Welcome back to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. Today we move into the first chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first novel to feature Miles Vorkosigan as the viewpoint character, but far from the last. The Warrior’s Apprentice was also the first one I read, though for some reason it took me years to get around to reading any of the others. Ah, well, eventually I came to my senses, or my tastes matured, or something.
While Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is and was an admirable character, by the end of Barrayar she was passing the torch to her son. That’s because, as we all know, once one becomes a parent one’s life is over, and one never does anything interesting ever again, because one must spend the rest of one’s life after that catering to the needs of one’s offspring, until they are ready to fly the coop and become independent, never looking back. Or maybe that’s just me.
Miles Vorkosigan waits with a group of other young men, clad in shorts and shoes, as a non-commissioned officer gives them instructions about the race they are about to take part in, the physical part of the candidacy exams for the Barrayaran Military. The course consists of an obstacle course followed by a race, and they will run in pairs. The candidates have already gone through the written and oral exams, and most of them seem to be looking forward to the easy physical part, but Miles, less than five feet tall with a crooked spine and brittle bones, is not as eager.
The noncom summons Miles up as “Kosigan”, stripping off the “Vor” as a sign of social equality, to run beside another recruit, Kostolitz. Kostolitz looks at him curiously, asking about the metal brace Miles wears on his left leg, which Miles says is just to help keep him from breaking the bones before they’re finished growing, at which point they’ll be replaced with synthetics. Miles briefly explains his medical problems to Kostolitz, telling him that the minimum height rule was waived in this case pending his test results.
Kostolitz’s curiosity temporarily appeased, Miles assesses the obstacle course, noting the high wall that is the first obstacle, which he may have to avoid, though he may gain ground crawling under the laser fire. He doesn’t expect to do well on the shorter races, but on the endurance events his heightened pain tolerance should make up the difference. Kostolitz asks if he expects to pass the physicals, and Miles says that he petitioned to have his written and physical scores averaged, so that overall he passes, since he’s extremely confident about his performance on the written exams.
As they are called up to race, Kostolitz grumbles that he won’t know how to pace himself properly with Miles for a partner. Bothari is watching from the starting line. There is an argument going on between the noncom, the testing officers, and the proctors, the upshot of which is that the noncom comes over to tell Miles to take off his leg brace. Miles considers protesting, but decides his obedience is also being tested, so he complies, asking only to give it to Bothari. Miles takes off his brace and gives it to Bothari, grateful at least for the absence of its weight. They exchange a quick set of coded glances, Bothari urging caution on the obstacle course. Kostolitz, seeing Bothari’s livery, figures out who Miles is.
“So, that’s who you are,” he said, with a jealous awe. “No wonder you got a deal on the tests.”
Miles smiled tightly at the implied insult. The tension crawled up his back. He groped for some suitably scathing retort, but they were being motioned to the starting mark.
Kostolitz’s deductive faculty crunched on, it seemed, for he added sardonically, “And so that’s why the Lord Regent never made the bid for the Imperium!”
The proctor starts them off at that moment, Miles following after Kostolitz, seething at the implication. He overtakes Kostolitz on the way up the wall, and at the top ponders whether to climb down or jump. Kostolitz taunts him about being scared of heights and jumps himself. Miles ends up jumping, and knows it for a mistake while he’s falling; sure enough, he breaks both legs upon landing. Furious with himself, Miles waits for Bothari to come for him.
Miles returns to Vorkosigan House the next day after discharge from the hospital using “anti-gravity crutches” that are hidden inside his clothing, though Miles would have preferred something more like Captain Koudelka’s sword-stick. Bothari picks up a coin off the sidewalk, and Miles needles him about his determination to save up for his daughter Elena’s dowry.
“You’ve been pinching tenth-marks for Elena as long as I can remember. Dowries went out with the horse cavalry, for God’s sake. Even the Vor marry without them these days. This isn’t the Time of Isolation.” Miles made his mockery gentle in tone, carefully fitted to Bothari’s obsession. Bothari, after all, had always treated Miles’s ridiculous craze seriously.
