The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1990
Series: Book 5 of the Vorkosigan Saga (by internal chronology)
Awards Nominated: Locus SF award
Awards Won: Hugo Award
I will avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, but there will be references to Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice.
“Miles Vorkosigan has just graduated from the Barrayaran Military Academy, where he has done well despite physical handicaps and Barrayaran prejudice. Like most of the other graduates, he has high hopes of being assigned to ship duty. When his orders arrive, he is shocked and confused to be sent to work as a meteorologist at a remote arctic training camp.
The posting is a test, and Miles wants very much to pass. According to his superiors, he has a tendency towards insubordination, and he needs to prove he has that under control. As his adventures carry him from the isolated camp back into space and the tricky political and military situation of the Hegen Hub, Miles tries to do what’s in the best interest of Barrayar and its people, regardless of his orders.” ~Alli
I’m moving right along through the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’ve actually already finished reading Cetaganda (I am way too far ahead in my reading right now). I don’t think this novel is my favorite of the saga, but it was still entertaining. Having now read five books in the series, I think I can definitely still say that I prefer reading by internal chronology, and that I think Shards of Honor/Barrayar is the best place for new readers to start.
Where The Warrior’s Apprentice concerned Miles’s desperation to prove his worth, The Vor Game seemed to revolve around his difficulty with taking orders. Miles has the confidence, quick thinking and acting ability to be a skillful strategist, conman, and leader, but he is a truly terrible follower. I think an army of soldiers like Miles might make a general feel like a cat herder—in some situations, there is such a thing as too much curiosity and initiative. Due in large part to the prestige of Miles’s family, the government of Barrayar is willing to make an effort to find Miles a role that will allow him to use his strengths to benefit their empire. I think that this particular kind of conflict is very well-worn ground in military science fiction, since even I’ve seen it play out countless times without actually seeking out military SF. However, I think that Miles was much more sympathetic than the typical young insubordinate main character, probably because his actions seemed driven by good intentions rather than arrogance.
The novel almost seems to consist of two stories stitched together. The first half follows Miles attempting to cope with his post to an arctic training camp, and the second half follows him through a complicated political situation in a region of space known as the Hegen Hub. The difference in tone and pace between these two halves makes me wonder if they were originally planned as separate stories. Personally, I thought that the slower-paced first section was the stronger half, due mostly to the plot’s focus on character motivations. I enjoyed how we got to see the interplay of social class, ableist prejudice, and military rank, as Miles tried to navigate a difficult posting without questioning his superiors or getting killed. I think that I tend to feel more engaged with that kind of small-scale, character-based conflict than the kind involving planetary governments and mercenary fleets. The second half moved quickly, and was full of the kind of wacky adventures I’m beginning to associate with Miles. The bad guys were not very nuanced, and Miles successes sometimes seem a little superhuman, but there’s plenty of action and humor to keep the story hopping along nicely.
I’ve touched on this in past Vorkosigan reviews, but I still enjoy Bujold’s approach to writing this series. Every installment so far has had a plot that works as a standalone novel, but a continuity of character development that rewards those who follow the series. In this way, it seems every novel will be accessible to new readers, while each installment makes the world and characters feel richer for those who want to read it as a series. For instance, in The Warrior’s Apprentice, Elena had a pretty important character arc based on events from Shards of Honor/Barrayar, and it was nice to see how she was doing in this novel, even though she was not a major character. In The Vor Game, Miles’s childhood friend Gregor, the Emperor of Barrayar, gets some much needed character development, which is also based on events from previous novels. While enough information is given in The Vor Game for any new readers to know what’s happening, I think many of the character-based plot points are made much more effective by already having experienced the backstory in previous novels.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Vor Game was an entertaining story that is more rewarding when read after Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and The Warrior’s Apprentice. The exciting plot of The Vor Game stands alone, but the history of the universe and its characters lends more emotional depth to the story. The novel seems to be split into two sections, one at a remote arctic training camp and the other following a tricky situation in space at the Hegen Hub. I actually enjoyed the earlier section of the story, featuring Miles and other characters in a relatively closed environment, to the later sections of more star-spanning politics and adventure. The villains tended to be a bit one dimensional, but I enjoyed hearing about the lives of Ivan and Elena, and seeing Miles and Gregor develop more as characters. Overall, it was fun, but not a contender for my favorite Vorkosigan novel.