I made the
mistake of re-reading Bujold’s MEMORY last week. I say
“mistake” because reading Bujold is, above all, an addictive
pleasure. I have thus been consuming her books at a rate of 1 or
2 per day ever since.
THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE and CETAGANDA together here because,
in many ways, they are very similar works. They are also,
perhaps, the books I see most consistently cited as the
“worst” or “weakest” examples of the Vorkosigan series.
This is not a reputation they deserve. Even THE WARRIOR’S
APPRENTICE -- which may, in fact, rank last on the list of
stories starring Miles -- is ill-served by a description of
“weak”. It is, rather, a good novel which has the relative
misfortune of being written by a woman who has gone on to write
This is only the
second time I’ve read THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE. It was the
second Bujold book I ever read, taking up the second half of the
TEST OF HONOR omnibus (which also collected Bujold’s first
novel, SHARDS OF HONOR).
In my memory,
THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE didn’t particularly distinguish
itself. I was left with the vague impression of a light
adventure story, without the depth of character or theme which I
came to recognize in Bujold’s later work. An addictive reading
experience, yes, but not a lasting one.
My memory has
been playing tricks on me.
Sure, at first
glance this is nothing more than a light adventure story: Boy
seeks adventure among the stars. And, to be sure, Bujold
embraces the plot with fast-paced prose and character, carrying
you along with stylish verve on a thrilling rollercoaster ride.
But, as the
novel progresses, you begin to gain the sense that there’s
more at work here: Why, for example, does Bujold choose to touch
so lightly on some of the adventure elements in her plot? Why do
none of the characters develop the way you would expect them to
in an adventure story?
isn’t telling a light adventure story. She’s telling a
coming of age story, and the light adventure is just a trapping.
What’s really clever is that it isn’t just a random trapping
selected to spice things up: It’s a light adventure trapping
because that’s what Miles goes looking for. (What Miles finds,
of course, is something quite different.) Throughout the novel
there is a running joke about the difference between the way
things work in holovids and the way things work in reality.
It’s charmingly witty throughout and has a wickedly amusing
pay-off towards the end, but I also see it as a commentary on
the novel at a much deeper level: There’s a way things work in
a light adventure story, and its quite different from the way
things work (and why they work) in this story.
And, like so
many of Bujold’s works, the story of Miles is only the
beginning of what the novel has to offer: Take a look at how his
coming of age is eloquently mirrored in Elena’s. (And it is mirrored,
not duplicated, you’ll note.) And once I realized that it was
also a story of redemption, whole new layers of the
narrative opened up for me.
Which isn’t to
say that THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE doesn’t have its problems.
The construction of the plot is not as smoothly or as
brilliantly handled as a later Bujold might have done. There are
notable occasions of authorial fiat and startling coincidence
(although they’re generally well-covered). The ending, in
particular, is very weak: Its pacing is rushed and the earlier
scenes which established its basis were clumsily included.
So I’m left
looking back on my memory and trying to figure out why it
betrayed me: Sleep deprivation might have something to do with
it. After finishing SHARDS OF HONOR around 3 A.M. or so I just
kept reading straight through THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE, which
probably degraded the reading experience (no matter how much
Bujold demanded my continued attention). I think I can also
blame it, in part, on the fact that – after SHARDS OF HONOR
– I was expecting a sequel starring Cordelia, not one starring
her son twenty years later. And the weak ending probably
didn’t help to give the book a strong, lasting impression,
Or maybe, with
more Bujold experience, I just know what to look for now. Books
like MEMORY made it plain that Bujold offered hidden depths, and
so now – coming back to THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE – I am
more apt to see that which was there all along, instead of
reading it “merely” as a light adventure and overlooking the
nuances of its true quality.
I also think a
greater exposure to the stories of the Vorkosigan cycle as a
whole help to soften the sharp edges of the novel’s flaws. For
example, the redemption of the future Dendarii has a deeper
resonance when you recognize their future selves. The ending,
too, works better now that I have a prior understanding of, for
example, the relationship between Miles and Gregor, whereas –
when I first read the novel – the revelation of their prior
relationship was dumped on me only at the very moment that it
I’m struck, once again, by the fact that Bujold’s books
function so differently depending on the order in which you read
them. There’s a lot of material in THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE,
for example, which alludes to events in SHARDS OF HONOR. When I
first read it, I was intimately familiar with those events
(having just finished SHARDS OF HONOR) – and the book read one
way as a result of that. Coming back to THE WARRIOR’S
APPRENTICE, its been several years since I read SHARDS OF HONOR
and THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE reads very differently as a
And it works
both ways. It even works (in yet a third way) if you’ve read
BARRAYAR before reading THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE, even though
BARRAYAR had not yet been finished or published when THE
WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE first appeared. That’s an astonishing
accomplishment. And is a depth which, undoubtedly, makes
re-reading Bujold such a uniquely enjoyable and enriching
suffered a horrible fate: It was a published after MIRROR DANCE
and before MEMORY.
never read the books, you’ll have no idea why that’s
important. Suffice it to say, however, that MIRROR DANCE and
MEMORY are one type of book… and CETAGANDA is a very different
kind of book. As a result of its place in publication order,
however, CETAGANDA is repeatedly contrasted against its two
closest siblings: The result is like comparing an apple to
oranges, and CETAGANDA seems to lose out every time.
WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE, CETAGANDA is a light adventure story.
Where THE WARRIOR’S APPRENTICE tends towards space opera,
however, CETAGANDA tends towards mystery and political intrigue.
I could wax
eloquent about all the amazing things that Bujold does in this
book, but most of it would be merely repetitious (since it’s
the same amazing things she does in all of her books). Instead,
let me point out three specific things and let it rest at that.
First, the plot
is a fast-paced tale of mystery and romance. Of course, Bujold
being Bujold, neither plot has the good manners to play by all
the rules. Have you heard the anecdote about the author who,
when all else fails, would have someone come through the door
with a gun? That happens on page two. (Well, not quite. Bujold
doesn’t play by the rules remember.) That gets the plot
running. By page twenty-five, the plot has hit Mach 2 and
you’re basically stuck on the ride until it comes to an end.
This means that,
above all, CETAGANDA is a fun book to read.
world-building is literally breathtaking in its beauty and
startling in its depth. Cetaganda is a world on the cusp of the
transhuman, and Bujold conjures forth a grand image: Here, the
social intricacies of a byzantine imperialism. There, the
wondrous spectacles of a world where nature, technology, and art
are one and the same. And then, just as you are being seduced by
Cetaganda’s charms, Bujold reminds you that there is no such
thing as perfection: Here, the corruption and degeneracy of
caste. There, the subtle horrors which can only be created by
those with a godlike power over life itself.
character arc of Miles. When read in publication order, this arc
suffers from the fact that the Miles of MIRROR DANCE (the
previous volume) has already moved beyond the personal issues he
must grow through here. When read in internal chronological
order, on the other hand, the arc suffers because Miles is
beginning to consider issues which are not fully explored until
MEMORY and KOMARR. But if you can approach CETAGANDA as a novel
unto itself, I think you’ll find a lot of entertainment in
watching Miles grow as a character.
In short, I find
CETAGANDA to be a book both fascinating and entertaining. It has
withstood the test of being re-read twice, and I have no doubt
that it will stand that test again.