Thursday, January 05, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): The Warrior's Apprentice

I mentioned earlier that I was between books -- a little overdosed on science books after my last run (ending with The Ancestor's Tale, and not getting anywhere with fiction.

I'd started a couple of fantasy series by new authors (well, new-to-me authors), but couldn't get into them. One I had started a while back, dropped, and tried to pick up again; the other was all new, based on a recommendation about the author from a friend. It wasn't until I was about 1/3 of the way into the newer book that I figured out what was really missing: humour. Everyone was deadly serious all the time.

It's not that I only want to read comedies, but no-one in these books ever seemed to even crack a smile -- not even a dark, ironic, gallows-humour smile for when things were deadly serious. Or a light, carefree, help-the-reader-identify-with-the-character smile before things got serious.

I guess that's one reason why (as I mentioned when discussing the Garrett, P.I. books, I have a few series I fall back on when I'm between major reads, ones that I can be sure I'm going to enjoy -- and ones with some humour to them.

The Garrett books can be very dark, but Glen Cook has a sharp sense of humour that works perfectly. David Eddings may have only one story in him (the four series of his that I've read -- the two five-book series about Belgarion and the two three-book series about Sparkhawk -- are all chase-the-magic-rock-all-over-the-map stories. The two rocks involved are even the same colour (blue)!), but his characters are enjoyable and their banter is fun to read. The third series I re-read fairly often is Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series, which I've just re-started with The Warrior's Apprentice.

The Miles series is space opera, centered around (naturally) Miles Vorkosigan, an aristocrat on the militaristic feudal world of Barrayar, which has only recently (that is, a couple of generations ago) re-emerged from isolation from the rest of galactic society.

To complicate matters, Miles's mother was poisoned during a coup attempt while she was pregnant, leaving Miles with extremely brittle bones. As a result, Miles's growth has been severely stunted (he's 4'9" after extensive surgery) and deformed -- a major problem on Barrayar, where, thanks to nuclear wars earlier in their history, mutant children are often killed at birth. Miles isn't a mutant, but the distinction is a little subtle for Barrayaran prejudices.

Miles is driven by a manic personality and an obsessive need to prove himself which, in The Warrior's Apprentice, leads to him fast-talking his way deeper and deeper into trouble. By the climax of the book, he's fighting in a planetary war while commanding people he'd conned into signing up for a mercenary company he'd made up off the top of his head. The overall effect is like watching someone juggle chainsaws while dancing on the roof of a runaway train heading towards a bridge laden with explosives. Laser chainsaws.

The best summary of Miles's personality comes from his first "recruit", who'd given him a green, 120-proof drink earlier in the story, which Miles had been slurping on regularly to settle his nerves (a little abridged):

Quite dizzy. And nauseated. Blast it, this wasn't free fall. He sat abruptly on the deck, weak from the near-disaster.

Mayhew stared, looking first alarmed, then sardonically understanding. "It's about time that stuff caught up with you," he remarked.

Bothari snapped to alertness at Miles's hunched huddle, and quizzed Mayhew with angry eyes.

"His creme de meth just wore off," Mayhew explained. "Drops you in a hurry, doesn't it, kid?"

Miles mumbled, an inarticulate groan. Bothari growled somthing exasperatedly under his breath about "deserve," picked him up, and slung him unceremoniously over his shoulder.

"Well, at least he'll stop bouncing off the walls, and give us all a break," said Mayhew cheerfully. "I've never seen anybody overrev on that stuff the way he did."

"Oh, was that liquor of yours a stimulant?" asked Elena. "I wonder why he didn't fall asleep."

"Couldn't you tell?" chuckled Mayhew.

"Not really."

Mayhew's laughter faded. "My God," he said hollowly, "you mean he's like that all the time?"

One of the nice things about the Miles series is how Miles matures over the run of the books (now up to 10 books, with three prequels -- though the prequels are best read after you've read at least the first few of the series books). In The Warrior's Apprentice he's 19 and has just failed the physical trials to get into the Imperial Service (breaking both legs on the first obstacle of the course in an attempt to prove himself). By the most recent book, he's 30-somethng (I don't have it on hand to check) and getting married, with a long and successful career, if complicated and convoluted, career. Bujold even includes a timeline in the back of the books, summarizing how all of the novels fit together.

The Garrett books don't have a grand arc like this. Garrett's always the same age and doesn't change much, though characters will come and go over the course of several novels. Of course, in the case of the Garrett books it's sometimes only a couple of weeks between novels, whereas it can be several years bewteen the Miles books. The Eddings books aren't really so much series as multi-volume novels, so the dynamic is different there as well.

In any event, I've just finished The Warrior's Apprentice, and I have nine fun Miles books ahead of me (and three prequels) before I have to worry about new fiction again. I just need to find some new series authors I can use to fill the gaps! I can't just re-read these things over and over, enjoyable though they are. Iain M. Banks has been good, but his Culture series is too heavy for "between book" reading. I just don't want to get bit by yet another humourless slog.


teflonjedi said...

Hmmn, (looking over at Ethan of Athos on my bookshelf) I never did follow through and start reading this series of books, other than the one that was recommended to me. I guess I should, some day, but right now my TRL is a little on the lengthy side...

James said...

The nice think about the Miles books is that they are fast reads. I finished The Warrior's Apprentice on Wednesday, and I'm already just short of halfway through The Vor Game. So they're great for sticking between heavier volumes on your reading list.

teflonjedi said...

Ah yes, I hear you...sometimes you just need that quick read to reset your appetites!