’s apprentice actually takes place about 17 years after the conclusion of Barrayar.

Brief plot description

(Possible indirect spoilers for Shards of Honor and Barrayar)

The warrior’s apprentice features Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, physically disabled but brilliant son of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. After his physical handicaps prevent him from the military career he had always dreamed of, Miles travels to his mother’s homeworld of Beta Colony in an attempt to figure out what to do with his life.

So how is it?

I think it’s wonderful, but then again as a short obnoxious weakling I may be a little biased. Bujold does a great job of writing characters with severe limitations. Miles in particiular is an interesting character for his constant attempts to deny his disabilities through sheer willpower.

One interesting thematic element is the return of Sergeant Bothari, this time as Miles’s bodyguard. Readers of Shards of honor and Barrayar will be well aware of Bothari’s history and mental health, but Miles is ignorant of the depth of his bodyguard’s disability, seeing him as stiff, formal, and strange. The relationship between Miles, Bothari, and Bothari’s daughter Elena forms the crux of the work. Miles’s attempts to understand Bothari’s past and to help Elena find out about her mother are the driving factors of every major plot point. It really helps to ground a novel with a plot that becomes increasingly rediculous with each passing chapter.

Yes, the plot of The warrior’s apprentice is totally ridiculous, and if you take a moment to think about it, strains the willing suspension of disbelief. The last two thirds of the book rest entirely on a decision Miles makes with no real justification. His mental state at the time serves as some justification, but if you stop and think about it the whole impetus for the plot seems quite weak. Still, I didn’t notice this the first or even the second time I read this book. This is an issue that resurfaces in the next book in the series, The Vor game, but it doesn’t really distract from what is essentially a light adventure story with overtones of adolescent wish-fulfillment.

Bujold isn’t afraid to write characters who make mistakes. The fact that the major tragedy in the book is a direct result of Miles’s actions demonstrates that, even though there will always be a mostly happy ending, that doesn’t mean that the heroes made the right decisions and don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions. The much later book Memory deals with these issues more directly.

Bujold treats religion in a significantly more convincing manner than most science fiction authors who approach the subject. Cordelia is unapologetically religious in a society that largely isn’t. Barrayaran society seems religious to the extent that there is a great emphasis on ritual propriety, including burnt offerings to the dead, but there’s little sense of the supernatural. While Cordelia’s Christianity is considered somewhat eccentric, her faith is a major factor in Bothari’s character development towards the end of Shards of honor. (Note: to avoid giving away a major plot twist in The warrior’s apprentice, the rest of this analysis has been moved to the end of the post.)

When boiled down to its essential emotional glue, The warrior’s apprentice is a book about a young man learning that actions have consequences and learning how to accept responsibility for those consequences. That’s one of the things I love about this series: when characters make poor decisions, they are never excused from culpability for the consequences of their decisions. If Miles decides to do something that results in lots of innocent deaths, he is never forgiven simply because he’s the hero. This isn’t Ender’s game, where the main character’s crimes are forgiven because he saved the world.

As one last point, the title really has no bearing on the content of the book in any way. I know it’s intended as a reference to The sorcerer’s apprentice, and there are definitely similar thematic elements, but the title gives me a kind of Dorsai or Barsoom feel which is totally alien to the tone of the Vorkosigan saga.

Strengths:

Genuinely funny

Plot moves along fairly quickly from setpiece to setpiece and never gets bogged down, even when the characters are despondent, trapped, or otherwise boring situation

Retains a strong emotional and thematic core despite the sillyness and bombast of the plot

Weaknesses:

Fans of Cordelia are likely to be disappointed, as she is relegated to a relatively minor role in this one

The “big” plot elements all hinge on one improbable decision

Sometimes Miles’s successes seem a little too easy

Miles is obnoxious, which could annoy some readers

Recommendation:

This is one of three really good starting points in this series (The others being Shards of honor and Komarr). In theory, all of the books set before Memory are self-contained enough that they could be read in any order. Still, these three books are good entrypoints for people interested in reading them as a series. Shards of honor is good for voracious readers who want everything. It’s also the best place to start for people who are not super enthused by military science fiction. The warrior’s apprentice is a good starting point for younger readers who aren’t interested in the family and pregnancy themes of the first two books. It’s also the best starting point for adolescent dude-bros who don’t want to read a book with a female main character.

For more specific examples of how I’ve recommended this, see my other posts on this series. I rarely recommend one of the books individually, and unless I do I’ll be eliminating that portion of the review.

As an aside: I have no idea how the Kindle editions of the series are numbered. It’s not in the original publication order, and it’s not in internal chronological order. I’m guessing it’s the order of publication as Kindle editions, but reading them in that order will result in some really bizarre reading experience.

The continuation of the religious paragraph, above

(Major spoilers for Shards of honor AND The warrior’s apprentice follow and continue through the bottom of this page)

The thread that thematically binds Shards of honor and The warrior’s apprentice is Cordelia’s line, repeated by Bothari, “blood washes away sin”. It’s perhaps a too-obvious reference to the death of Jesus, but it’s an interesting contrast with the context. The phrase first occurs after Bothari, torn by internal conflict, brutally murders his commanding officer. Cordelia then tells the clearly increasingly unstable blood-soaked Bothari that “blood washes away sin”. Bothari clings to the idea, as it enables him to attempt to make some sort of penance for his past atrocities.

(Content note: the next paragraph deals with sexual violence)

In The warrior’s apprentice, Bothari is confronted with the the woman who, in his mind, was his loving companion and the mother of his child. As readers of Shards of honor already know, Bothari’s vision of a loving relationship was a delusion, and their daughter was actually the product of rape and torture. When Miles arranges for Elena the mother to meet Elena the daughter hoping for a joyous mother-daughter reunion, the memories are too difficult for Elena sr. to confront and she actively rejects any relationship with Elena jr.

Convinced that Miles is unaware of Bothari’s psycopathy, Elena (the mother) murders Bothari. Miles refuses to prosecute her for the death of Bothari as he finally realizes that her allegations are true and that Bothari’s strange behavior was a result of his illness. Bothari too seems to come to terms with what actually happened, and makes no effort to defend himself. In this context, “blood washes away sin” again addresses Bothari’s attempts to atone for his crimes. The Christian concept of the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for the sins of humanity is rendered on a smaller scale, where Bothari sacrifices himself to atone for his own sins. I’m sure the comparison will strike some as heretical, but the way the whole thing is handled is very touching and it fits thematically with the novel’s overriding theme of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

 

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