“I mean her to have everything right and proper.”
“You ought to have enough saved up to buy Gregor Vorbarra by now,” said Miles, thinking of the hundreds of small economies his bodyguard had practiced before him, over the years, for the sake of his daughter’s dowry.
“Shouldn’t joke about the Emperor.” Bothari depressed this random stab at humor firmly, as it deserved. Miles sighed and began to work his way cautiously up the steps, legs stiff in their plastic immobilizers.
Miles is tired, having spent most of the night staying up talking to the surgeon who was reassembling his shattered leg bones under local anaesthesia. He’s been keeping up a good front, but is longing to be able to let it slide for a little while. The first relative he sees inside the house is his mother, Lady Cordelia, who gives him an unjudgemental hug. She says she hasn’t told Count Piotr yet, leaving that to Miles at his request. Bothari recommends Miles take the lift tube instead of stairs, and Miles accedes with bad grace. Cordelia warns him to take the Count on his own terms, crotchety as he is.
They meet up with Elena Bothari herself coming out of the Count’s rooms.
For the thousandth time Miles wondered how such an ugly man could have produced such a beautiful daughter. Every one of his features was echoed in her face, but richly transmuted. At eighteen she was tall, like her father, fully six feet to his six-and-a-half; but while he was whipcord lean and tense, she was slim and vibrant. His nose a beak, hers an elegant aquiline profile; his face too narrow, hers with the air of some perfectly-bred aristocratic sight-hound, a borzoi or a greyhound. Perhaps it was the eyes that made the difference; hers were dark and lustrous, alert, but without his constantly shifting, unsmiling watchfulness. Or the hair; his greying, clipped in his habitual military burr, hers long, dark, straight-shining. A gargoyle and a saint, by the same sculptor, facing each other across some ancient cathedral portal.
Miles hopes to himself that Bothari doesn’t settle Elena’s dowry too soon. Elena says that it’s been awful with the Count, pretending not to know, acting as if everything’s normal, seeing the Count’s hopes for his grandson so high. She is relieved when Miles says she can go, and he enters the room with some trepidation.
Every time I read this chapter I keep telling Miles, Don’t jump, don’t jump, don’t jump, and dammit if he doesn’t jump every time anyway, just to spite me. I suppose it’s a sign that Miles isn’t as perfect and self-controlled as he’d like to be. Kostolitz was, of course, probably hoping to provoke something like that, to throw his competitor off his stride, if not necessarily disqualify him. At least he gets put in his place later. But it is really a bit depressing, and life-changing, which is always a sign that your life is being written by Lois McMaster Bujold. Most of the events of this book hinge on Miles’s failure to qualify for the Barrayaran military, so it’s kind of inevitable, but just once I’d like to see him succeed.
Seeing the name “Kosigan” always makes me think of the Soviet Premier Kosygin, so I suppose the Vorkosigans are kind of Slavic in heritage. It’s disorienting, though, to see the name like that. As Bujold points out, it’s meant to be more egalitarian, but considering that the Vor competitors still have their liveried men watching over the race, it may be only superficial. An open secret, not too hard to prize out. Perhaps in the actual training, if the liveried men aren’t there, things get to be more equal, but I suspect it’s still a slow process.
Count Piotr invites Miles to sit down, and wonders aloud if he’s become confused about the day. Miles sits, and lets Bothari put his broken legs on a stool; Piotr notices them and asks what Miles did. Miles tells him, succinctly. After a silence, Count Piotr says that it’s all because of Aral and Cordelia and their “creeping democratism”, daring to make a Vor lord’s son have to “qualify” for the military. Miles waits for the Count to argue himself around, which he does, ruminating on shopkeeper’s sons who became great soldiers. The Count asks if the test was fairly administered, grasping at straws, but Miles says it was all fair, that the fault was his own.
The old man twisted his lips in sour negation. His hand closed angrily, and opened hopelessly. “In the old days no one would have dared question your right . . .”
