Discussion Post: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

vorkosigan

 

Mirror Dance is the latest novel we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Brothers in Arms and before Memory and contains a major spoiler for Brothers in Arms (don’t read on if you don’t want to be spoiled!). In Mirror Dance the story is split between Miles’s point of view and that of his brother, Mark. This is the first time there have been multiple points of view in a Vorkosigan Saga book.

You can read Tsana’s review of Mirror Dance here and Katharine’s review here.

 

Tsana: Well. That was one of the least funny and light-hearted installments in the Vorkosigan Saga so far. Still a compelling read, but it did nothing to cheer me up while I was reading (I made the mistake of marathoning a depressing TV show at the same time, so that was a bleak few days)…

 

Katharine: That’s almost putting it lightly. My personal review of the book was brief, because there’s not a lot to be said without spoilers (at least for a previous book) and it was just too full on. It’s important to mention that it dealt with it all so well – we’ll get into it more as we go, of course, but for how triggering it could be for anyone who’s suffered any type of trauma, I thought the way the characters reacted and handled it was incredibly positive.

 

Tsana: Ultimately it was a heavy book that dealt with some heavy topics. But those themes were kind of unavoidable given Mark’s past. This is really the book where we, not only get to know Mark, but also get to see him grow and start to come into his own. But Mark had a traumatic childhood and young adulthood, so there’s no escaping negative stuff. Throwing Mark into the mix with Miles and the kinds of dangerous shenanigans he usually gets up to and disaster is bound to strike. Although this is hardly the first time the Vorkosigan stories have gone to dark places.

 

Katharine: All very true. So basically, it’s been two years since Mark has had anything to do with Miles—

 

Tsana: OK, sorry but I’m going to interrupt here. It really bothered me how it says it’s two years later but it’s really more like three or four. Mark was 18 in Brothers in Arms and now he’s 22. Miles was 24 and now he’s 28. Minor continuity errors are annoying when you’re paying closer attention than usual because you’re going to be dissecting the story later. (But really, Bujold does a pretty good job, especially since these two books were published five years apart.)

 

Katharine: I have to admit I just flicked through as I was sure it was four years, however there’s countless references (mostly at the start) stating two. Which makes a little more sense as to how far Mark has come so far (ie, not very) but …that’s about it.

So really, it’s been about four years since Mark has had anything to do with Miles, the Dendarii – anyone. Miles has been splitting his life between being his Vor self and as Admiral Naismith, and it’s now that Mark makes a grab for getting his revenge on Jackson’s Whole. To do this, he’s going to pretend to be Miles once again, take the Dendarii, and hopefully free a whole lot of kids and burn their business to the ground.

 

Tsana: Yes, Mark seems to have flittered around not doing much and living off Miles’s money (that he gave him at the end of Brothers in Arms) until now, when he decides to mount a clone rescue. Amusingly, an idea first put into his head by Miles, not long before they parted ways. At this stage, it looks like Mark wants to be a better Miles — a better hero. Freeing clone kids is more heroic than undermining the Cetagandans, right?

 

Katharine: Especially with the mentions of how Miles had the chance to do exactly what Mark wants to, and decided to pass it up… it looks like Mark is going to fight the good fight. He manages it for a while – calls the ship to come get him, fobs off the reasons as to where Quinn is, manages to win Bel to his way of thinking (not hard, as Bel says how glad it is they’re finally righting this), and then…

 

Tsana: Well Bel isn’t fooled for very long. There was a moment when Mark worries that Bel’s onto him and then relaxes when Bel continues on as normal, but that was totally the moment when Bel became sure that Mark was Mark rather than Miles. I think Mark’s biggest mistake in dealing with Miles’s people is underestimating how much Miles cares about him. Those closest to Miles have presumably spent the past two-to-four years hearing him worry about his brother so when Mark, disguised as Miles, refers to himself as the “clone”, it’s a huge red flag. But Bel, as you said, goes along with it because they believe in the mission. But Mark isn’t Miles and his plans don’t go anywhere near as smoothly… Especially not once Miles is on their tail.

