This is Marion’s review of The Vor Game, Brothers in Arms, and Mirror Dance. Kat’s comments about Mirror Dance are at the bottom.
Miles Vorkosigan is nearly a dwarf, with bones as brittle as fine porcelain, and he is a Vor, one of the elite, the son of the Imperial Regent. The Vor, and everyone on Barrayar for that matter, are terrified of mutation because of their history, and Miles looks like a mutation even though he isn’t one. During the middle books of this series, Miles finds a way to serve his planet while succeeding in space, where for the most part people judge achievement more than physical appearance.
Miles cannot escape his Barrayaran heritage, however. In The Vor Game, he must rescue his cousin and planetary emperor Gregor from a kidnap attempt. In Brothers in Arms, Miles travels to Earth and meets a long-lost relative who may be his most dangerous adversary. Mirror Dance finds Miles, for part of the book, back on Barrayar.
The Vor Game mixes space opera with political drama, and gives us a charming, dangerous character in Commander Calvino. Miles plays a double game in order to rescue Gregor, but is he tempted, just for a moment, to let the plan play out? Gregor, who is smooth, calm and deliberate — the complete opposite of Miles — is no pushover, as he reminds us:
… both of my parents died violently in political intrigues before I was six years old. A fact you might have researched. Did you think you were dealing with an amateur?
Until now Miles has had two identities, his “real” Barrayaran identity and the cover role of Admiral Naismith, mercenary commander, secretly in the employ of Barrayaran Intelligence. Brothers in Arms adds a new facet to the Vorkosigan character when Miles meets his clone.
Miles goes to London, on old Earth, a city that has built locks at the mouth of the Thames to keep the rising waters from flooding the city. While there, Miles has a strange hallucination in which he sees himself in a Vor military uniform. Shortly, he discovers that this was no hallucination. Someone got DNA from Miles when he was a baby and cloned him, setting in motion a long-range plan to assassinate Miles’s father and plant a mole in the heart of the Barrayaran government. Because a true clone of Miles’s DNA would not show the damage caused in utero by poison gas, the clone should be about six feet tall and robust, but he is not. He is the same height as Miles, with a disproportionately large head, and his bones show every break, check and flaw as Miles. This gives the reader some idea of the clone’s early days. He does not greet Miles with whoops of brotherly joy. Miles, though, does manage to win him over, which is good — since the clone, who names himself Mark, is also a highly-trained assassin.
The final scenes take place in the locks, an exciting hide-and-seek action sequence. At the end of the book, Mark reluctantly agrees to meet his DNA-host family on Barrayar.
One of the different things about these books is the mix of high tech with the rigid social society on Barrayar. Bujold offers a critique of the concept of the male-dominated, paramilitary society while simultaneously writing fine military sci-fi — the Vor are fine with energy weapons, but things like uterine replicators, which make pregnancy safer for the woman and the fetus, are viewed as newfangled and probably evil. Clones, however, are commonplace, most of them the product of a planet called Jackson’s Whole, which is the Rodeo Drive of cloning with a Costco at the end of the block.
In Mirror Dance, the story follows Mark as he pursues a black-market cloning operation. In Bujold’s universe, cloning is used for the purposes we would expect; genetic engineering to create super-soldiers, sex slaves, and the most logical purpose, spare parts. Mark’s early years and his identification as a clone have engendered in him a seething hatred for those he calls “clone consumers.” When he is not on Jackson’s Whole, Mark struggles to deal with his resentment of the Vorkosigans, and his desire for a family, for love. The mirror dance, which is danced at a formal ball Mark attends, is a fine metaphor for his struggles in the book.
I have a couple of quibbles with the Vorkosigan books. One is the perfection of some of the characters. Gregor should win a gold medal for too-good-to-be-true, but Cordelia and Aral are bafflingly permissive as parents. Aral is a revolutionary, a patriot and a Vor through and through. In spite of his love for Cordelia and his love for Miles, is there never the teeniest bit of shame about his less than perfect son? He lets Miles, his fragile son and sole heir, gallivant around the universe with only the occasional manly sigh of concern when he finds out, after the fact, how bad things were. Cordelia, a Betan, is open-minded and accepting, having no trouble taking in her clone-son Mark, and in fact shares intimate information about his biological father’s sexual hardwiring. This behavior is either admirably egalitarian or downright creepy. I also roll my eyes at the anachronistic language. Commander Calvino growls that she will grind someone “into hamburger.” Hamburger, really? This is in marked contrast to the studied, mannered, carefully paced language the characters drop into when they are about to deliver a bon mot.
Mirror Dance is a wonderfully plotted book with great characters, madcap adventure, tons of tension and plenty of laughs. It won the Hugo Award and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1995. I give it four stars.
This entry in the Miles Vorkosigan Saga won the Locus and Hugo Awards for Best SF Novel in 1995, and lives up to its billing. Having read a number of other reviews (because I try to avoid repeating what has been said already), Mirror Dance is perhaps the darkest and most emotionally-involved book in the series, with a mixture of adventure, her signature depth of characterization, tragedy, humor, familial drama, and a very in-depth exploration of identity and how the traumas of the past shape a person’s life, but also the power to transform oneself and overcome these obstacles.
I won’t describe the plot in detail, as it is quite involved and ingenious and I’d rather focus on Bujold’s bravery as an author to suddenly take her beloved protagonist Miles off-stage for the entire middle section while giving center stage to his clone Mark, who we first meet in Brothers in Arms, and who frankly is a quite unpleasant and petulant person at first, hardly leading-character material. But in Bujold’s skillful hands, she takes this very unlikeable character and then put him through a series of tribulations and adventures that force to grow up, face his inadequacies and failings, his jealousy of his beloved clone brother Miles, and to finally dig down deep into some very ugly events of his past and channel some dark places in order to save the day and Miles as well. There are some pretty horrific torture scenes that recall those in Shards of Honor, but are far more focused on psychological terror, that are rough going for poor Mark.
There is also a very interesting but slower-paced middle section that focuses on the damaged Mark as he gets to know Miles’ famous and intimidating parents Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. His resistance to their attempts to accept him as a son are very believable considering his cruel upbringing being trained as an assassin and imposter, and his struggles to overcome that legacy and find himself are handled extremely well. It’s what marks this book as a high point in the series, as Bujold has already proven she can do thrilling military SF action with three-dimensional characters, so has earned the right to explore inner space instead for much of the middle section, before segueing back into some of the most intense and thrilling action in the third act.
All in all, Mirror Dance is definitely one of the best books in the series, once again skillfully narrated by Grover Gardner.