Thursday, December 8, 2016

Lois McMaster Bujold - Mirror Dance

Mirror Dance is next in my ongoing retrospective on Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan saga’ series. The previous entry was ‘Brothers in Arms’, which was a perfectly reasonable sci-fi thriller, but didn’t hit the high notes of ‘Barrayar’ or ‘Cetaganda’. Brothers in Arms feels like a sci-fi action movie for many parts, rather than the slower burning thriller of its predecessor. But there’s also some interesting meditations on identity – almost expected at this point - guilt, loyalty and family.

Mark, Mile’s clone-brother is one of the key viewpoints of this novel, after a brief role as a tortured antagonist in the previous book. Here he is, ironically, determined to live up to the image of Miles built up by his guardians. Mark is incredibly insecure in his feeling of uniqueness – not surprising given he was created entirely to mirror Miles. Here, Mark acts decisively in an effort to establish both difference and worth. Watching him move through the text, taking hold of assets and turning them to his own purpose is, well, reminiscent of Miles. They both have that force fo personality leaping off of the page – but what Mark does not have is a sense of restraint, of history, and of the cost of his decisions.

Over the course of the narrative, he is acquainted with all of these things. Men die from his orders, under pretences or otherwise, and the agony of command burns into him. Where Miles has the Vor to act as his final ethical framework, , Mark has only Miles, and the examples of his less than effective handlers in earlier life. But Mark slowly learns responsibility, and becomes intimately acquainted with survivors’ guilt. Whilst determined to realise his goals, he becomes increasingly aware of the cost of his actions, in lives and materiel. He also starts to come around to the idea of Miles as family. 
There’s a wonderful contradiction here, as Mark seeks to emulate Miles for his virtues, whilst simultaneously seeking to differentiate them from each other – but without sliding into psychosis. Bujold shows us a portrayal of a personality in balance – much as with Miles himself in Brothers In Arms – and watching Msrk teeter on the knife edge of sanity feels both entirely real and deeply harrowing.

Miles feels like more of a silent partner for much of the text, in contrast to his more energetic appearances in previous books. In this case, he’s working to pick up and deal with the mess his clone is making – not yet entirely sure what Mark is doing, or for whom. Miles’ cool confidence, both in command and under fire, is a start contrast to Mark’s well-meaning but often naïve or ineffectual efforts – but Miles himself is out of view for what feels like a lot of the text, though his lack of presence, in itself, helps to drive the story forward.

The story mostly takes place around Jackson’s Whole. Earlier instalments have discussed this purported hive of scum and villainy at length, and we’ve even had a few visits there in other tales. But this is an opportunity to see the Whole laid bare – a society where everything, from flesh to jurisprudence, is for sale. Discussions around how much one might need to pay to ransom a captive are a delightful insight into the While’s legal system – where those with the gold quite literally make the rules. Bujold shows us the highs and lows of an economy effectively run by criminal gangs – the cutting edge research being done, the luxurious lifestyles of the corporate leaders, the shark-tank feel of the society that they’ve constructed.

The Barons of Jackson’s Whole are a motley cast of moral reprobates, moving from the charmingly unpleasant toward the actively sociopathic. They are, to coin a phrase, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But they also steal the scenes they’re in – from the chilly Baron Fell through to his rival, the driven and devious Baron Ryoval, they’re compelling figures, recognisably human in their intimacies, but also recognisably awful.

The plot – well, there’s a lot going on. Some early action scenes step up the pace nicely, and give an almost cinematic feel. They’re followed by some more introspective scenes of investigation, with slowly ratcheting tension which explodes very satisfyingly near the close. This is a book that isn’t afraid to explore large themes – about the inevitability of death, and the changing nature of mortality, and about how an individual can define themselves as for or against both external and internal pressures. It’s a clever narrative, with interesting things to say – as well as a fair bit of fast-paced action – on which basis, I’d recommend giving it a try.

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