A Vorkosigan Saga Omnibus
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 16, 2020
The Warrior's Apprentice / The Mountains of Mourning / The Vor Game
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Bujold did not write this series—and/or they weren't published—in the order of internal chronology, but at least for the beginnings of my reviews of the Vorkosigan Saga that is the way I have been reading them. Since I want to concentrate on her award winners my reading order is bound to change, but in this case and others, there is a need to read preceding books to better understand the plots. Several of the novels and shorter works have been published in onmibus editions, in various combinations, even though some are not available in print that way anymore, other than what you might find in used bookstores or online. The cover image I show for Young Miles is the copy I have, the first paperback edition, although if you take that link to Amazon you will see a later edition, also out of print at this time. The individual stories were originally published separately, and are again on their own in various formats, so if you want them that way use the links below. The other images displayed here will be the first paperbacks, but the links will take you to the least expensive copy now in print. I've found an inconsistency in formats available, but that might be temporary. For an author who has been and continues to be very popular, you would think publishers would be offering all of them in matching editions, whether that be mass-market paperbacks, trade paperbacks, or hardcovers. They are all available in the various e-book formats.
In all of her books I've read so far, there are hints of previous events. Miles' father, Aral Vorkosigan, was a veteran of many Barrayaran military conflicts, with some of the actions taken by him and others still reverberating through the politics and diplomatic posturings of the Empire. Other planets, cultures, and people are mentioned, some of which will also figure into future stories. Aral was Regent for the young Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, then when Gregor came of age Aral became Prime Minister. Since Miles grew up in the palace, and was only five years younger than Gregor, they had been playmates and very good friends. Barrayar was a very conservative, military-centric society, with the Vor prefix signifying members of the ruling class. There were a lot of marriages between Vor families, and Miles is in line to inherit the throne under certain conditions, if the other families will allow that. Miles had more than just his physical deformities to overcome, he also had a desire to impress his father, hopefully to follow in his footsteps as much as possible. He also had to contend with a society which previously would have condoned his abortion as a unwanted mutation. But the soltoxin gas that Aral and Cordelia Naismith were exposed to did not mutate Miles' chromosomes, its effects were teratogenic, inhibiting the development of his bones and muscular tissue. He is much smaller than average, with a bent spine, and very fragile bones. He still wants to serve in the military in some capacity. Aral, Cordelia, Miles, and Gregor, along with others they influence, are gradually changing Barrayaran society.
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The Warrior's Apprentice was published in 1986, a few months after her first novel. It was nominated for a Locus award, but was very far down the list in voting results. Miles is now eighteen, and he has been training at the Imperial Service Academy. His intelligence enables him to pass the written tests with ease, but he must also face the physical challenges. He lets his competetive spirit get the better of him on the obstacle course. He is able to scale the wall fairly easily, and if he hadn't been falling behind his course partner he could have made it down the other side of the wall with care. Instead, he jumps, breaking both legs. After his recovery, he takes his mother's suggestion to travel to see her mother on Beta Colony. He is accompanied by his main bodyguard Sergeant Bothari, along with Bothari's daughter Elena, who had also grown up in the palace with Miles and Gregor. Miles is in love with Elena, and she may be aware of that, but later events move them in different directions. When they get to Beta Colony, Miles encounters people who are attempting to coerce an independent pilot to relinquish the command of his ship, since its owner has sold it for scrap. Changing technologies have made it obsolete, even though it is still capable of space flight and wormhole jumps. It was at first confusing as to why Miles intervened, but later I assumed it was out of frustration from losing out on the chance to continue his Imperial Service career, or maybe it was just a lark. Miles' intelligence enables him to get out of many dangerous situations, but in many of those cases it is his impetuousness that got him in trouble in the first place. Using a plot of Vorkosigan land as collateral, Miles "purchases" the ship (the land is worthless, highly radioactive), and contracts to transfer cargo to the Tau Verde system, retaining the contentious pilot. He also recruits an engineer, whom he learns is a deserter from Barrayar Imperial Service.