“In the old days the cost of my incompetence would have been paid in other men’s lives. This is more efficient, I believe.” Miles’s voice was flat.
“Well . . .” The old man stared unseeingly out the window. “Well—times change. Barrayar has changed. It underwent a world of change between the time I was ten and the time I was twenty. And another between the time I was twenty and forty. Nothing was the same . . . And another between the time I was forty and eighty. This weak, degenerate generation—even their sins are watered down. The old pirates of my father’s day could have eaten them all for breakfast and digested their bones before lunch . . . Do you know, I shall be the first Count Vorkosigan to die in bed in nine generations?” He paused, gaze still fixed, and whispered half to himself, “God, I’ve grown weary of change. The very thought of enduring another new world dismays me. Dismays me.”
Piotr excuses Miles’s failure, saying that the soltoxin attack wasn’t his fault, that he’s certainly tried his best. In discomfort, Miles takes his leave; his grandfather asks him his plans, and he says he’ll just be a “town clown” and epicure. The Count approves absently, though normally he hates “drones” of the nobility.
Miles sat hunched in a battered armchair in a small private parlor overlooking the street side of the great old mansion, feet up, eyes closed. It was a seldom used room; there was a good chance of being left alone to brood in peace. He had never come to a more complete halt, a drained blankness numb even to pain. So much passion expended for nothing—a lifetime of nothing stretching endlessly into the future—because of a split second’s stupid, angry self-consciousness. . . .
Elena clears her throat from behind him, and Miles rouses himself, making an effort not to bring her down. She asks how it went with the Count, and Miles says that he can get away with a lot as the only grandson. Elena mentions that the Count had been considering allowing Miles his patronymic, whatever that meant, and Miles tells the story about how the Count had refused his name for Miles when they found out about the fetal damage. Elena says she’s sorry he washed out, and Miles tells her that he wishes she could have taken his physicals. Elena says that as a woman she couldn’t even take the tests, not like on Beta, where Cordelia had been a Captain. But her father is such a conservative that she’ll probably never even get the chance to go off-planet. Elena tells Miles that he’s started talking about arranging her marriage. She wonders why Bothari never talks about her mother, like he used to.
They head down for lunch; at the top of the stairs, Miles climbs onto the railing and begins to slide down, to Elena’s dismay. She chases him down the stairs, and at the bottom he tumbles off into the frantic grip of his father, Aral Vorkosigan, who has just arrived with Koudelka. Aral asks Koudelka to look into some budget figures of Admiral Hessman, wondering what he’s trying to hide in them, as they follow Miles in for lunch.
Later that night, Miles sits propped up in bed, unable to muster the energy to change into nightclothes, pondering how he seems to have set off Bothari thinking about Elena’s marriage. He wishes he could be the husband, but he fits the role of the clichéd deformed villain in Barrayaran drama better. He considers asking for his father to ask as go-between for Bothari, but at seventeen he’s too young to marry anyway, and he has few prospects for the income to support his wife. And he’s not sure he wishes that for Elena anyway–bound to a deformed dwarf, with nothing more but a increasingly meaningless title to his name. Not that his situation would be any better off of Barrayar, where the Vor are roundly ignored.
Aral knocks and Miles allows him in. Aral sits down and asks Miles what is plans are now; Miles says that he never bothered to make any other plans. Aral offers to tell Miles what his written scores were, against all tradition, but Miles declines, not wanting to know. Aral says that they’d never have let him try if they didn’t think he had a chance of success. He says that at least Miles’s mother won’t be disappointed, never being a fan of a Barrayaran military and its “hired killers”. Aral had wondered if Miles had it in him to kill like that.
“To kill a man, it helps if you can first take away his face. A neat mental trick. Handy for a soldier. I’m not sure you have the narrowness of vision required. You can’t help seeing all around. You’re like your mother, you always have that clear view of the back of your own head.”