 

Katharine: Bel quickly takes control once Mark’s decision making and tactical experience is shown to be pretty subpar when it comes to mounting an attack and directing units of people. Mark has somehow forgotten what it was like to be a clone in that very facility, and is shocked when the clones don’t sing their praises and escape with them gleefully. They fight back, they manage to run and hide back with their captors, and the delays cost them the valuable time they were counting on to get out safely. They get pinned down, thankfully just around the time Miles has figured out what the hell has happened (when the Dendarii haven’t waited for him, and he’s had to make his own way following them, almost a week behind), meaning Big Brother Miles is here to save the day.

 

Tsana: Not that Mark wants him to save the day, exactly. But Mark wasn’t prepared for the pressures and requisite snap-decision making in combat, so he does want someone else to take over and fix it (so long as he still gets credit for the rescue).

Miles jumps into the fray but with fewer resources than usual. He has borrowed armour, because Mark stole his, and doesn’t have his control helmet to get a proper overview of the situation. It… doesn’t end well.

Should we have already put up spoiler shields?

 

Katharine: Probably. Beep beep boop!

–Spoiler Shield Activate!–

 

Katharine: That’s putting it lightly. He gets a needle-grenade in the chest (which is apparently a good thing – that it wasn’t his precious head), and mid-step of trying to hustle his little crew out of the firefight Miles is very dead, and three of them are covered liberally with his blood. And it’s everywhere. They unceremoniously dump one of their other dead crewmembers out of the portable cyrochamber and stuff Miles in – we get quite a nice explanation of what’s needed to make it all happen – and then they’re back on their own wits to escape. And it’s in this mess, they have not only seen Miles killed in front of them, but they also manage to leave him behind. I mean, can you even, Tsana?

 

Tsana: To be fair, it’s not even Quinn and Bel that lose Miles, it’s the random Dendarii doctor who is killed before he can tell anyone what he did with Miles. But can you imagine Miles’s reaction when he properly learns about the other frozen Dendarii being dumped to save him? We’d just seen him caring deeply about his fallen soldiers and spending a lot of money to look after those that needed extra rehabilitation after cryo-revival, and then… there’s one Dendarii that didn’t even get a proper chance to be revived because Miles was more important to his inner circle.

 

Katharine: There’s a lot of protection in this book. They don’t tell Miles of that straight away. They protect his parents (sending Elena to tell them the full story), protect Miles again, later, about his dad. Elena again helps Mark with his awful stories to protect Cordelia, Aral and Miles… but I’m getting way ahead of us both – it’s just a very caring book, for how awful it is in general.

 

Tsana: With Miles, do you think it was because they were scared of breaking him after having almost lost him, or because they thought telling him things gradually would be better? Miles is not the kind of person that deals well with not knowing things…

 

Katharine: Possibly not scared of breaking him, just thinking ‘jeez he’s been through enough’… and just wanting to get them all on the way home at least before any more delays. I guess it doesn’t feel polite to be all ‘You’re alive! And remember us now! By the way your dad is kinda dying and should be in surgery right about now, want some tea?’

 

Tsana: Good point. On the topic of caring, there is also the care that the Vorkosigan extended family gives Mark when he visits Barrayar. Not only Cordelia and Aral, who are technically his parents, but also Elena, Gregor and even Ivan. And all while having to deal with Miles being dead or, at best, missing.

 

Katharine: Cordelia and Gregor especially were remarkably thoughtful. They not only saw Mark as his own person rather than a horrible reminder of the lack of Miles, but they actively worked towards getting Mark understood and comfortable, when he didn’t even know what he wanted himself. And I did love the moments where Mark spoke plainly, mostly to Aral. ‘I was built to kill you, and this is how I’d do it.’ And Aral’s just all, ‘excellent, interesting, that’d work.’

But we’re skipping around a bit now, where were we. The Dendarii escape Jackson’s Whole with the majority of the clones, but no Miles. They retreat to the Barrayaran Empire where Mark and Elena stay with Cordelia and Aral, and the rest are left to their ships on forced leave in Komarran orbit, while Simon organises ImpSec into trying to find Miles. This is all still under the guise of not many people knowing Miles (Vor Miles) is involved at all, and that there’s ‘three of them’, and that it’s ‘just’ one of the clones that’s MIA, without letting it be known who. So everyone is treating Mark either neutrally or kindly, and Cordelia is ascertaining whether or not they’ll formally announce Mark as one of their own (while Miles is out apparently just on a mission somewhere).

