So far, the books in the Vorkosigan Saga have been a mix of delightful fun, adventure and humor, but with Mirror Dance we step into serious drama and darkness, especially darkness of the soul, which imparts a new direction to the overall saga. What’s more, this is one of the most engrossing novels of the series and, together with Memory, the next in line, remains my favorite of the whole Vorkosigan arc.
In the previous installment we met Mark, Miles’ clone-brother, created to fulfill a long-standing Komarran plan of vengeance, and at the end of the book the two siblings had parted ways still uncertain about how to deal with each other, although Miles had offered Mark a place on Barrayar as his brother, as part of the family. In Mirror Dance Mark concocts a plan to save the Bharaputra clones on Jackson’s Whole, some fifty individuals created to offer a new body to various Jacksonian potentates: through a difficult procedure, the old brains would be implanted in the new bodies, offering the… wearers a new lease on life, while the clones’ brains are destined to be discarded as so much trash.
Having been cloned himself, and subjected to ruthless conditioning to impersonate Miles, Mark feels strongly about these innocents, so he poses as his progenitor and manages to depart for Jackson’s Whole with a Dendarii ship and crew for a rescue mission. Back from a short vacation, Miles rejoins the fleet just in time to discover the scam and run in pursuit of his wayward ‘brother’. Both missions encounter unexpected difficulties and in the course of a heated battle Miles is grievously wounded and put in cryo-stasis, only for the Dendarii to lose his cryo-pod during the hasty retreat. The frantic search for the missing Miles becomes then a convoluted dance of mirrors and deceptions while the situation becomes even more complicated by the intervention of other Jacksonian crime lords intent on exacting their revenge on Miles for his previous exploits.
The intricate, harrowing plot of Mirror Dance is a breathless succession of events where tension rarely lets up, laced as it is with uncertainties and mind-bending twists, and as such it would be an engrossing adventure read, but its real value lies in the issue of identity: for Mark as he tries to discover who he really is on his own, and for Miles as he struggles to regain the memories he’s temporarily lost after the cryo stasis.
I wanted to be Lord Mark. I just wanted to be Lord Mark. […] I just wanted to be human.
“I was a smart-ass little bastard who could think rings around the opposition, and prove it time after time. Without the brains . . .” Without the brains I’m nothing.
There is a segment – a long, excruciating segment – in which the reader doesn’t know what happened to Miles, if he’s still alive, and it’s no spoiler to confirm that he truly is, since the saga continues to feature him, but still not seeing him for that long stretch of pages, knowing nothing about his fate in such a dangerous place, is a very troubling experience and one that shows us how fond we have grown of this almost-crazy, hyperactive individual in the course of the previous books.
Yet Miles’ absence is what helps showcasing Mark’s struggle for acceptance, recognition and individuality, and his journey from tool to person. It’s not an easy road, of course, and it’s paved with a lot of pain, even physical pain as he’s subjected to horrific torture at the hands of Baron Ryoval, in one of the darkest and most disturbing narrative segments of the series. Here is where Bujold displays her skills by not focusing morbidly on the actual details but showing their effects on Mark’s psyche, and the remarkable, heart-wrenching way he finds to cope with them. At that point I had already developed some sympathy for him, forgiving him for the foolish inciting event that caused Miles’ plight, because his desperate will to do something, to correct his mistakes, had turned him from an imperfect copy of the original into a worthy individual. But that part of the story made me feel for him with the same intensity that until now I had reserved only for Miles, and probably that process started during Mark’s sojourn on Barrayar where Cordelia and Aral’s acceptance of the young man as their other son managed to melt part of Mark’s defensive barriers – and mine towards him as well.
The Barrayar section of the story is both a much-needed interlude after the stress of the botched clone rescue operation, and the welcome return of Cordelia and Aral in person. They have always lurked in the background before, as the source components of Miles’ character, but here we finally reconnect with them while learning more about who they are through the way they deal with the possibility of having lost Miles while gaining another son. I love the conversations between them that show the differences in personality and outlook in respect of this fully-grown, unexpected son: Cordelia, in full Betan mode, is as always open to the possibilities in front of them, while Aral is more reserved and it’s easy to see how he might unconsciously believe that opening his heart to Mark could be a betrayal of Miles; it’s only when Cordelia urges him to get to know him better that he relents and gives himself permission to accept this strange… gift.
And they are not the only ones, so that this growing “circle of acceptance” seems to bolster Mark’s faith in himself as an individual – not just Miles’ copy – and ultimately compels him to lead the so-far-fruitless search for his brother, not so much as atonement for his own mistakes but because he’s starting to learn what having a family means, and he understands that this family will not be complete without Miles. It’s a very emotional moment in a story where there are many others – real emotions wrought by a very skilled hand, like Mark’s discovery of a drunken, crying Ivan who realizes how much he misses his cousin, or the warmly sedated acceptance by Emperor Gregor, a man who knows what it means being alone among others. Or again, Miles’ reaction as memory comes crashing back and his first thought goes to dead Sergeant Bothari: I confess my throat constricted then, as my admiration for Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing went up another notch.
It would not be far-fetched to say that in Mirror Dance both brothers face a trial by fire that leaves them profoundly changed, closer to each other and ready to establish mutual trust, and at the same time separates them as individuals, not just in physical appearance but where it most counts, in the mind. As Mark muses at some point:
Miles would, demonstrably, lay down his life for his brother, but he did have a notable tendency to try to subsume the people around him into extensions of his own personality. I am not your annex. I am your brother. Yes. Mark rather fancied they were both going to be able to keep track of that, now.
They are truly brothers now, similar but different, and that’s the reason Mark can finally think about going home as they start their journey back to Barrayar.