I’m well on my way with my Vorkisigan series reread! Instead of overwhelming you all with a looooooong review on each book in the series, I’ll try to break them up in to mini reviews every three books (key word: try).
This is my absolute most favoritist (totally a word) series in the entire world, and while there are some things that have not aged well (hermaphrodites, for example), there are other things in this series I continue to relove and new parts I find more joy in than I had before—and some things that hit different now that I’m in my mid-thirties as opposed to, say, Miles’ age in these three books.
A couple years ago, Tor.com hosted a Vorkosigan Saga Reread, which lasted something like three years and was absolutely brilliant. I ducked in here and there, but it wasn’t the time for me to do a complete reread of the series. I’m listening to the audiobooks, because I have a fuckton of ARCs I need to read and I love how Grover Gardner does the flat Betan accent.
Enter the fuckshow that was 2020, and I’m here, needing some Miles shenanigans to make me feel like a person again.
Or at least remind me that no matter how fucked things are, it can get worse—and then, hopefully, with a little forward momentum and an alley-oop or two, it’ll get better.
The Warrior’s Apprentice
Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father’s legend and surmounting his own physical limitations, Miles Vorkosigan faces some truly daunting challenges.
Shortly after his arrival on Beta Colony, Miles unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an obsolete freighter and in more debt than he ever thought possible. Propelled by his manic “forward momentum,” the ever-inventive Miles creates a new identity for himself as the commander of his own mercenary fleet to obtain a lucrative cargo; a shipment of weapons destined for a dangerous warzone.
Welp, Miles has a lot to carry on his little shoulders. He is filled with both a combination of little man syndrome and great man syndrome, as he is a small person (he is not a person with dwarfism, but his growth has been teratogenically stunted) in a world that takes ableism and puts it on steroids, and both his father and grandfather literally wrote THE book on Barrayaran politics and the military. So when Miles fails to get into the military and his grandfather literally dies the next day, Miles um, goes through some stuff.
So he decides to live out an adventure on Beta Colony, and when he rescues a hysterical freighter pilot he begins to get an idea of being a businessman, and tows his childhood friend (and crush) Elena and her-father/Miles’ bodyguard Sergeant Bothari along for the ride. Miles being Miles, the entire scheme is propelled purely by his force of personality, and um, yeah.
I will say that some things I overlooked as a child (Sergeant Bothari’s entire personality, for one, and Ivan’s extreme perviness, for second—not cool, Ivan), definitely hit harder as an adult. A lot of the subtext didn’t necessarily go over my head, but just was absorbed and appreciated in another way (like, how the newly named Dendarii soldiers really leaning into the con and worried about their benefits over everything else). Things that had me cheering as a high schooler (and close to Miles’ age) had me wincing as an adult, and I felt myself really feeling for the adults pulled into Miles’ charismatic orbit, and feeling for Miles when he swung and missed.
I still loved the epilogue, but this time I was actually on the evaluators’ side??? You know you’re no longer a cool kid when you start empathizing with the adults.
The Warrior’s Apprentice has its flaws, but it is still one of my absolute favorites in the series, mainly due to Miles’ forward momentum and the hilarious serendipity upon which his life revolves. When I was a teen and later when I was a young Marine Option midshipman struggling to fit into NROTC, this was one of my comfort reads.
Trigger Warning: Ableism, Depression, Suicidal Ideations/Attempts, Death, Torture, Rape (off page).
The Vor Game
Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Academy, joins a mutiny, is placed under house arrest, goes on a secret mission, reconnects with his loyal Dendarii Mercenaries, rescues his Emperor, and thwarts an interstellar war. Situation normal, if you’re Miles.
Okay, so in book two (I’m ignoring Cordelia’s two books for this reread, because I read them a lot and want to read the Miles books I tend to skip over), Miles graduates from the academy and gets pissed off because he’s sent to Kyrill Island (spelling?? I dunno), which is where ground troops are sent to for winter training. As you’d expect for the personnel actually stationed there year-round, it sucks, and Miles, being the precocious, ever-loving-know-it-all that he is, immediately gets into onto his CO’s bad side. Which, when the CO turns out to be a shuffled into the wayside war criminal, becomes…not good.
