Saturday 12 July 2008

'The Warrior's Apprentice' and 'The Vor Game' by Lois McMaster Bujold

These are the third and fourth books (in terms of the chronological story line) in the author's Vorkosigan series, and the first to feature the principal character of the series, Miles Vorkosigan (he appeared as a young child at the end of Barrayar, the second book). The first two books were reviewed here on 1 August and 9 September 2007.

In The Warrior's Apprentice Miles is now 17 and, as a result of damage inflicted while in the womb, has a stunted and misshapen body with very brittle bones. At the start of the book, these handicaps prevent his acceptance into the Barrayan Imperial Military Service Academy, despite his brilliant mind. So he goes on what was meant to be a peaceful visit to his grandmother on the planet Beta, but which turns into an adventure involving gun running in a war zone and space battles with mercenaries, in which Miles plays a leading role and has to grow up far more quickly than he finds comfortable.

The Vor Game is set three years later, immediately after Miles has graduated from the Military Academy. He is posted to a remote base on Barrayar where he inevitably gets involved in a controversial incident, leading to his 'secondment' to Imperial Security to get him out of the way. He is despatched into space to locate the mercenary force he took control of in the previous story, with instructions to stop them from becoming involved in a tense diplomatic situation involving several widely-dispersed civilisations. Needless to say, the situation turns out to be more complex than imagined and Miles has to think on his feet and react quickly to a variety of unexpected developments.

My reactions to these stories were much the same as I expressed in my reviews of the two earlier Vorkosigan books (posted here on 1 August and 9 September 2007). Bujold focuses very much on the human angle and has the ability to get inside her character's minds in a totally convincing way. She also writes a fast-paced, exciting and ingenious adventure, with a mix of wit, tragedy and (not always happy) romance. Once I get into her books I find them very hard to put down, and they are always a very enjoyable read.

On the debit side, she lacks the "sense of wonder" which has always been a part of the appeal of SF. She does not attempt to introduce any new science-fictional ideas, alien environments, or even any aliens (so far, anyway), which makes a marked contrast with Niven's Ringworld, for instance (reviewed on this blog on 10 November 2007). Her plots could easily be transplanted to, say, Napoleonic War naval fiction with only superficial changes. Perhaps a closer comparison than Niven is with Catherine Asaro, whose Skolian Empire series (reviewed here on 19 July 2007) is also very good modern space opera. Bujold has the edge in writing style, but Asaro is more inventive, her world and its inhabitants far more of a departure from our present experience.

I remain slightly puzzled as to why Bujold has chosen to focus on science fiction, since her skills would be transferable to any other genre she chose. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, I suppose that SF does have the benefit of providing more freedom to devise scenarios without having to worry about the accuracy of a factual background. Whatever the reason, she is for me an excellent writer who happens to set her stories in an SF context, which is not quite the same thing as an excellent SF writer.


Bill Garthright said...

"I remain slightly puzzled as to why Bujold has chosen to focus on science fiction,..."

Unfortunately, she seems to be moving into the romance genre (with her latest series, "The Sharing Knife." Of course, it's a fantasy, too, but not as superb a fantasy as her earlier "The Curse of Chalion."

Why science fiction? Well, Barrayar IS a separate planet with it's own unique history. There are no aliens (just genetically-engineered humans in later books), but why must EVERY SF scenario include aliens? It's just as much science fiction to explore a galaxy where humans are the only intelligent species. And there are certain situations resulting only from future technology.

I agree with your comments, though I don't miss the "sense of wonder." But then, I'm very strongly attracted to character-based fiction. But as you know, I wasn't crazy about Catherine Asaro. More inventive, perhaps, but I just didn't buy it.

Anthony G Williams said...

Bill, I didn't mean to imply that SF HAS to include aliens - many of my favourite books do not (including my all-time No.1, Bester's 'The Stars My Destination'). I was merely pointing out that (in the books so far) she really hadn't included any SF ideas except spaceships. She has various planets, but there's nothing especially different about them.

Unknown said...

Thank you for putting into words what has for so long bothered me about Bujold's work. You've nailed it on the head. For anyone wanting to learn the craft of character development, snappy dialogue and plot movement, Bujold's the writer to emulate (possibly bar none). However if it's the big idea you're after (i.e. Niven, Heinlein et al) then keep on moving.