Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Mirror Dance, Chapters 18-33

Last week’s blog post was a fast pass through a large number of Mirror Dance’s middle chapters, and between that and having now actually reread the entire book, I’m finding it much less terrifying; the torture scenes are still lurking out there, but they are no longer lurking stealthily. It turns out they’re pretty close to the end. But now that I’ve found my peace with it, the truth about Mirror Dance is still that I would like to read something else.

This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. 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.

There are very few parts of this novel that I don’t appreciate on some level. I almost always hate reading about frustrated male sexuality, but that’s really about me, not about Mark, Miles, or Mirror Dance. I think it would be great if one day someone rescued some clones off of Jackson’s Whole without getting handsy with at least one of the rescuees. Again, that’s really about my preferences as a reader; I’m sure many readers got through those scenes without muttering “my what big boobs you have” under their breath. I could have lived quite happily without Miles ever having sex with his cryo-revival specialist (who got permission from her grandmother first, which tells you something about the Duronas that I’m not sure I needed to know). These are minor quibbles.

From an artistic and literary standpoint, Mirror Dance is an unquestionably great work. Its middle and late chapters mark Aral and Cordelia’s return to the center of the action, through the lens of the long-lost son they have just met. And they are gorgeous. All of the difficulty, awkwardness, and pain involved in rebuilding the Vorkosigan clan with this new addition is rendered with stunning care and concern from multiple perspectives. Bujold’s characterization is richer than ever, and Mirror Dance is studded with small gems like the scene where Cordelia’s desperation drives her to ask Mark if he has a psychic connection to Miles. He does not, and she immediately turns her attention to more pragmatic plans – mortgaging some family land to buy him a ship so that he and the Dendarii can continue the investigation of Miles’s disappearance on Jackson’s Whole.

Other treasures include a brief exploration of Illyan’s feelings about ImpSec Headquarters. ImpSec is a miserable excuse for a building, designed and constructed to be unpleasant and uncomfortable, by the first lord Dono Vorrutyer. The sole member of the Vorrutyer family who has already appeared in this series raised some very serious questions about the family’s values and child-rearing practices. The Vorrutyers who appear in later volumes are more interesting and more redeemable (and one of them is also named Dono). They don’t seem to see architecture as an important part of their family legacy. Illyan’s antipathy towards ImpSec headquarters will reach its dramatic nadir until Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Illyan’s discussion of architecture (he nearly defected when he saw the intelligence building on Escobar) flows neatly into an argument between Illyan and Mark – Mark suspects that Illyan isn’t giving the search the search for Miles his undivided attention. Illyan has concerns about the possibility that Mark did something to Aral and has to tend to the ordinary business of the Barrayaran Empire. He tells Mark he has his best available man heading the investigation of Miles’s disappearance on Komarr (I don’t recall anyone ever saying so, but I want it to be Duv Galen), and that ImpSec can walk and chew gum.

This last segment of the book brings the return of Miles’s POV. He has amnesia, which complicates his recovery from being dead. The Duronas are desperately hoping that he is Admiral Naismith, because they believe that Naismith can get them off-planet. Mark’s analysis was correct, but when he finally finds Miles, Mark is kidnapped by Ryoval and Miles by Baron Fell. Miles has the presence of mind to avoid blowing his cover when his memory finally returns.

Miles’s journey here is a relatively sedate one. Fell is planning to sell Miles to Ryoval, and keeps him (and his increasingly short-tempered personal physician) safe until a price can be negotiated. Miles uses the opportunity to free one more clone, the dangerous Flowerpot, who poses as the doctor and joins the Duronas. Miles’s exploration of his romantic relationships revolves around the question of who would crash a lightflyer for him. Dr. Durona would not. Elli Quinn would, without hesitation, she just might strangle him later.

The limits on Miles’s suffering highlight the depth of Mark’s. Bujold describes Ryoval’s torture in brief, but evocative strokes. Most of the hideousness I remember, I created by filling in the details for myself. It’s still too much – it has to be to justify the fracturing of Mark’s personality into its protective components Grunt, Howl, Gorge and the nameless Other. This last emerges as Killer when Mark crushes Ryoval’s larynx with a kick, and then stomps him to death. Despite the brutal violence of the only available methods and Mark’s use of a surgical drill to ensure that Ryoval’s brain can never be transplanted, and the removal of Ryoval’s hand to deal with palm locks, I don’t remember this scene as excessively graphic. Ryoval deserved it. Elena pledged herself to Mark as Armswoman, and she destroys the tapes Ryoval made of Mark’s torture at Mark’s request – he doesn’t want his mother to see them.

Miles has a beautiful conversation with Bel here, about Bel’s mistakes and future options. Leaving the Dendarii isn’t the end of the world, it seems, and Miles will miss Bel terribly. We return to Barrayar in time for Winterfair, where Mark and Kareen dance together.

Is there more to this? Yes. I’ve glossed rapidly over a stunningly intricate work of art. It’s one of Bujold’s best. It is the darkness you need to truly appreciate the light. And now I am moving on. Join me next week when we start Memory, the book where Miles starts again from his beginnings and never breathes a word about his loss because that’s all classified anyway, and have you heard about his personal chef? You’re about to!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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