Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

mirror dance From

Miles Vorkosigan faces more than his share of troubles as the protagonist in Mirror Dance. Not only is he deformed and undersized but he has a cloned brother who gets into a jam in the free enterprise plague spot known as Jackson's Whole. Miles tries to help his brother but ends up injured, placed on cryogenic suspension and then lost in intergalactic limbo. And that's just in the first 100 pages. The following 300 pages add a wealth more to this fantastic tale that's both humorous and finely written. Mirror Dance won the 1995 Hugo Award for Science Fiction.

I've been rather under the weather lately. I've done too much physically and my CFS has come along and thwacked me around the head to remind me it's still there. As a result, my brain isn't running on full steam either. So I don't have this post quite planned out in my head and I don't know how coherent I'm going to be. However, I know that the longer I put it off, the more and more likely it becomes that I won't write anything at all. So here we go. I'll start typing and we'll see what happens.

This is a reread for me, being read as the part of the Vorkosigan Series Read with the Beyond Reality group on Goodreads. I'm not sure how many times I've read it - it feels like the answer should be "many" but I rather suspect it is less times than I imagine. All the same, it's a book I remember as a favourite and the point where the series turns from books I really enjoy to books I love.

All the same, I was nervous about reading it. For once, I even knew why. You see, as the book begins, one of the two main protagonists does something incredibly stupid. I've always been very embarrassed for characters than do this kind of thing. I'll put the book down and need to take a breather (a few seconds or a few days, sometimes it can run long enough the make the book a DNF). If it's on TV I'll get up and leave the room and I think the only time I ever walked out of a movie before it finished was for this reason.

And in this case, that character, he's very close to being my favourite character in the series. Miles is such a brilliant creation that he remains my favourite, but Mark is always right there behind him breathing down his neck. And yes, it is Mark who does the colossally stupid thing. What makes it worse is that he doesn't actually do it out of stupidity, but from inexperience and youth and a desperate urge to get out of Miles' shadow and be a hero in his own right.

The problem is that Mark isn't Miles, no matter how much he was conditioned to be so, and he can't be a hero like Miles. The triumph of this book is that Mark gradually discovers that he can be a hero like Mark.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was talking about being nervous about reading the book. To do so, I was going to have to go through that with Mark and Miles and the other characters and watch it all unfold - and unfold badly. I tried to express this in a conversation on the group and was struggling to find the right words, and one of the other readers came back with "cringe". And yes, that's it exactly. If Mark had just being an idiot doing something idiotic, I could grimace a bit, but just think "well, you had that coming." But Mark isn't actually an idiot and he's trying so desperately hard (and is terrified the whole time but still keeps on going) and still he totally screws everything up. It makes me cringe.

In fact, it makes me cringe in advance, just when I start thinking that I'm going to have to read it soon. It doesn't help that Mark does something else awful, not out of meanness or maliciousness or evil, but out the situation of his very, very screwed-up childhood and upbringing. Yes, he's much more at fault in this case, but not completely and again, I cringe.

When I look at the dates I started and finished this book, I can break it down into the early "cringe" part of the novel and the rest. I would guess that it took me 4 days to read the first third of the novel and 2 to read the last two-thirds. Once I got past the hard bit, I couldn't stop reading and just kept going until I was finished.

Which brings me to the point of this very long ramble before I even move on to the meat of the book. I don't find the first part of the book cringe-worthy because it is bad; it is because it is just so damn good. You're right there with Mark; Bujold makes you understand his motivations right along with his dreams and his errors and his ignorance. If you start reading Mirror Dance and like me, find yourself cringing as you read this early part - please, please, please don't give up on the book. The payout at the end is so very worth it. In fact, you start getting payout on your uncomfortableness (yes, I know that's not a word but it best describes what I'm getting at) long before you get to the end of the book. Please stick it out. You'll be rewarded.

As for the rest of the book, on some levels it is another space adventure like earlier Vorkosigan books, but I think it is also something deeper. This is a book about identity. This has been a theme in earlier books in the series as Miles juggles Lord Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismaith, but here with the presence of Mark and the events towards the end of the book, it becomes so much more about identity than any of the earlier books have been.