So. Miles heads a mutiny (for good reason!), has a fun with with Gregor the Emperor where the two get drunk and morose, gets shuttled over into Intelligence (be sorry for poor Simon Illyan, he suffers so much), and then sent on a routine mission that gets um, some forward momentum.
Basically, Miles is just too smart for himself, and he meets someone just as conniving and paranoid as he is, and reconnects with the Dendarii Mercenaries, who uh, have gone through some changes in the past several years and let’s just say they are all kinda annoyed Miles skipped out on them). And then Miles bumps into Gregor, who has slipped away from his team and gotten arrested for being a transient and shipped off into a war zone as an indentured laborer. I will say though, that depressed Gregor hit differently.
Whew. Okay. There is a lot going on in this one, and a lot of parallels to The Warrior’s Apprentice. The plot is fairly similar, but also not really? There are a lot of twists and turns, Miles fucks up a lot and overthinks himself, he meets a lot of people (and makes just as many enemies as friends), and there’s a deux ex machina to end all deux ex machinas. But you’re cheering so loudly when it arrives that it doesn’t matter anyways, and fuck I just love this book.
Trigger Warning: Ableism, Depression, Suicidal Ideations/Attempts, Death, Torture.
Miles and Cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to play the part of sprigs of nobility doing their diplomatic duty. But when the Empress of Cetaganda dies naturally, and her lifelong attendant dies unnaturally, Miles and Ivan finds themselves in the thick of it.
I’m not sure who wrote these Goodreads blurbs, but they are hilarious and very adequately sum up the book, while also leaving out all of the hilarious things that happen.
Cetaganda was one of my least favorite books, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever reread it. Considering that the first time I went through the series was high school (some of the latter books were still being published), that’s saying something. However, I enjoyed this one much more the second time around, because unlike Miles, I’m no longer quite as military-mad as I was back in the day. Although I do think that the subtitle for this should be Ivan Kinda Redeems Himself With His Dick.
This is a murder-mystery wrapped into revolution and genetics and a weighty discussion of genetical engineering (with horrifying subtexts on eugenics and caste systems and control) and where and how power falls in societies (particularly a society that is a patriarchy on the outset, but where women actually hold the true power, albeit very covertly). The argument here is that those who control the gene pool control the world, and, well, the argument is very strong, along with—again—the icky subfactors of twiddling around with humanity and the meaning of what humanity is and will become and who controls that.
I do like that in The Vor Game and Cetaganda, Miles is awarded with these amazing military honors that 1) he can’t even wear and 2) he doesn’t even want, because they are from his Enemy. So like, he’s doing this amazing things but he can’t even be recognized for them, and for someone as attention-starved as Miles, it’s a hard pill to swallow, particularly since he knows he’s done all this shit (and yes, the people who matter also know, blah blah the Very Important People) but the rest of Barrayar doesn’t and that’s what rankles most.
Because Miles has fought so hard to carve acceptance in his world by literally being better than the one thing Barrayarans prize—and he does it, but can’t tell anyone about it.
Trigger Warning: Ableism, death.
Next up in my reread is Borders of Infinity, which is a novella and also a collection of both the novella and some short stories/novellas marking Miles’ early years Admiral Naismith. It’s basically a toss-up of reading this or Brothers in Arms, which is technically the next in the years, as Borders has stories that bounce between Miles’ early years. Technically, if I was going in strict chronological order, I’d read the short stories separately in order of the timeline, but I’ve already missed that since I’ve read Cetaganda and “The Mountains of Mourning” takes place before The Vor Game.
Of course, there are so much more to these books that I love that I didn’t talk about here. I love Miles, I love Elena, I love every secondary character (even the baddies), and this series has so many layers and wonders and fantastic world-building that I just love it so much. They are truly comfort reads for me, particularly A Civil Campaign, which is probably the funniest (and also least military) of the series?
Anyway, don’t let the shitty covers fool you! These books are fantastic. While I don’t subscribe to the whole you must read these classic SF books to be considered a true fan of the genre mindset, I do feel that this series is one more people should read, and put on the pedestal alongside Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury and Le Guin (ya know, the ones everyone talks about when they talk classic SF), because despite the trappings of space opera (and I love me some space opera, I’m not knocking it), these books have just as much depth as the literary SF. And are well-written and enjoyable and fun. Trust me, you’ll have fun even when sobbing or laughing or pulling your hair out.
Have you read the Vorkosigan Series?