Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published in 1995
From Goodreads: The dwarfish, fetally-damaged yet brilliant Miles Vorkosigan has more than his share of troubles. Having recently escaped an assassination plot whose tool was a brainwashed clone of himself, Miles has set the clone, Mark, free for a new chance at life. But when he decides to let his clone brother assume his secret identity and lead the Dendarii Free Mercenary on an unauthorized mission to liberate other clones from the outlaw planet of Jackson’s Whole, things start to get really messy. The mission goes awry, Miles’s rescue attempt goes even more wrong, and Miles ends up killed and placed in cryogenic suspension for future resuscitation. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, the cryo-container is lost! Now it is up to the confused, disturbed Mark to either take Miles’s place as heir of the Vorkosigan line or redeem himself by finding and saving Miles.
(Note: It’s pretty much impossible to talk about this particular book with major spoilers for both book and series. So be warned)
First off, let’s correct something from that synopsis. Miles did not “let” his clone assume his identity. Mark stole Miles’s identity, deceived the mercenary crew, and went haring off on his own little crusade to the corrupt planetary system where he came from. Then Miles found out what happened and went after Mark.
The rest of the synopsis is accurate.
So here we go.
It feels like it should be a trope, that when a lead character feels like he’s at the height of his powers he’s in for a fall. Thanks to an assassination attempt upon his parents before his birth, Miles grew up with brittle bones and only reached a height of 4’9″. He spent his childhood trying to prove to everyone around him that he was capable of doing everything that they did– often to his own detriment when he ended up breaking a bone or five. But once he reached his twenties and thanks to advanced medical techniques, he started having his brittle, natural bones replaced with far stronger synthetics. This aided his health– no more limp, no more osteoinflammation attacks, no more worrying about taking a bad step and breaking his leg. He also gained the respect of his superiors, thanks to years of breathtakingly successful covert ops missions accomplished with his Dendarii Mercenary company, which he conjured out of thin air before even entering the military. So at twenty-eight years old, in the best health of his life, and over forty successful missions behind him, where can Miles go from there?
Down. Quite a long way down.
See, Mark’s mission to Jackson’s Whole went horribly wrong, and Miles found out about it just in time to try to rescue his people. The rescue started out just fine, but it goes straight to hell when a sniper kills Miles. Yes, you read that right. Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, the main character of the whole series, dies. But hey, death isn’t necessarily the end. Thanks to cryo-chambers, a person can be held in stasis– even after death– and potentially revived later on.
Assuming the cryo-chamber isn’t promptly misplaced like a lost bit of luggage in the midst of a massive firefight, in which the rest of our heroes barely make it out with their lives.
Mark makes it out, of course, and has to face what he’s done. As much as he would like to run away, the Dendarii commanders take Mark back to Barrayar, there to face everyone from Miles’s intimidating commanding officer, friends, parents, and everyone else up to and including Mile’s foster-brother, the Emperor Gregor himself. No pressure for a battered and confused young man dumped onto a planet where no one knows what to make of him, and everyone blames him for the death of his incandescent progenitor.
Mirror Dance is not the ‘clone caper’ book one would expect it to be from the synopsis, which indicates that Mark is trying to take Miles’s place. And while there is plenty of action, the bulk of the book is a study of identity and what makes up a family.
By the middle of the story, Mark has come to live with Miles’s parents, Prime Minister Aral and Cordelia, neither of whom are quite sure what to make of this person who both is and is not their son. Cordelia is much more open to the idea of Mark being her ‘son’ is open and honest with her views and acceptance of him. She does not blame Mark for Miles’s death and disappearance, and she does what she can to help him. Aral, on the other hand, is a Barrayaran, and while his views are far more progressive than his own father’s, he can’t quite make the same connection as Cordelia. When he looks at Mark, he sees his son’s face on a stranger’s body, and much as he tries, he can’t make the leap to ‘this is my son, too’.
Suffice it to say, Barrayar is not an easy place for Mark to be, when everywhere he turns it’s ‘Miles this, Miles that’. There hardly seems to be room for Mark in all of it. And so Mark turns inward to find himself among the relics of his brother and begins to pick his way through the detritus to find out just who ‘Mark’ is.
It’s a strange switch to go from the perspective of the confident, sometimes manic hero that Miles is to Mark’s nervous and damaged point of view. But it’s also enlightening to get out of Miles’s head for a little while and see how others perceive him– and often, to see how the others really are. Take their cousin Ivan, for example. In previous books, Ivan appears to be little more than a tall, handsome foil for Miles. He seems to be a bit lazy and a bit slow, but is loyal and willing enough to put up with Miles’s antics- even when it puts him in danger. When seen from Mark’s perspective, though, Ivan is far more intelligent and moodier than we’ve seen him before, especially when the search for Miles hits a dead end– at the grand party for the Emperor’s birthday, Mark finds a drunken Ivan weeping for his lost cousin. Miles shines so brightly that it’s hard to see the true faces of those around him.
The notion of identity is not limited to Mark, however, because when Miles is finally revived– among mysterious strangers who don’t know who he is– he is suffering from a profound case of cryo-amnesia. He remembers basic concepts and has the muscle memory that allows him to reassemble small weapons, but he has no idea who he is. A few facts come back to him as his recovery progresses, but his doctors (captors?) cannot or will not tell him what they suspect about his identity. This lack of self is terrifying, and the situation becomes even more dire when he finally discovers who his keepers think he is, and what they expect him to do for them.
For me, Mirror Dance is the best entry in the Vorkosigan Saga to this point. Bujold once again handles the clone trope in such a way that it’s made fresh, providing wonderful insights into what constitutes family, and where another writer might have turned the story into a silly caper about mistaken identity, Bujold probes the question of identity itself. While I could guess the general progression of the plot, I had no idea what small things it would turn upon and I loved the details and interactions between Mark and his newfound family. Mirror Dance provides a perfect balance of action and introspection, with each of the main characters– Miles and Mark– facing down vile enemies and their own deepest fears.