For the first section of the book, Mark is never mentioned by name. We get several chapters entirely from his point of view, but still Bujold only uses "he" to identify her protagonist. While Miles gave him the name Mark back on Earth in Brothers in Arms, he hasn't chosen to claim it for himself, and sees himself essentially as without an identity. Or more importantly, if he doesn't identify with Miles himself, there's no-one left to be him. So he swans along to the Dendarii, posing as Admiral Naismith, and sends them on a mission of his own choosing, always angry with him that they don’t recognise that is, in fact, not Naismith. But all the same, he is not Miles and everything falls apart around him.

That's the cringe-worthy but good stuff. From there it moves on to the still good but no longer cringe-worthy stuff. With Miles out of the picture (I'm not going to tell you why or how as that's a spectacular spoiler), the remaining Dendarii, headed by Quinn, send Mark off to Barrayar. There he discovers he has a number of relatives, the most astounding of these being his parents (or grandparents, or parents-once-removed, or whatever you call people due to the tricky legalities of cloning). In her usual, clear-headed way Cordelia soon sets him straight that she would like to be, if he will let her, simply his newly-met mother. These people don't compare him to Miles (or not much), they don't expect him to do anything for them, they just want him to be a person in his own right - Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. The problem, of course, as that he has no idea who that is or how to be him.

All the same, he slowly begins to learn.

There's a lovely part quite early on in his time of Barrayar, where Mark and Aral are talking and it is brought up that they have all studied each other and know a lot about each other.

So what's the test?" [asks Mark]

"Ah, that's the trick of it. It's not a test. It's real life." [Aral answers]

And this is a core of the identity issue here. Mark can't study to be himself - or Miles for that matter. All he can do is accept the potential of Mark and slowly find out what that is and who he can become.

The lovely thing about the book is that he does. It takes a while, but he does. As the action moves away from Barrayar and back into the wider galactic sphere, that respite on Barrayar (despite having some high drama of its own) has given Mark some time to take tentative steps towards developing an identity of his own. He's beginning to realise he has a mind just as smart as Miles' is; it's just that he can and wants to use it in different ways. He's had people around him react with him directly as Mark instead of as a substitute Miles (whether they know the truth about it all or not). True, that identity isn't very far developed yet, but it's enough that he knows he wants to discover who Mark is, not get tossed back into being the no-one/anyone he was before.

Meanwhile, there's Miles. When we re-encounter him, he's lost his memory. (This is foreshadowed early in the book and relates to Mark's colossal blunder, so I'm going to mention it but work very hard to avoid any conspicuous spoilers.) That brilliant brain is still spinning at its usual rate, but without the background knowledge and information he usually has, he can't make the leaps of intuition he usually does to take control of the situation. Instead Mark reappears, steely and determined to rescue his big brother and this leaves Miles, even memory-less, feeling like he's lost control of a situation in which he should be in charge.

From there, all the strands begin to weave themselves back together again, to the point where Miles, memory returned, sets out to rescue Mark, only to find his baby brother has already done it for himself and perhaps, even with his personality back together, he's not quite so in control of things as he always imagined he was.

Bujold does do some pretty nasty things to Mark in this book (I'm not going to say what) but they are all implied rather than shown and I'm perfectly happy to leave it that way. We get the full force of Mark's triumph without needing the gory details. Personally, I find this much easier to read than the cringe-worthy first section.

It is also lovely to see Aral and Cordelia back on their own turf, so to speak. Cordelia is her usual, clear-eyed self and her outsider’s view helps Mark appreciate the ways the reality of Barrayar doesn’t match the lies he was taught by Galen. But mostly, it is her honest, not necessarily comforting assessments of her husband and both her sons that take me love her all over again. Aral, Barrayaran to his soul even with his galactic wife, struggles with the whole mess that is so outside his experience, but remains the solid, stubborn and honest man we know him to be. And the book is almost worth it’s cover price just for the fun of watching Cordelia face down Simon Illyan and defeat him absolutely.

