Sep 1, 2010

Young Miles - Lois McMaster Bujold

I had the sudden urge to revisit a childhood hero of mine, namely Lois McMaster Bujold's hyperactive not-a-mutant Miles Vorkosigan. The Vorkosigan Saga is one of my favorite space operas, and I hadn't read it in English before, so it was a good enough reason to pick up the omnibus editions. Although I love Shards of Honor and Barrayar, I wanted to go into the story of Miles himself, so I left the Cordelia's Honor omnibus for later.

Young Miles collects the first two (both in writing and internal chronological order) novels dedicated to Bujold's most famous character -The Warrior's Apprentice and the Hugo award winning The Vor Games - as well as the short story The Mountains of Mourning, previously collected in The Borders of Infinity. Those cover Miles' first adventures in his teen years.

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of Aral Vorkosigan - regent of the young emperor of the planet Barrayar. Having been isolated for two centuries from the other human worlds in the galaxy, Barrayar is considered a backward place, but its military might has turned it into an empire spanning three worlds in less than two generations. However, prejudices and savagery still run deep in Barrayaran culture, and Miles has it tougher than most. For, despite being a noble, he has been born deformed, and with brittle bones - the result of an attack on his parents' lives during the civil war following the old emperor's death. From early age he has been looked down on by the people who don't know him, as they mistakenly think him to be a mutant, and mutation has long been a taboo on Barrayar. He compensates for his physical deficiencies with a brilliant inquisitive mind, reckless bravery and a tongue that is way too quick for his own good.

The Warrior's Apprentice sees seventeen-year-old Miles just failing to take the physical exam that would let him be accepted into the Barrayaran Service Academy. He is then sent to his grandmother on the Beta Colony in an attempt to get his mind off the grim future that awaits him as a noble with no military training - something considered especially shameful on his home-world. But on his journey, he somehow manages to obtain a ship, a pilot, and then an entire mercenary fleet, to entangle himself into a smuggling mission, a civil war and a treacherous plan that aims to remove his father from the position he holds with Emperor Gregor Vorbara.

The complete over-the-topness of the book is readily evident, and Bujold makes no attempt to hide the deus-ex-machina and coincidence driven absurdity of her story. Miles is brilliant, overly energetic, and yet clumsy, self-deprecating and funny at the same time. The situations he gets himself into would kill anyone not protected by a writer's aegis, but somehow you never stop to think how unrealistic it all is. Because The Warrior's Apprentice is intensely, insanely fun! Bujold's style is still not what it is going to be a few books into the series, as this one is pretty early in her career, but it is smart, sassy and elegant enough that reading the novel is nothing but joy.

Of course, The Warrior's Apprentice has its flaws. Apart from a few minor stylistic slips, it is also rather chaotic story-wise. It seems like Miles' adventures follow one after the other in a completely random progression, and even though the story ties all loose ends in the finale, it still feels a bit like it lacks coherent structure. The World Acting According to Miles could also be a major problem if you can't get into the spirit of the book. But considering that the entire series is based around this concept, it just means that it is not for you, and you should stop reading it.

All in all though, The Warrior's Apprentice is a bold and funny story with an aggressively likable protagonist, clever dialogue, humor and action galore. The novel is not in any way "deep", but it is not a guilty pleasure either, and deserves respect for giving us one of the best characters in SF.


The Mountains of Mourning
takes place between the first and second book in Young Miles. It takes us back to Barrayar, where Aral sends his son - now a cadet in the Service Academy after the events of The Warrior's Apprentice - to a remote village where a baby with hare's lip has apparently been murdered. The story leads us to a more primitive part of Barrayaran society, and addresses a lot of issues about physical prejudices, which - needless to say - Miles has a very personal take on. The Mountains of Mourning is a "whodunit" piece with a surprising enough ending to be a rather good read, but the tone is a lot more somber than that of the two books surrounding it.


The Vor Games
is the real gem in this omnibus. Basically an upgrade of the same concept that powers The Warrior's Apprentice, it sees Miles fresh out of the Service Academy, and ready to take on his first assignment... which turns out to be that of a meteorological officer at the training base on a remote backwater island. Miles quickly learns that he has a problem following dumb orders, and the assignment ends with a disaster, and him being arrested for mutiny. In the end, Simon Illyan - the fear-inspiring chief of Imperial Security, and his father's life-long friend - sends him as an aide on an obscure mission to get him off-world for a time. Of course, everything that could go wrong does, coincidences happen, deus ex machina occurs, and by the end of the book Miles has become the center-piece of an interstellar conflict that threatens the very heart of the Barrayaran Empire in more than one way.

The Vor Games is a more sure-footed, way bolder read than The Warrior's Apprentice, and although it follows the same plot-structure and basic formula, it reads a lot smoother. Bujold's style has also matured, and her already elegant writing is even more polished than before. The book is still not perfect though. While the structure is a lot more coherent than in her first Miles novel, the big chunk on Kiril Island that takes up almost the entire first third seems a bit too large for the purpose it serves. The Vor Games feels almost like a dualogy of two novellas, and even though an important character from the first part plays a major role in the rest of the novel, it still feels like there is not enough connection between the two.

That said, The Vor Games is nothing short of brilliant as dashing space adventures go, and the mixture of action, intrigue, humor and romance (yes, did I mention romance?) is truly intoxicating.


It is so easy to recommend Young Miles that it's almost scary. It is the kind of book that you will instantly love or hate. Judging by my observations, the chance is at least 3:1 in favor of loving it, and it does deserve your love. The Vorkosigan Saga is a bold, intelligently written chronicle of a truly great character, as he grows from an adventurous boy into a great man, and every book in it is worth reading. So if you haven't tried it yet, by all means, do so. I seriously doubt you'll regret it.

Overall: 8/10

Next: Miles, Mystery and Mayhem

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