Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Mirror Dance, Chapters 9-17

The blog index informs me that this is our seventh week of quivering in awe and trepidation under the force of Mirror Dance. This is exactly as many weeks as we spent dealing with the entirety of Ethan of Athos, a book that I actually enjoyed. I’ve been taking Mirror Dance slowly in an effort to take on the heinous torture scenes in the middle of it on my own terms, as if I have terms of my own that would somehow make the torture better. In recent days, however, I have come to the conclusion that there’s no butter in this hell, so this week we’re going to power through the hideous part so that we can move on and talk about more pleasant topics. It’s what Alys Vorpatril would do.

Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.


CHAPTER 9: Mark has to play Miles while talking to Baron Fell with the entire Dendarii officer corps in his ear. The Dendarii are doing their best to take advantage of their hostage, Baron Bharaputra, who they hope to trade for Miles. Mark visits the clones he rescued in their on-board refugee camps—Taura is looking after the girls. Mark wonders how to get a traumatized kid to trust him, and Elena tells him that if he ever figures it out, Miles would like to know. That’s a lovely encouraging moment. Mark realizes that Norwood shipped Miles. There were a lot of robots involved.

Torture Level: Quinn seems pretty anguished, and having Mark imitate Miles is kind of the original sin in Mark’s life. But everyone keeps their skin on. 4/10.


CHAPTER 10: Since Miles and his cryo-unit aren’t on Jackson’s Whole any more, the Dendarii trade Baron Bharaputra, whose given name is Vasa Luigi, for safe passage out via jump-point 5. The Jacksonians who retrieve the Baron also return the Dendarii agents Quinn attempted to leave behind in case Miles isn’t off-planet after all. The exchange is interrupted by the clone Quinn dubs Flowerpot, who chooses to leave with the Baron. A second would-be escapee, the blonde girl who Mark thought was intended for a sex-change transfer, is apprehended by the Dendarii. Mark volunteers to return her to quarters, stops by his room to get her a drink of water, and sexually assaults her. He is interrupted by Elena and Taura, who take the clone and confine him to quarters.

Torture Level: I don’t know why Bharaputra bothered—Mark is basically self-torturing. Sexually assaulting Maree, the clone, is a very bad thing. Mark did a good thing in the last chapter, so he had to ruin it, and he had to have some painful flashbacks to his torture at Ser Galen’s hands in the process. Maree and Flowerpot are also clearly victims of other people’s nefarious plans, their minds and bodies warped just as much as Mark’s (although in different ways). I had to read about one of the Vorkosigan boys being sexually frustrated. 6/10.


CHAPTER 11: Confined to quarters, Mark overeats to gain weight. This prevents Quinn from stuffing him into a military uniform for their top-secret meeting with Simon Illyan on Komarr. Elena says he looks like a drowned corpse that’s floated up after a week. Mak says thank you. I have loved every single conversation Mark and Elena have ever had, even the one where she confined him to quarters. They are such a delight. Illyan recognizes Mark, and conveys greetings from Cordelia. I sincerely hope Elena, Cordelia, and Mark are all in a room together at some point. I can’t remember whether or not that happens. Elli fills Illyan in on the news. He makes plans to take over the search and assigns Elena to deliver Mark to his parents’ custody. That’s a little weird, honestly, because he’s 20 and he doesn’t want to go. I’m not sure by what right anyone (except possibly the Dendarii who apprehended him in the commission of a crime) assumes custody of Mark. Elena doesn’t want to go to Barrayar either. Illyan bribes her by promising safety for the clones. I’m surprised she didn’t ask for a pardon for Baz; This is an early indicator of Barrayar’s role in her future plans. Also the clones have a lot of needs. On board a fast courier en route to Barrayar, Mark continues to overeat. He feels panicked about meeting his parents.

Torture Level: Illyan is a breath of non-torturey fresh air. Elena leaves Mark in solitary confinement for days, and the combination of panic and gastrointestinal distress makes him quite ill. 4/10.


CHAPTER 12: Countess Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan once again proves herself an amazing human being, striking exactly the right note in her first meeting with Mark—neither effusively emotional nor estranged and angry. Which is amazing, given Miles’s current status. She makes it clear that she is Mark’s ally, in part by praising his decision to gain weight. She says it’s very clever of him and he should distinguish himself from Miles in any way he can. Cordelia’s description of Miles is one for the ages, and lays down the idea of diverging personalities as escape mechanisms and safety valves—“Love, we are discussing a young man upon whom Barrayar laid so much unbearable stress, such pain, that he created an entire other personality to escape into. He then persuaded several thousand galactic mercenaries to support his psychosis, and on top of that conned the Barrayaran Imperium into paying for it all.” Mark breaks the ice with Aral by describing the Komarran plot to kill him. Aral is a pretty cool customer too. They discuss the possibility that Mark may inherit the Countship, and the allegedly erroneous claim that House Vorkosigan stands to inherit the Empire.

Torture Level: Aral and Cordelia do not torture prisoners. 0/10. I’m confused about how Mark gets back to Jackson’s Whole from here.


CHAPTER 13: Ivan takes Mark to have a conversation with Gregor. Gregor asks Mark what he wants to be when he grows up. This seems to have been written with the coming events in Memory in mind—Mark conjures the image of a detective inspector with a letter of marque and reprisal.

