The Miles Vorkosigan Series
Grade : A

Miles Vorkosigan is an adventurer and a spy, a slightly crazy con artist, a quick-thinker and a fast-talker. He is a military genius with a gift for personnel and a miraculous talent for pulling rabbits out of hats at the last possible moment. His personality is so compelling that it almost makes people forget that he is also, in his own words, a “four-foot-nine-inch, black-haired grey-eyed hunchback.” In a less cheerful mood, he thinks of himself as an “ugly, twisted shrimp.”

The son of a famous admiral and the grandson of a legendary general, Miles has the ambition and the talent to outdo them both. But he was born with a medical condition that makes his bones as brittle as chalk, on a planet, Barrayar, whose inhabitants fear and hate any sort of physical unfitness. After years of painful medical treatment, Miles can walk, but he cannot hope to pass the physical examinations to enter the Barrayaran military. Under the double-handicap of bodily weakness and cultural prejudice, Miles will not succeed in spite of his handicaps. One of the things I like about this series is that, in a roundabout way, he succeeds because of them.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles buys a spaceship with money that he does not have, and plans to pay for it by running arms into a war zone with it. His plan spins out of control almost from the start, driving him to greater and greater heights of scam to stay alive. Before he knows it he has become the charismatic leader of a band of space-mercenaries, who know him as Admiral Naismith. Miles is 17 years old.

(One of my favorite scenes in the whole series occurs in The Warrior’s Apprentice: during a contentious staff conference, Miles is seized with inspiration. He leaps on top of the conference table and begins pacing on it. Everyone falls silent to watch him, mesmerized by his presence, and by the rhythmic click of his leg-brace.)

In subsequent books, mercenary commander Admiral Naismith becomes useful to Barrayar’s Imperial Security as the deformed Miles Vorkosigan cannot be. Miles’ double identity takes on a slightly-schizophrenic life of its own. Naismith is daring, dashing, and has a talent with the ladies; only a select few know that beneath this swashbuckling exterior is Vorkosigan, deeply devoted to serving his homeland, while at the same time an embarrassment to Barrayar’s noble class. Miles’s adventures are too amazing to recount here: the best, in my opinion, is told in Borders of Infinity a novella to be found in the book of the same name.

When Miles is thirty, in the excellent novel Memory, his double-life collapses in a typically spectacular way, leaving Miles stranded on Barrayar without the protection of his more respected alter-ego. It goes without saying that he finds a unique way to continue influencing people and events.

The best thing about the series is the character of Miles himself. We get to know him intimately, and to see how he grows and matures through the series. The bitter, self-mocking teen of The Warrior’s Apprentice is very different from the stressed-out manipulator of Brothers In Arms, who is different from the assured, razor-sharp investigator of Komarr. But Miles is absolutely recognizable as the same person in all these books: arrogant about his own brilliance, yet mordantly aware of his failings.

The Miles Vorkosigan series belongs to the sub-genre of science fiction known as “space opera,” which focuses on action and adventure rather than speculation. But the author also intelligently works implications of technological advance into all her stories, especially in Mirror Dance, by far the darkest and most violent book of the series, which explores one terrifying possible application of human cloning.

The series is not devoid of romance. Miles’ personal life is troubled, what with the double-life and the physical challenges and all, but he’s a passionate sort with a profound admiration for tall, statuesque women. We meet his unconsummated first love, Elena Bothari; his longtime girlfriend (and able officer of the Dendarii Mercenaries) Elli Quinn; Taura, a vulnerable genetic construct of truly startling physical proportions; and the gracious Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Miles meets Ekaterin in Komarr. A Civil Campaign, which follows it, is not my favorite, but as the book in which Miles woos and wins Ekaterin, it is the most romantic.

The books, in chronological order by story (not by publication date) are:

  • The Warrior’s Apprentice
  • The Vor Game
  • Cetaganda
  • Borders of Infinity (chronology is approximate; the volume contains three novellas from various parts of Miles’ career)
  • Brothers in Arms
  • Mirror Dance
  • Memory
  • Komarr
  • A Civil Campaign

Related books include:

  • Cordelia’s Honor (this book contains two previously-released novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which tell the story of how Miles’ mother and father met and the early years of their marriage)
  • Ethan of Athos (Elli Quinn’s own adventure)
  • Falling Free (takes place in the same universe as the Vorkosigan series, but some 200 years before)

Until very recently, I was under the impression that A Civil Campaign was the last Vorkosigan novel. But it seems that a further installment, titled Diplomatic Immunity, has been written and is set to be published in Spring of 2002. These are glad tidings for all Vorkosigan addicts – I’m going to be rereading my favorites in anticipation. For action, adventure, humor, and brilliant characterization, these novels are simply better than good. Don’t miss them.

Reviewed by Jennifer Keirans

Grade: A

Sensuality: N/A

Review Date : October 10, 2001

Publication Date: 2003

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