It doesn't take long for Miles to realize they are tranporting weapons, so they must reconfigure the cargo hold to conceal them from potential scans and searches. They find the Tau Verde wormhole transfer point blockaded by the Oseran Mercenary group, due to a war between several factions. In a wildly improbable series of events, Miles is able to infiltrate one of the Oseran ships and get several of its crew to relinquish control to him, then as more of the mercenaries witness Miles' tactical expertise, he gains more recruits, until he commands the whole group. Even its previous leader, Oser, reluctantly accepts him as leader of the renamed Dendarii Mercenaries, named for a mountain range close to the Vorkosigan country estate. Lots of exciting action, as well as some emotional conflicts between Miles and Elena, and Elena and her father, as well as her and her mother, whom she had previously thought had been killed in the Barrayar/Escobar war. There were also a lot of head scratching moments due to things I felt were questionable. Aral Vorkosigan is a well-known figure to many, and not just on Barrayar. One of the Oseran techs is a fan of military history, who holds Vorkosigan in the highest regard, knowing meticulous details about all of his campaigns. Wouldn't he know something about Vorkosigan's family? Wouldn't many people be aware of Aral's Betan bride Cordelia Naismith, and their child Miles? Why would none of them suspect his real identity when he introduces himself as Miles Naismith? Puzzling.
Of course, a person of Miles' stature is not going to be able to avoid scrutiny by ImpSec (Imperial Security), no matter where he goes. There had already been ImpSec operatives working undercover in the Oseran Mercenaries. I can't recall right now how Miles found out, but news reaches him of a crisis back on Barrayar. Prime Minister Vorkosigan represented the moderate centrist position, but there are still many of the old guard on the conservative right resentful of his influence on the Emperor. Not wanting to abandon his new-found charges, Miles still feels he should return to Barrayar, particularly due to the fact his activities are known to some back home, and that knowledge is being used to pressure his father and the Emperor. Elena remains with the Dendarii, having wed Baz Jesek, one of their engineers. I was thinking it possible the book's title might refer to her, since she was essentially an apprentice to Miles, and had proved to be just as intelligent and resourceful. Miles is able to convince the Court of Counts, or at least enough of them, as well as Gregor, that his activities were not treasonous, not even intentional, but had snowballed out of his control. His intent had been to prevent as much conflict as possible, not to cause more. He is accepted back into the Imperial Service Academy, but there are still several factions not willing to accept him as a whole man worthy of their respect.
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The lingering prejudice against those considered mutants is explored with pathos and compassion in the Hugo and Nebula winning novella, The Mountains of Mourning, originally published in the May 1989 issue of Analog, and now available in paperback and e-book. It's about three years following the end of the previous story. Miles is nearing the end of his Imperial Academy training, but is on a break at his family's country estate, near the town of Vorkosigan Surleau. Returning from a morning's swim in the lake, he sees a woman attempting entry to Vorkosigan House. She wants to report a crime, the murder of her infant daughter, with Count Vorkosigan her last resort. The Speaker of her village will not help, and the district judge is on his circuit of other towns and won't be available for weeks. Since village Speakers and the district judge are officers of Count Vorkosigan, but are unable or unwilling to help, Miles implores the guard to let her in, and he directs her to an audience with his father. To Miles' surprise, his father assigns him the task of investigating and prosecuting the crime.
Miles and several other officers, as well as a physician who will perform an autopsy, accompany the woman back to her village, where Miles once again has to face people who regard him as a mutant. He realizes his father's intent. Both the murder case and Miles' condition will be used to re-educate the populace, teaching them that everyone is to receive humane treatment, that modern science and medicine can aid disabled and deformed people to be productive members of society. I'm not sure many in the village are convinced of that, but surely they have to acknowledge that Miles' intellectual capacity was a counter to his physical disabilities. He is able to deduce the culprit, someone other than the person the woman suspected. His sentence is very lenient considering he believed his father expected him to order an execution. He also sets in place opportunities for the remote village to receive higher education, and more tech equipment to keep them in closer contact with the larger towns. He might not have convinced everyone to shun the old ways of killing off mutations, but he does sow the seeds of empathy and compassion. Perhaps the next generation will be more enlightened.