Aral had lost that narrowness himself, which is why he went into politics, and was part of the blame for Miles’s condition. Miles ventures to ask if that was why he didn’t try for the Imperium; Aral grows angry and asks who has been saying that. Aral says that he swore an oath to Ezar Vorbarra, he carried it through, and that’s the end of it; then he apologizes to Miles for having hit his hot button.
“Surely Gregor can’t suspect you of ambition. You’ve done more for him than anyone, right through Vordarian’s Pretendership, the Third Cetagandan War, the Komarr Revolt—he wouldn’t even be here today—”
Lord Vorkosigan grimaced. “Gregor is in a rather tender state of mind at the moment. Just come to full power—and by my oath, it is real power—and itching, after sixteen years of being governed by what he refers to privately as ‘the old geezers,’ to try its limits. I have no wish to set myself up as a target.”
Returning to the original topic, Aral says that he could ask Emperor Gregor to admit him to the military by Imperial fiat; Miles says that he couldn’t bear to do that after failing the tests, it would smack of political favoritism. Aral suggests he looks into the other side of Counthood, the political side, perhaps law…over Miles’s protests, he says that he could deputize for the Count in the district with a little training. Miles asks his father if he’s worried about his health, which Aral denies, but Miles wonders if there’s something to the Gregor situation which he’s not mentioning.
After his father leaves, Miles takes a couple of painkillers to help him sleep, briefly considering taking the whole bottle, but deciding that it’s better to keep fighting.
Somewhat of a depressing chapter, consisting mostly of Miles trying to pick up the shattered pieces of his life (only seventeen year old, eh?–I guess there’s a lot of teen angst going on here, however little Miles tends to seem like a teenager otherwise). The rest is dedicated to introducing, or reintroducing, various plot elements and characters. I’m sure that the things that Aral talks about–Admiral Hessman’s budget, the suspicions about Aral wanting the Imperium, and Gregor’s attempt to assert his independence–come back into things toward the end of the book.
The Elena situation is more central to the book, with Miles’s conflicting emotions, Bothari’s protectiveness, and Elena’s need for a less straitened existence than she can look forward to on Barrayar. Still, the book’s plot seems to have barely started yet. In general, throughout the series, my favourite sequences are those set on Barrayar, but I guess I’d have to leave out the beginning of The Warrior’s Apprentice–I’m thinking more about the scenes from Mirror Dance, Memory, and of course A Civil Campaign. At this point, a lot of it looks just like random tossing out of names and information, especially since it takes a long time before anything comes of it.
Also, the Elena conversation in Chapter Two has Miles asking Elena if she’s just come up from Vorkosigan Surleau…but he already saw her in the previous chapter. If this an authorial goof, or was this just Miles making conversation, asking about something that he wondered about before but didn’t have time to ask? Yet he didn’t even think about it in Chapter One…I had the impression from that scene that Elena lived in Vorkosigan House and was a regular attendant on Count Piotr. Not as tight as Bujold’s later books, perhaps.
I remember Vordarian’s Pretendership well enough, of course, but the Third Cetagandan War? The Komarr Revolt? I don’t know if I recall those. Obviously the one where Aral got the “Butcher of Komarr” sobriquet is before Gregor’s birth, so this must be a later one. Is it, perhaps, Ser Galen’s revolt? If so, we’ll find out more about it in Brothers In Arms. Perhaps the Third Cetagandan War is mentioned somewhere else, too–Ethan of Athos, or Cetaganda, or The Vor Game, I’m not sure.
A bit slow-starting, but I suppose I should remember that this was the world’s first introduction to the character of Miles Vorkosigan, and that he wasn’t yet quite as fully formed as he would be later. It’ll pick up soon enough, though, and in general Miles is a more engaging character than Cordelia, so he does help carry the story along, as long as he’s not too morose…
Next installment in another week, if all goes well. Looks like 22 chapters in this book, so ten more weeks to go. Just in time for Christmas, perhaps? I’m skipping NaNoWriMo this year, so no fear that that will slow me down, at least.