Miles Vorkosigan Saga #3
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 30, 2020
Edits & Addenda on June 2 & June 4, 2020
Mirror Dance / Memory / Komarr
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Mirror Dance was published in March of 1994, won both a Hugo and Locus in 1995, yet a blurb on the back of my copy has a reviewer's quote: "One of the best SF Novels of 1993." I've found no information to indicate it had been serialized earlier, as several of her previous novels were, so that reviewer must have read an advance copy. It begins about two years after Brothers in Arms, with Miles' clone-brother Mark successful in eluding ImpSec surveillance on Earth. He arrives on a transfer station orbiting Escobar, impersonating Miles, and is able to board the Dendarii flagship to summon a crew for a secretive mission to Jackson's Whole. That was where Mark was gestated and grown, designed and trained as an assassin by Komarran dissidents. His intention is to rescue other clones who are destined to be used as replacement bodies for their much older progenitors. Things do not go as planned. Before going further, I want to say something about the title. It obviously references the twin perspectives of Miles and Mark, but literally it is a dance in which Mark participates during his first formal party on Barrayar. It might also obliquely refer to a defensive weapon that figures into the plot. Developed on Beta Colony, first mentioned in Shards of Honor, but in a larger capacity for defending a ship. Now adapted for personal use, the mirror shield protects its user from stun guns, plasma arcs, and nerve disrupters. But it has a finite use; each time it repels the force of a weapon its power diminishes.
It's about 200 pages longer than any of the previous novels, and could easily have been two books. It has twice the action due to two different narrative tracks, following the movements of both Mark and Miles in different locations, with just a few brief scenes where they interact. Beginning at Escobar, the action switches to Jackson's Whole, then Komarr, and Barrayar, before a return to Jackson's Whole. Miles had been on Barrayar, and when he returns to the fleet with a new assignment from ImpSec he gets some strange reactions, since they had just seen him off on the Peregrine, and hadn't expected him back for weeks. When he realizes Mark has duped them, and that Mark only has one squad, one ship, with no backup, he hastily follows him to Jackson's Whole to retrieve him. That plan goes awry too. I won't go into details, except to say that Miles and Mark are separated, and later held hostage by rival factions on a planet with no laws or rules, just corporations with their own agendas, and their own security forces. At least three of the planet's Houses seek revenge, or at least reparations, for both the recent clone rescue, and Miles' previous actions depicted in the novella "Labyrinth." But before Mark's capture he is retrieved by the Dendarii, they take the clones to safety on Komarr, then Mark goes to Barrayar. To his surprise, he is accepted as son and heir of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan, and that would probably have happened even if Miles was not missing in action, and feared dead. He even works with Simon Illyan for a while, then when he grows tired of no progress in finding Miles, Cordelia obtains a ship for him to pursue his own leads. Mark goes through quite a few changes throughout the story, not all of them positive. We may see some residual effect of one of his maladies later, but he gains a few friends and allies, maybe even a love interest. After meeting Cordelia and Aral, he thinks to himself, Oh, that's what integrity looks like, then later notices a look Elena Bothari-Jesek gives him on departing — Oh, that's what respect looks like. Mark continually denies he cares about Miles, certainly doesn't want to be anything like him, yet he seems to be jealous of Miles' accomplishments, and longs to be accepted in a similar manner. But for himself, not just his relation to Miles.
The previous confusion as to how Miles could keep his alternate identities secret is explained…somewhat. Several of the Dendarii reveal they had figured out Admiral Naismith was actually Miles Vorkosigan, whereas his enemies on Jackson's Whole think Admiral Naismith and Mark are both clones of Vorkosigan, meaning they think there are at least three of them, but that Vorkosigan is the least significant. The people who hold Miles and Mark captive are initially not sure which clone they have, and it's not clear if either believe they have Miles Vorkosigan. If they knew that, they would have even more leverage in their negotiations. I still have some confusion myself about Miles' behavior. How can Miles, and now Mark, be so charismatic and inspirational? Both suffer from a deformed body. In Miles' case it was caused by the soltoxin gas while he was still in the womb, and later from his many surgeries. Mark's body had been manipulated in the same manner in order to duplicate Miles' condition. They both have other health issues, are very short, and subject to others thinking of them as mutants. Yet they seem to be very persuasive and influential in getting others to follow them. As for one aspect, is it their vulnerability that causes a mothering reaction from women? The androgynous Bel Thorne is attracted to Miles, and Miles has had relationships with Elli Quinn, and even Taura, the genetically engineered super-soldier he rescued in "Labyrinth." He also attracts the attention, and affections, of a surgeon on Jackson's Whole in this book, and Mark seems to have the potential for multiple relationships on Barrayar, but he seems interested in pursuing just one. Does the mystique of their Lordship status play a part? Even if so, how has Admiral Naismith become such a hero figure to the rest of the Dendarii, even those who do not know of his Vorkosigan ancestry? We learn that Bel Thorne, captain of the Peregrine, did figure out they were following Mark and not Miles, but still went along with his scheme, but their reasoning was left unclear. Could their actions be due to Miles' rejection, hoping Mark would accept their affection? In the end, Miles sees no other option but to relieve Bel of their command. I continued to be irritated every time Bel was referred to as 'it' instead of they or them. I hope they reappear in some capacity in later books, but if not, that is not the only change in Miles' crew. I've already read the first few pages in the next book, so I know we'll be saying goodbye to others as well.