Another thing I like about this book is that by the end, Mark isn't actually fixed. He knows who he is and he's at peace with that - but he also knows that he's very screwed up inside his head and needs to do something about it. With Cordelia's support, he voluntarily decides to head off to Beta Colony for some serious therapy (which is apparently pretty good if they're not working on false assumptions like they were with Cordelia back in Shards of Honor). There's even a hint that in a more distant future, when she's older and he's less damaged, he might get the girl (I'm still holding out for that to happen.)

To finish on a fun note, my favourite line of the book comes when Miles tries to explain about Mark (although not the Vorkosigan part) and what he has done.

"You see," Miles explained in a hollow voice to the What-the-hell-are-they-talking-about portion of the room, "some people have an evil twin. I am not so lucky. What I have is an idiot twin."

This is an excellent book that sets us up for several more of my favourite books to come as I love Memory perhaps best of all, and love Komarr and A Civil Campaign especially for one of the new characters they introduce. I'm looking forward to it.

I love me a Vorkosigan book with Miles in it; but I love me even more a Vorkosigan book with both Miles and Mark in it. Mirror Dance is the reason why. The journey Mark takes in this book carries me along with it and leaves me exhausted and satisfied at the end. I cringe so much at the beginning because I so desperately want Mark to succeed and it hurts when he does the exact opposite. I don't know quite why I emphasise with him as much as I do, but the fact is that I do.

I love this book. I love this series. If you haven't, give it/them a try and stick with it through the cringe. I don't think you'll regret it.

Mirror Dance
Lois McMaster Bujold
Vorkosigan, Book 9
Read: 13-1-10 to 19-1-10

Vorkosigan Series (in chronological order)

  1. Shards of Honor (Goodreads link)
  2. Barrayar (Goodreads link)
  3. The Warrior’s Apprentice
  4. The Vor Game
  5. Cetaganda (Goodreads link)
  6. Ethan of Athos (Goodreads link)
  7. Borders of Infinity (Goodreads link)
  8. Brothers in Arms (Goodreads link)
  9. Mirror Dance
  10. Memory (Goodreads link)
  11. Komarr (Goodreads link)
  12. A Civil Campaign (Goodreads link)
  13. Diplomatic Immunity (Goodreads link)
  14. CryoBurn (hopefully due late 2010)


Carl V. said...

I have never read any of Bujold's work, but I frequently see novels on the bookshelf that tempt me to finally give them a try. It is interesting that you mention your reaction to things like this and how it makes you walk away. I have similar reactions sometimes, to television shows in particular, where I don't like the direction a character is going, know that they will come out of it in the end and make going through the hard part with them worthwhile, and yet I still don't want to put myself through that as a viewer. Have had the same reaction with books. You're the first person I think I've come across who has wrote about it in such a way that I was saying, "hey, this person gets it!".

orannia said...

I'm so with you on the cringe factor. I was doing it last night...watching but not watching because I knew the character was about to be embarrassed.

Oh, and can I just say, absolutely, hands down, a fantastic review! I love how you express how the book affects you. And this line:

Mark can't study to be himself - or Miles for that matter. All he can do is accept the potential of Mark and slowly find out what that is and who he can become.


Jim Black said...

Great review. Like Carl, I have never tried Bujold's work but I am tempted to after reading your review. Which book do you recommend starting with.

Kerry said...

Carl and Orannia - I too thought I was along in the "cringe factor" thing until I brought in up in regards to this book and other people said they felt the same way.

Hey Jim - This definitely isn't the book to start with. I'd recommend either "Shards of Honor" (also available in the Baen omnibus "Cordelia's Honor") if you want to go back to the very beginning about how these characters' parents met, or "The Warrior's Apprentice" (also available in the Baen omnibus "Young Miles") if you want to start at the first book about this generation. Personally, I read them in the order I've given in my post and liked doing it that way. If you're an ebook reader, the entire series is available through Baen's Webscriptions service.