Torture Level: I think Mark is beginning to feel the weight of Barrayar’s expectations. But he’s doing it to himself. Jackson’s Whole seems a very long way away. 0/10.


CHAPTER 14: Ivan takes Mark to lunch. The caravanserai has been gentrified. What has happened to the thriving culture of midwifery among the caravanserai’s prostitute community? I am not to know. The building where Ivan was born now sells hand-woven carpets. Mark checks for a plaque commemorating Ivan’s birth—there isn’t one. Mark and Ivan are also a delight; no manners, no masks, but no deliberate unkindness either. Why doesn’t everyone treat Miles this way? After lunch they go check out the brass plate commemorating the spot where Padma Vorpatril died. It’s in the middle of the street—for accuracy, says Ivan, “M’mother insisted.” Alys hasn’t had an on-screen appearance in a few books now. She sounds fearless. She knows a good bakery just around the corner from the memorial, and so does Ivan, and now I want a brillberry tart and some nut rolls. While Ivan flirts with the bakery staff, Mark goes for a walk and finds one of the caravanserai’s less-gentrified neighborhoods. He picks a fight. This is so familiar. Mark and Ivan are back-tracing the route Cordelia and her crew came to rescue Miles’s replicator, and now Mark has stopped to have Kou and Bothari’s fight. Everyone is having a good time—Mark’s hand-to-hand combat training seems to have been quite good—until one of the locals pulls a shock stick and Mark nearly crushes his larynx. Ivan and the municipal guard break up the party. That evening, Elena is at dinner. Aral talks about having Mark confirmed as his heir should Miles’s demise be confirmed. The story of Lord Midnight gets trotted out—in this version, the horse pre-deceases the Count rather than being disinherited. Mark retreats to the library after dinner, and accidentally overhears Aral and Cordelia talking about him. Aral is particularly concerned about Mark’s weight. Cordelia explains its therapeutic significance, and says if he keeps packing it on, they’ll buy him a float pallet and some muscular servants. Aral and Cordelia are both entirely consistent with everything they’ve said to Mark’s face, which is nice, since he’s so insecure about what people must think of him.

Torture Level: I’m writing on Sunday afternoon. All of my local bakeries are closed. And the social pressure is ratcheting up. 1/10.


CHAPTER 15: I do not remember this book having so many chapters. Mark, Elena, and Aral go down to Vorkosigan Surleau. Kly the Mail is buried in the Vorkosigan family cemetery. Aral introduces Mark to Fat Ninny, and invites him on a hike. The Vorkosigan stables cross-country course is not as challenging as I had imagined, or perhaps this is the novice run. Miles’s cryo-chamber has been found empty. Aral has a heart attack. He doesn’t have his comm link with him. Mark has to run back down the hill for help. He finds Elena and sends her for help, and then the help assumes that Mark did something to Aral, which was kind of what Ser Galen had in mind. En route to the hospital in Hassadar, Aral tells Mark that all true wealth is biological, which seems just as rambly to Mark as it does to me. Cordelia deals with medical staff—“Don’t give me that crap kid, I own you.” I really just want to read Vorkosigan family dialogue forever. They could stop going to space and just sit around the dinner table saying things to each other. Mark tries to punch a window; Cordelia stops him. Cordelia is now in charge of crisis management.

Torture Level: Mark has unlimited access to baked goods. I do not. Aral’s efforts to connect with Mark were fairly agonizing. There was a forced march up a hill and some social aggression from Elena and the medic. 2/10.


CHAPTER 16: Mark goes to the Emperor’s birthday party and gives him a gift. As one does. Cordelia explains that Barrayaran politics is all biological, which makes more sense than what Aral said. Ivan rebuffs Cassie Vorgorov, who rebuffs Mark. Cordelia has a chance to explain her and Aral’s relationship with Jole, but settles for saying that Aral is bisexual. Illyan doesn’t have any good news to convey. Aral’s condition is grave. I had hoped that Mark would meet one of the Koudelka girls here, but he doesn’t.

Torture Level: These kinds of social events are difficult for introverts, but no one is being tortured here. 0/10.


CHAPTER 17: Still the Emperor’s birthday. Apparently, Galen didn’t fill Mark in on Vorish drinking habits. Poor Mark has no idea how stinking drunk he’s supposed to get at this shindig. Kareen Koudelka introduces herself and invites Mark to dance. They have a very nice vaguely romantic time. Is there even a torture scene in this book? Kareen gets carried off to her mama by one of her sisters, and Mark goes in search of Ivan. He finds a Vor bore who knows more than he should—look, now Mark is repeating Cordelia’s life! They are interrupted by a waiter, who Mark is pretty sure is ImpSec, but who blandly denies it. Mark finds Ivan who is very drunk. Ivan misses Miles. After returning home, Mark calls Illyan and then Gregor to ask to be in on ImpSec’s search for Miles. Mark wants to be a fountain. Gregor says let’s see what happens. At least I know how we get to the torture now.

Torture Level: Mark has found a reason to exist. And then he found another one. They’re everywhere. Self-actualization is very much the opposite of torture. 0/10.


I have failed in my efforts to dispense with the Jacksonian torture scenes this week. They’re still lurking out there, but now I have approximately 754 baking projects to buy groceries for.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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