In spite of my reservations concerning Miles' motivations, and the logic, or lack thereof, of how he influences others, I still loved this book as much as any of the others. Another 5 star rating, and I'll be following up with Memory soon.
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There are several things I didn't want to spoil about the previous book, and I hope to continue that here. Memory (1996), which was a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus finalist, picks up about a year later. A prior incident, one of those things I don't want to detail, has left Miles with occasional bouts of seizure, usually brought on by stress. He had thought he and his Dendarii head of surgery had it under control, but during a mission he loses consciousness, although his power armor and weapons are still active. He nearly kills the ImpSec courier he has been tasked to rescue from hijackers. He deliberately falsifies his report to his boss, Simon Illyan, which later leads to his discharge from ImpSec service. Adrift on Barrayar, back to the home he had been trying to flee for most of his life, he is all alone at Vorkosigan House, since Count and Countess Vorkosigan are on Sergyar, the now Admiral Vorkosigan's new assignment. However, he is drawn back into ImpSec intrigue when Simon Illyan begins exhibiting signs of dementia.
The majority of this saga has been military action. There is action in this book too, but of a different type, more psychological and emotional, but in the right writer's hands that can be just as exciting as rescuing prisoners-of-war or averting the next war. At heart it is a mystery, which proves to be no match for Miles' intellectual and analytical nature. It also involves his struggle in coming to grips with his future, which he had hoped to have been with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. The main reason he had been allowed to maintain that force was because he could do for ImpSec what would be diplomatically questionable for them to do officially. Both Emperor Gregor and Simon Illyan valued his intellect, dedication, and the enormity of his intelligence gathering. Unknown to Miles, they had been grooming him to be Illyan's replacement, which even when he learns that he balks. He doesn't want a desk job, he's not sure he even wants to be Miles Vorkosigan, since Admiral Naismith had been his dream job. But now his medical condition interferes, plus the fact that if he went back to the Dendarii on his own, no longer a member of ImpSec, he could be prosecuted for treason.
This is another where the title serves multiple interpretations. Something I don't recall being mentioned before, but it's possible I just missed it, is that Illyan had a neural implant to give him eidetic memory. He never had to take notes, everything was always in his head, accessible on demand. But now his implant seems to be failing, or his malady could be purely organic in his brain. He is hospitalized, but the new acting chief won't let Miles or anyone else see him. The frustration drives Miles to consult with Gregor. Remember, Gregor is only five years older than Miles, they grew up together when Count Vorkosigan was Regent until Gregor came of age. Gregor knows and cares for Miles a great deal, and he trusts his instincts. Miles is appointed as an Imperial Auditor, a position that is similar to an Inspector General, and while an Auditor is investigating a case they are the highest authority next to the Emperor himself. True to form, Miles solves the case, and his dilemma of charting his future course is taken out of his hands, and into Gregor's, who makes the Auditor appointment permanent. It was not just Gregor's decision, the majority of the other Auditors have reviewed Miles final report, and they also have access to his full ImpSec record. Even with his recent insubordination they concur he is perfect for the job. Miles is not only the first Vorkosigan to hold the position, he's the youngest ever appointed.
Other aspects of the concept of memory are with Miles' contemplation of all of his mentors; his father of course, who taught him about honor, duty, and courage; Gregor taught him about benevolence in authority; Simon taught him integrity, focus, and perseverance. But most especially his mother, who has been a positive influence on everyone she has interacted with, even if she has also intimidated them. He continually thinks back to things she taught him, concepts he has taken to heart, and used throughout his career. Those concepts are not unique and original to Cordelia Naismith, but they are universal truths applicable for everyone. Two that keep coming back to him — "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well", and "If you have a goal, make sure your actions are directed toward making it happen." At the end, Miles realizes he cannot run away from who he is, what his family's traditions are, the memories of all their sacrifices. He is a Vor, like it or not, Admiral Naismith is no more. He passes the Dendarii torch to Elli Quinn, whom he may or may not interact with in the future. She is now Admiral Quinn, with the same arrangement with the new ImpSec Chief as Miles had with Simon. The book ends with them meeting on Komarr where Miles gives her the news, with a vague notion they might meet again, but no guarantees.