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The first time I read The Vor Game (winner of the Hugo in 1991), back in the late '90s, I had not read the two previous stories, which probably inhibited my enjoyment of it. Right now I can't even recall if I finished it. This time I did of course, and liked it a lot. Ensign Miles Vorkosigan awaits his first assignment in the Imperial Service, hoping for a position in the space forces. His cousin, Ivan Vorpatril, goes to Imperial Security, which would suit Miles' talents even more. For reasons he is not able to understand, Miles is sent to a remote base in Barrayar's arctic region, to be an apprentice in the weather office. His superior is often drunk, and/or not on duty when he should be, so Miles has to learn on his own. Even though everyone knows who he is, who his father is, they still treat him with resentment and condescension. Miles tires of trying to tell people he is not a mutant, but is hardly ever able to even finish a sentence about the teratogenic effects of the soltoxin gas which caused his condition. He is subject to pranks, one of which almost kills him. The commander of the base doesn't care. He also doesn't seem to care about the welfare of many others on the base.
Miles further incurs the commander's wrath when he supports others in defying an order that would put them in deadly jeopardy, especially because another tactic would mitigate the problem instead. Both Miles and the others are arrested and thrown in the brig. Miles is transported back to the capital of Vorbarr Sultana, to face Imperial Security and his father. It is decided he will be detained deep in the bowels of ImpSec until things blow over, although Emperor Gregor convinces everyone to give Miles an opportunity to prove himself an asset to Security. Intelligence confirms potential conflicts around the Hegen Hub, a central location near a collection of wormhole transfer points to multiple other systems. If the Cetagandans are able to move in, they would be able to isolate Barrayar from trade with other planets. Miles might be able to infiltrate the area since his Dendarii Mercenaries are involved, although by this time, four years after "Admiral Naismith" abandoned them, they have regrouped as the Oseran Mercenaries. I won't go into details, but there are multiple factions involved, it takes Miles a long time to assess the situation, to know who to trust and who to be wary of. He is apprehended by various groups, escapes, then is apprehended again, or at least threatened. He is aided by several of his loyal Dendarii, but even then starts to wonder if one of them is a double agent leading him on. Emperor Gregor throws a giant wrench into the works when he runs away from a diplomatic conference on Komarr, encounters Miles on Aslund Station, but then they're separated again.
Miles continually frustrates and confounds everyone, from his superiors in ImpSec, to his Dendarii, to Oser and those loyal to him. He doesn't always make the right decisions at the right time, but eventually is able to formulate an hypothesis of who is at the heart of the problem. He acts on his own through instinct, which almost invariably proves to be the correct response no matter how improbable, and insubordinate, it might seem to others. As in the first novel, there are a few things that don't make sense, especially how he is still able to hide his true identity from so many people. There are also several instances in both novels where he is involved in action that I think should have led to him being incapacitated from broken bones or other ailments, inconsistent with how the readers had been led to believe. I know of a few things that will change his condition in future books, but he should have been more vulnerable more often. Instead he comes through it all with just minor scrapes, but major kudos from everyone, from Emperor Gregor on down. The remaining Dendarii are recruited to be a special group within ImpSec, with Miles in charge, and the safety of the Emperor their main objective.
In summation of these three stories: I would rate the novella the highest, a solid 5 stars, but that's mainly due to its succinct and focused story, how it highlights Miles' intellect and compassion over his physical abilities. Next would be The Vor Game with its multi-faceted plot, which is as much a mystery as it is an action story. I'd rate it about 4.5, but Apprentice was not as successful in convincing me of Miles' abilities. It wasn't just the way he was able to hide his identity, I'm still puzzled about how he was able to inspire the Oserans to accept him. It gets 3.5, which averages out to about 4.3 stars for the omnibus overall. And to recap the awards: Apprentice was nominated for the Locus; Mourning also got a Locus nom, and won the Hugo and Nebula; Vor Game won the Hugo, and was nominated for Locus and Seiun awards.
Miles is insubordinate, he freely admits it, but the proof is in the results he is able to obtain. This is as far as I've read in the saga, since when I originally read them I didn't have as much time, plus I was frustrated and confused about the order in which to read them, and now the saga has grown so large. I will continue from here, but I'm not sure exactly when, or which book will come next. There is one more Hugo winner in this saga, but I may read one or two others before that one, and she also won a Hugo for one of her fantasy novels which I will get to later. I'm not aware of much of the plots of future stories, just the titles and a few vague hints. I don't know how far Miles advances in Imperial Service, or whether he abandons that for his own adventures, and I'd prefer to remain as spoiler-free as possible. He may be in line for the throne through a concatenation of events. Whether or not that ever happens, Barrayar is lucky to have him in any capacity.
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