Brothers in Arms
Lois McMaster Bujold
Audiobook Narrated by Grover Gardner
Originally published in 1989
From Goodreads: Led by Admiral Naismith (a.k.a. Lord Miles Vorkosigan), the Dendarii mercenaries have pulled off the daring interspace rescue of an entire Cetagandan POW camp. But they have made some deadly enemies. Having finally outrun the infuriated Cetagandans, the Dendarii arrive on Earth for battle, shuttle repair, and a well deserved rest. But Miles realizes he’s in trouble again. First the mercenaries’ payroll doesn’t arrive on time, and then someone tries to murder him. Now Miles must juggle both his identities at once to unravel the complicated plot against him–and to reveal an unexpected ally. Just who is trying to assassinate which of his personas, and why?
Miles and his Dendarii Free Mercenaries head to Earth in this installment of the Vorkosigan Saga. It’s not a deliberate destination, persay, but one of convenience. After daring raid that successfully rescued thousands from a Cetagandan prisoner of war camp, the Dendarii spend weeks fleeing the enraged Cetagandans. Finally, free of pursuit and in desperate need of repairs, the fleet docks in Earth orbit. The mercenaries are given leave and Miles heads to the Barrayaran Embassy in London.
Things are routine for a while. Ship repairs are underway, the fleet’s accountant is on Miles’s back to get the company paid, and Miles himself must disappear into the role of Lieutenant Vorkosigan, embassy attaché. Events don’t allow him to maintain this low key status, however, and he’s soon pushed to his limits while trying to balance his identities– that of Lt. Vorkosigan, Barrayaran Imperial Security officer and that of Admiral Naismith, the daring and charismatic leader of the Dendari Free Mercenaries. Between the disappearance of the company’s payroll and an assassination attempt on one of his personas, Miles is starting to have a hard time telling which of his personas is truly him.
Then things take a truly weird turn when Miles starts seeing himself– but different– in his reflections.
Brothers in Arms feels a little like a book written in two halves. In the first half, Miles Naismith is desperately working to keep his fleet from being destroyed or impounded. There is more discussion of spaceship economics and futuristic accounting than I ever wanted to know about, and while my attention never flagged, I didn’t find it as interesting as the rest of the books.
When I hit the second half, though, it was off to the races. Action, double-crossing agents, interplanetary politics, and a devious villain all worked together to create a brilliant story that is pure science fiction, without losing the elements of family drama, spy thriller, and occasional romance that have marked the series so far.
To give a more in depth review, however, requires spoilers. So if you don’t want to know about some major plot twists, stop here.
Still with me? Okay.
In the process of figuring out what order to read the Vorkosigan series in, I stumbled across a few spoilers- one of them being the existence of Miles’s clone. I rolled my eyes at first because clones can become a tired trope in a hurry in the wrong hands, but given Bujold’s excellence as a writer, I was willing to give it a go, and fortunately I was not disappointed.
Part of the reason Bujold succeeds with the clone storyline are the complexities that must go along with the notion of a clone– particularly in this one’s case. The clone was created for political purposes, and so was taught from the first to try to take on Miles’s identity, his habits, desires, position… everything. But the clone, later named Mark for a good reason (and I’m going to refer to him by his name for expediency’s sake), is a person in his own right. Deep down, he wants an identity separate from Miles, but he has no idea how to rebel against the terrorist who has been holding him captive all these years, nor even who or what he might possibly become, if granted freedom.
There is plenty of conflict for Miles, too, in this situation, aside from the general oddness of having his clone suddenly appear. A good son of Barrayar would kill his clone on the spot, and a good military man would execute, or at the very least, detain a member of a violent terrorist organization hellbent on destroying his planet’s government. And Miles, the son of Count Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of the Barrayaran Empire, is every bit his father’s son. But he is also his mother’s son, and Cordelia is from Beta Colony, a planet with very clear laws about the existence of clones– they are just as much a member of the family as they would have been had they been born and raised in the normal fashion. And though Miles is a military man, he can’t get his mother’s voice out of his head, ‘Miles, what have you done with your baby brother’.
The plot turns on this. Miles must find a way to resolve the dire situation he’s in and save the lives of his compatriots without killing his clone brother. It’s a fascinating setup, and one that few writers could handle as delicately and as naturally as Bujold. Every time I thought she was setting up something that’s become an old trope by now, she surprised me by making a left turn and doing something completely different.
Too, I loved the notion of identity that Bujold plays with in Brothers in Arms. At the beginning, when Miles is juggling his own self with his covert ops identity, he’s having trouble figuring out who, exactly, he is. Is he Vorkosigan or Naismith? Which of these identities is closer to his actual self? This question is so overwhelming to him that, when he first sees Mark, Miles thinks he’s going crazy. And when facing down a very angry Mark later on, Miles has to find a way to convince Mark that they’re both free to be whomever they choose– not an easy thing for Miles to convince anyone of, given that he’s not even sure he wants to be Miles Vorkosigan himself.
Brothers in Arms feels like an odd installment, and I’m not sure why that is given that Bujold hits every beat just right– particularly in the book’s second half. Perhaps it’s to do with the dual identities that are going on in this one. In the other books, it’s perfectly clear where Miles Vorkosigan ends and Admiral Naismith begins, but because Miles is having to go back and forth between the two in rapid succession, it can be a rather dizzying effect.
In the series as a whole, Brothers in Arms acts as a turning point for Miles in his life as a whole. Here, he is twenty-seven years old and in the prime of his health and ability. Many of his brittle bones have been replaced by synthetic ones, so he’s not as fragile as he once was. He also has a steady relationship with Quinn– at least, Admiral Naismith does. But will he be able to pull off his dual identities forever? And how can he continue to function as the leader of a fleet of 5,000 mercenaries, when his role in the Barrayaran chain of command is that of a lowly lieutenant who can still get called in for embassy guard duty? And what about his duties to his home and family?
Not all of these questions are answered in this book. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be, because they are overarching plot points for the whole series. What Brothers in Arms does is to begin forcing Miles into a position where he can’t outrun these questions for much longer. They’re starting to catch up with him in a big way, and when they finally get him, things will never be same.