Baen, 1986 (1988 reprint), 315 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65587-6
In almost four years of steady book reviewing, I have somehow managed to avoid talking about Lois McMaster Bujold’s work. This oversight is inexplicable given that I’ve never read anything by Bujold that I haven’t liked. I’ve even had the chance to meet her in 1997, at Montreal’s Con*Cept SF convention (I unknowingly transgressed normal con-going etiquette by asking her to autograph a book while she was browsing the art show. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to sign my paperback copy of Mirror Dance with a smile.) So, allow me to use this review of The Warrior’s Apprentice as a general rave about her work.
Lois McMaster Bujold is not exactly at the cutting edge of science-fiction. Her books contain few original ideas, her future is comfortably extrapolated according to the old-style rules (no pervasive nanotech, no real infotech impact, etc…) and -if you want to get downright nasty- many of her stories could comfortably be told in fantasy, romance or contemporary settings.
But that is belittling Bujold’s considerable skills. What she lacks in terms of innovation, she compensate by creating some of the most realistic and sympathetic characters in the genre. Her writing is simple, yet elegant and powerful. Her plotting is meticulously paced to keep the reader racing forward. While her worldview is characteristically positive (the good guys invariably win), she doesn’t hold back on the punishment her heroes have to endure in order to triumph.
Most of her stories are set in one single universe and feature the same set of characters. This provides her with the opportunity to build one comprehensive universe, and to move her characters across arcs that would be impossible to complete in one single novel. Contrarily to other multi-book universes, hers holds together amazingly well, and seems more logical than most.
The Warrior’s Apprentice is, from real-world chronology, the first book to star Miles Vorkosigan, the tortured hero of most of her cycle. Published in 1986, it was her second novel, but it remains as good as her latter efforts. Ultra-intelligent Miles is introduced and brilliantly wins both his battles and the reader’s undying sympathy. After all, who else can fail his military academy exams and yet manage to build up a mercenary fleet?
Despite a few slight flaws here and there (it needed a bit more clarity in some spots, and maybe some fleshing out of the mercenaries), it’s very hard to dislike this novel. Not only is it compulsively readable, but the characters are all-around winners. Miles Vorkosigan’s superior tactical skills could be insufferable if they weren’t balanced by some wickedly funny self-depreciating internal monologue: A typical SF superhero with an atypical lack of pretentiousness. The other characters are well-handled and also made suitably sympathetic. Bujold not only writes good stories, but also has the knack of building up to great scenes. The Warrior’s Apprentice mixes coming-of-age episodes with space battles and one final great courtroom scene in a whole that’s just satisfying.
After that, it’s no wonder to see Bujold regularly nominated for the fan-selected Hugo awards, and to read some rabidly devoted comments by Usenet fans. She deserves all of it. Though maybe not imaginative enough to be an essential part of the SF panorama, the works of Lois McMaster Bujold are nevertheless worth some attention. And you could do worse but to try The Warrior’s Apprentice as an introduction.