There is an interesting phrase about having to deal with one’s past that mentions mistakes which sooner or later come back to bite us in the behind, and that’s what happens to Miles in this novel, one of my favorites in the saga and the consolidation of the story’s more serious tone that started to appear in Mirror Dance, the previous book.
After being mortally wounded, cryo-frozen, misplaced and finally rescued in the course of the latest Dendarii operation, Miles is back in his position as Admiral Naismith with the mercenary outfit, but all is not well with him: an unexpected side effect of the emergency cryo-freezing left him plagued with seizures which occur at unpredictable intervals, and during one of these episodes he accidentally fires on the person his team rescued, causing a grievous wound and making it clear that the seizures are not a passing phenomenon he can blithely ignore any longer. Back on Barrayar, Miles doctors his report to intelligence’s chief Illyan to make the accident look like an equipment malfunction, but his lie is discovered and Illyan forces him to resign – on medical terms, to avoid the disgrace that the dishonorable lie would have entailed.
Lost and rudderless, Miles faces a time of bleak despair from which he comes out only when Illyan starts to show worrisome mental symptoms that soon turn out as the result of sabotage to his memory chip: on the emperor’s orders, Miles heads the investigation and applies his unique skills to uncovering the complicated plot, while finding a new channel for his energies and intelligence and a new lease on life – not in the direction he had dreamed of in his youth, but an interesting one nonetheless.
Memory is a book with many themes, and if the more prominent one turns out to be the investigation on Illyan’s mysterious illness, the character development angle – both for Miles and for the other players – offers many fascinating opportunities for thought.
Over the years, Miles has found a way to compensate his physical inadequacies by building himself the persona of Admiral Naismith, the charismatic leader of the Dendarii mercenaries, a fictional creation which allowed him to show the power of mind over matter, that a crippled body does not equate with a crippled mind. The success of the mercenary fleet – secretly enrolled by the Barrayaran government for all sorts of covert operations – has also allowed Miles Vorkosigan to obtain the recognition he craved at home, even though these ventures are classified, because the people who matter to him, like his father, emperor Gregor, and so on, are aware of his exploits. But as the novel opens, Miles is painfully aware that his body might be betraying him, and that losing the Dendarii, losing Naismith, he will be left with very little indeed.
Naismith had all the life. But Naismith was dead now—killed by that needle grenade on Jackson’s Whole after all, though the double-take of realization had required a full year to run its course.
And when Miles, no matter the identity her wears, finds himself in a corner, his first reaction is to change the rules of the game, to try and cheat the odds – only this time the trick backfires and he loses everything. What follows is a very hard segment to read, because we see Miles in such a depth of despair as we never saw him before – not when he failed his first application at the Academy, not when he lost Bothari – and witnessing his stunned withdrawal from everything and everyone was actually painful, the only ray of light in the situation offered by Ivan’s intervention when he bodily drags him out of it (and I’m growing ever fonder of Ivan this time around…)
The real change, however, occurs when Illyan’s trouble surfaces and Miles launches into the investigation with the usual unstoppable energy and a good dose of empathy and compassion: the damage to the memory chip is plaguing Illyan with both a cascade of recollections from the past and a reset of his awareness every few minutes, in something that sounds painfully close to the manifestations of Alzheimer; Miles knows intimately what it means to find himself alone and lost, with no clues about one’s identity, and the way ImpSec is dealing with its chief’s illness – a way not so dissimilar from the one once employed in mental hospitals – spurs him into angered action.
He remembered the lingering nightmare of his own bout of post-cryo-revival amnesia […] was Illyan experiencing something like that right now? Or something even more grotesque? Miles had been lost among strangers. Illyan seemed lost among what should have been friends.
It’s easy to forget your own problems when you deal with someone else’s, and when the investigation starts in earnest the story moves back into more familiar territory, with Miles running all over the place subverting traditions and disrupting dastardly plans: the mystery section of Memory is so well crafted that even though I know now who the villain was I was able to follow the progression from clue to clue with the same breathless anticipation of the first time, enjoying the way those hints were presented and their careful positioning in the narrative flow. There is also the delightful bonus of observing the conversations between Miles and a partly recovered Illyan: both of them have experienced the deconstruction of what they used to be, and have to find a way to… reinvent themselves. To see them sharing those thoughts not as superior officer and subordinate, but as equals, is a heart-warming experience that taught me much about them as people, and I am in awe of Bujold’s skills in these wonderfully intimate moments.
Still, the best part of the overall story is the discovery that identity does not make the person, but rather is the product of what that person is, of their values, their moral code. By helping Illyan, Miles ends up helping himself, finally understanding who and what he truly is: there is a moment when he struggles under a temptation so strong that the merest nudge might cause him to fall, since he’s offered back everything he thought lost, but the recent experiences have changed him, he has now transitioned into true adulthood and acknowledged that some prices are too high, no matter the prize one might get in the end.
“The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.”
This acknowledged integrity plays an important role in Miles’ future occupation, one that does not come out of the blue but is presented with almost unobtrusive nonchalance and yet requires the severance of the ties with his past: he says goodbye to Quinn, having accepted that she will never choose to be a planet-bound Lady Vorkosigan; he leaves the Dendarii in her capable hands; and most important he decides to move into his grandfather’s suite of rooms: no longer in awe of the old man, no longer needing to prove something to him, Miles feels ready to forge his own way, not without a spark of his old cheekiness when he tells Aral:
“I am unprecedented.”
And his father replies:
“This is not news, Miles.”
We learned this a long time ago, indeed… 🙂