This is another relatively short book, back down to about 365 pages, but still with as many events and revelations as other writers are able to accomplish in twice that many pages. It's not that Bujold doesn't include a lot of descriptive exposition, and characters' internal dialogue, it's that everything is there for a reason, none of it is wasted verbiage. It all expands our understanding of the characters, and on the history of Barrayar and other systems. In addition to the mystery, there is a lot of background information on Gregor's impending betrothal, which is diplomatically perilous since his bride-to-be is Komarran. Miles' cousin Ivan Vorpatril is not in a lot of scenes, but Miles' reliance on him, and confidence in him during the investigation, is sure to boost his career at ImpOps. Gregor's new love is not the only romance either, but sadly none of that involves Miles. For now at least. Another 5 star rating, my only disappointment being that Mark doesn't appear, he's only mentioned a couple of times as being in school on Beta Colony. This puts the average for the eleven titles I've read so far above 4.5. The only reason I can think of that more of them didn't win awards is that it may have become a consensus opinion of "Well, we can't give her all the awards, let someone else have a chance once in a while." Any that did win deserved it, others deserved awards even when they didn't win, and that most definitely applies to Memory, which is as good as any of the others. There is no question SFWA made an excellent choice in honoring Bujold as the latest Grand Master.
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Komarr (1998) is another short novel, barely 300 pages, but with plenty of adventure and mystery. It was a Locus finalist, but far down the list in the voting totals, but won an Italia in translation in 2003. Miles' earlier experiences were in military campaigns and covert ops, with intelligence gathering a sometimes added bonus. His position as Imperial Auditor is as an investigator, and an Auditor has no idea what type of case he'll be handling next, but most hinge on Barrayaran security. Auditors go where other investigative means have not yielded results. Miles and fellow Auditor Vorthys are sent to Komarr to investigate an accident that damages an orbital mirror system designed as part of the terraforming efforts. An ore freighter is also destroyed in the same accident, and its pilot and the crew of the orbital array are killed. The Auditors' task here is similar to that of the NTSB in our world; supervise recovery and forensic teams, attempt to reconstruct the sequence of events, determine cause and culpability.
I'm rating this just 4 stars. It's still an entertaining read, but more a generic mystery, with several predictable moments. Most mystery stories have minor details dropped into conversations or expostion, without the reader knowing which are significant. Other times such clues are less subtle. The first of those comes early. The Auditors are staying at the home of Vorthys' niece, Ekatarin Vorsoisson, whose husband Etienne is an administrator in the Terraforming offices. As soon as we learn his personality I knew he would be involved with the case in some way. Another suspicion arose when during a tour of several terraforming facilities he balked at Miles' suggestion of visiting a specific one. Other things were more vague, keeping me guessing up to the end. I knew the who, but not the how and why. Unfortunately, I've already been slightly spoiled about later books, so I knew particular characters were safe, in spite of how dire their circumstances seemed on occasion.
All of the stories have been written in third person, but with occasional internal dialogue in italics, and not just for Miles. In this case we get the thoughts of Ekatarin too. Her thoughts, fears, and reservations are sometimes in conflict with how Miles perceives her, which could lead to problems later. He is attracted to her, not just for her beauty, but also her intellect. However, her outward demeanor is not her true self. Due to the way Etienne had treated her she had closed herself off emotionally. During the course of the investigation Miles conceeds she needs to be questioned under ImpSec's fast-penta drug. As soon as it takes effect, her first response is, "It doesn't hurt." She wasn't talking about the drug hurting, but rather that she was not hurting anymore since she was freed from the need to control her emotions. Vor tradition is that the man is dominant, Vor ladies are subserviant, nothing more than baby factories, and they're supposed to be accepting of that fate. Cordelia Naismith may have been able to bring enlightenment to Aral Vorkosigan, and I would hope that would apply to Miles too. Yet some of his internal thoughts concerning her are disturbing. He thinks I have to make her mine!, implying she is something to be possessed. Hopefully that is just enthusiasm of infatuation, and he'll be disabused of that notion later.
Some of the books are accessible as stand-alone stories, others need the history of what has come before to be fully appreciated. In this case, it is the history between Barrayar and Komarr. In this future history, there is no faster-than-light travel, rather the far-flung systems are connected by naturally occuring wormholes. There are several near Komarr, only one of which leads to the Barrayar system. It might not make much sense, but it has to be accepted for the sake of the stories, but that wormhole is apparently the only one accessible to Barrayar. It was the means by which Cetaganda invaded Barrayar hundreds of years before, with Miles' grandfather's generation the ones who finally drove Cetaganda off the planet. Later, Barrayar occupied Komarr as a means to keep that wormhole open to them for trade. There was resistance to that of course, and many Komarrans still think of Aral Vorkosigan as The Butcher of Komarr, although their knowledge of that incident is lacking some of the facts. There are still many Komarran dissidents, including those who created the clone Mark to be an assassin. Every few years, among each generation, there are those who wish to avenge family members killed in various conflicts. I'm not sure if any of that recurs in later stories, or whether Komarr eventually accepts that their annexation by Barrayar is beneficial to all concerned. We shall see.
This is the fifth page I've done on Bujold's books, covering ten novels and three novellas. I plan at least two more, which will feature six more novels and three shorter works. There will be at least one other page for one of her fantasy series. Not sure how long all that will take me, since I have many other books on my list, but hopefully by the end of the year.
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