And then Aral suffers a heart attack. Whilst alone with Mark, out in the woods, without even Elena around to confirm or deny what caused it. And what I found interesting is that even when they manage to get Miles back, even his first thought was ‘what did you do to him’.

 

Tsana: Given that Mark was trained to assassinate a bunch of Barrayarans, this isn’t a surprising reaction. Especially if you consider the last time Miles actually saw and interacted with Mark properly, which was at the end of Brother in Arms. We, the reader, have had a whole book to get to know Mark, but Miles hasn’t. The last time he saw Mark was in the middle of a chaotic battle of his orchestration, and the time before that he was still vacillating between killing Miles or just distrusting him.

 

Katharine: All very true. It really is excellent to see how everyone comes to care for and fight for Mark. Especially Elena. Cordelia you could kind of see would always be fighting for Mark no matter what. Ivan you can see how he wouldn’t really care either way – deep down I don’t think Ivan could hate anyone. But Elena can, and the fact she does certain favours for him by the end of the book certainly means something.

 

Tsana: I think that’s because Elena ends up learning more about him than she anticipated, including just what he can withstand. Ivan and Mark have a bit of a standoffish relationship — Ivan is forced to show his new brother around — but I found it really interesting that Mark saw through Ivan when Miles hasn’t. To Miles, Ivan is “that idiot Ivan” who will follow his crazy schemes despite protests. Mark, however, notices that Ivan isn’t actually as stupid as he pretends to be. Ivan just plays the fool because a) he’s not Miles and b) it’s too dangerous for him to be anything else. And Mark notices.

 

Katharine: Which is also interesting in that no one wants to be Gregor. Ivan acts that way so it’s less likely he’ll be edged towards the throne. Mark wants to go under fast penta to prove he hasn’t killed Miles, and doesn’t want to knock off Aral and whoever else might stand in his way. Aral’s only done what he’s had to in order to protect the throne from people not as morally conscious as he is, and certainly doesn’t want any more responsibility than what he already has (and Cordelia’s been fighting for years for other people to take up the slack). Quinn doesn’t want that side of Miles. And throughout we see Mark come to realise what he does want. And that’s money – but only to achieve things that no one else is seemingly interested in chasing. And an actual family.

 

Tsana: And, I think, something more closely approximating a normal life. We see this when he gets nervous and excited in the normal way about Kareen Koudelka (even though he has less normal things to be nervous about in that department). He starts off with a lot of academic knowledge about Barrayar, but the practical things like what dancing with a girl might actually be like, weren’t covered in his assassin training.

PS <3 Kareen.

 

Katharine: Same! She was so normal! Do we get to see more of her?

 

Tsana: Absolutely!

 

Katharine: Oh, excellent. She’s interesting, as she’s the first to meet Mark as Mark, with no preconceived notions about what he’s done, or what’s happened to him. And I love that she respects Cordelia, too.

So I think what I want to talk about is Miles and his recovery. There’s parallels between them both as they find their feet, but in Miles’ case, he was sent by one of his medics in the last moment to the hands of a young woman who the medic met in his training days. Still on Jackson’s Whole (after the wide net that was spread in search for him, surely that’s gotta hurt), Miles has been sent to a woman called Rowan. Who happens to be yet another clone, who specialises in cyro-revival. Even though his damage is vast, Miles is stitched back together, but loses his memory. His organs are replaced by vat-grown ones and over a couple of months, he slowly regains the ability to speak and walk without gasping for breath.

 

Tsana: Apparently memory loss is normal with cryo-revival and most people regain most of their memories. Of course, it’s not an instantaneous process and Miles is very frustrated by the glimpses he does get. Especially when no one will give him any clues because they’re not sure “which one he is”. The multiple identities, and the added confusion of outsiders thinking there are three people when really there are only two, do not help. We, the reader, are on tenterhooks wondering whether Miles will blow his cover or accidentally reveal imperial secrets before he regains his full memory.

 

Katharine: It must be fascinating to be Miles in that instance, and read about the two options (even if one doesn’t exist) and wonder which one you might be. Surely he’d have some preference, which we don’t get to see until he knows which one the head honcho at the medical facility hopes he will be.

I have to admit that I do continue to be a little tired over how Miles seems to only be able to function if he has some kind of romantic tie with the nearest woman. He says it himself later on, it’s not that he appreciates company like Ivan does – he collects them.

