Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Mirror Dance

Lois McMaster Bujold
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Once again I am forced by Hugo voters back into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

In general, the Saga is pretty tedious. This installment is basically par for the course but it does have one fairly significant plus, in that it involves one of my favorite sci-fi subgenres: the production of laboratory-raised clones to use as organ donors or body vessels to prolong the life of the original gene donor. (See also: Parts: The Clonus Horror.)

The Saga is a series of at least eleven books about a set of planets interconnected by trade and blood relations. Space travel and warfare are at a Star-Trek-level of speed and sophistication. All of the planets have elaborate internecine political struggles and many are ruled by royal houses.

With a couple exceptions, the books tell the life story of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, the son of the plucky, beautiful starship captain Cordelia Naismith and the handsome, strong, passionate, wise, but reluctantly-ruling Count Aral Vorkosigan of the planet Barrayar. Enemies of the Count attacked Cordelia with biological weapons when she was pregnant so Miles came out stunted and weak, having to spend much of his first years in an incubator and then in various types of therapy.

In spite of his physical disadvantages, Miles of course grew up to be fantastically intelligent, an excellent military tactician, a beloved leader, and irresistibly attractive to both ladies and hermaphrodites. He lives a double life as the dutiful son and heir of the Count on Barrayar and the brilliant, daring Admiral Naismith of Barrayan Imperial Security.

Earlier in the Saga, an evil group of the Count’s enemies stole some of Miles’s cells and brought them back to a sinister lab that raises clones and performs brain transplants on them when the progenitor grows aged and wants a new, younger body. They created a clone of Miles, which they named Mark. Mark has been trained from the incubator to be an assassin, the idea being that they will eventually substitute him for Miles and he will get close enough to kill the Count.

However, by the time of Mirror Dance, the abusiveness of the fiends who raised him has gone too far for Mark. He escapes from his clone crèche, steals one of Miles’s ships, and tries to free all the other clones. The plan goes horribly wrong, Miles comes after Mark and rescues him and the other clones but gets shot and left for dead in the process, and then the rest of the book is spent on Miles’s crew and family (including Mark) trying to find him again and destroying the clone-makers’ compound if they can as well as a nice side benefit.

I’m sure if you’re a fan of the Vorkosigan saga, you will love this book. For me, the whole saga is too much like a romance novel or a soap opera to get very deeply into. (Luckily by the time I reached page 269, or 269/560th of the way through the book, Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus arrived for me at my local library branch so I could take a break for a while.)

Bujold's characters are divided cleanly between those who are unjust and evil and horrifyingly ruthless, and those who are completely in love with Miles. Miles always knows exactly the right thing to do in any social, diplomatic, or wartime situation. As Admiral Naismith he is theoretically in danger of his life almost every minute, but you also never for a moment forget that he’s secretly royal and that gives him a lot of advantages in staff and equipment that others would not have. Also it lets him bestow lavish and perfect but anonymous gifts on his friends and loyal subordinates.

There is a lot of time spent on how tedious and wasteful all the glamorous royal ceremonies are, and the primary characters spend a lot of time being forced to go and dress in fancy uniforms and stand around making cynical comments about the other guests, but underneath it all you feel like they really love it. Who could force the Count and Countess to hold their own Winterfair ball, anyway?

Get ready, because we’re going to have one more round of this with the Hugo-winning Vor Game. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.

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