I guess being whatever sexuality I am (currently under review) that I struggle to understand why he has to lust over so many. Mustn’t that get exhausting? Don’t their personalities matter?

 

Tsana: But he only likes them because of their personalities. It’s not like when Mark got a bit problematic with the blonde clone just because she was constructed to be pretty. Miles is more into competence and, er, well, physical strength… But really his thing with Taura was more questionable than the fling with Rowan. And the Rowan thing pretty much wore off on both sides once he regained his memories. And it meant we got that heartbreaking moment with Quinn.

On the topic of him collecting women, I read that more as he doesn’t break up and fall out with them to never speak to them again. He remains on friendly good terms with them all. It’s not that he’s carrying on several affairs like Mark seems to think.

 

Katharine: He’s certainly mostly with Quinn, at least. To go as far as to ask her thoughts about marrying into the Vor lifestyle… I’ll try look at it in that way instead, as I have to admit my own interpretation of Miles sometimes isn’t something I’m overly comfortable with.

Do we want to discuss the more awful parts of the novel?

 

Tsana: The torture scenes were very dark and psychological. I remember finding them interesting, psychologically, the first time I read the book, and not as bad as I remembered the second time. Well, more not as long as I remembered, I think. And some parts were vague on the page, left for us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations. I think the aftermath of some of the other prisoners Miles saw was the worst part. Or the skin thing.

But the thing is, although it was horrifying, it did serve a purpose. We learn that Mark is much stronger than he (and everyone else) thought. And that being screwed up from his upbringing at least had some benefit to keeping him alive. But that section certainly didn’t make for pleasant reading.

 

Katharine: The skin thing didn’t bother me as much as conditioning him to want degrading sexual acts – the story of the other person who pissed him off coming to beg everyone for it (details vague as I’ve already tried to block it from memory). And the idea of giving the recordings to anyone who knows him just so they can be disgusted and/or ashamed of him… Mainly the conditioning thing.

Kinda makes you wonder what Bujold had to research to get such an understanding of it all. We see it from the start where Mark has panic attacks when he wants to be intimate with a girl. He despairs at the idea of never being normal in that regard.

As I was saying earlier, what I appreciated in the book was the talk of the healing process. Elena gathers up the evidence. Cordelia has seen his medical records. In other books I think it’s usually a matter of ‘given time and counseling’ whereas in here it’s noted he’s not okay but he will be. They seem like the same thing, but somehow this series seems to give it more depth?

 

Tsana: I dunno, I thought it was a bit lacking in Cordelia sending Mark off to Beta for therapy. In retrospect, that might be because she had less than stellar experiences there, but I think it was mainly because they needed Mark closer to hand because of the situation with Miles. And then Mark goes from more ordinary trauma screwed up (panic attacks when trying to be intimate because of Galen’s horrifying punishment) to hard-core trauma screwed up… I guess it will be good to get all the therapy done in one go? And back to what you were saying, it’s all a lot easier to live with since he has all these people around him who actually care, for the first time in his life.

 

Katharine: I don’t know… I think Beta Colony could be the best place for it as they’re quite forward-thinking. If Barrayar are the type to call them mutants, could they also be the type to judge Mark? (Though I suppose they do have the contacts to choose someone utterly suitable, so I don’t know where I’m going with that.)

I do love Cordelia throughout this novel. She’s so Betan, as they say, and I’m glad that line exists as it’s the only way to describe her in so few words.

 

Tsana: Given how conservative (in the pretending it didn’t happen way) Barrayar was regarding Prince Serg and all that back in Aral’s day, and how upset they get at any suggestion of sexual “deviancy”… Beta Colony is probably the better bet.

Even without therapy Mark made great strides in this book, a lot of which was thanks to Cordelia. I do find it interesting though that, at the very end, he says he wants to be an ImpSec analyst, which is not very many steps away from Miles really. But of course future career plans aren’t set in stone…

 

Katharine: Oooh, that makes it seem like something else is going to happen to Mark. Shall we leave this grim despair (I mean, they all had a happy ending eventually…) and read on?

 

Tsana: Onwards to a slightly less depressing Vorkosigan book!

 

Join us next time when we will be discussing Memory, the next novel chronologically!

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