Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

Mirror danceWhy I read it:  I am slowly making my way through this series and Mirror Dance was up next.

What it’s about: (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.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I hadn’t planned writing a review of this one. But there was a thing which happened late in the story which changed my mind. I won’t go in to a lot of detail about the thing (for reasons which, I hope, will become obvious) but given that it happens later in the story, I should probably give a SPOILER warning about now.

I admit when the story began, I was a little less interested in it because it was about Mark (aka Miles’ clone twin who is chronologically six years younger than Miles). I had little interest in Mark. But my interest perked up when Miles entered the picture, in hot pursuit of Mark and the Dendarii he made off with. (Then I made the mistake (?) of reading the blurb and realised that, of necessity, Miles wouldn’t be featuring in the story as much as I’d hoped. You have to hand it to Bujold – she killed off her main character and didn’t freak everyone out (the fact that Miles ends up alive at the end is, of course, the reason why). That’s not a spoiler – that there are other books in the series gives the game away. Thank goodness for SFF and cryogenics.

Anyway, I did end up getting into the story and, I even ended up liking Mark as a character in his own right. He’s not perfect but that is understandable given his traumatic and twisted upbringing as a clone and as a pawn of the Komarran resistance. (Besides, perfection is boring.) If nothing else, Mirror Dance does cement Mark as a character of his own, separate and distinct from Miles and not just a kind of plot moppet. I liked how Bujold drew out their differences and made them entirely logical. And I liked that Mark built his own relationship/s with people as Mark – even though for much of his life, he’d not really thought of himself as Mark. I like that Miles and Mark will clearly get along and be close but they won’t have a sparkly rainbow type relationship – there is competitiveness and their own character flaws which will provide a bit of rough on the edges of their relationship to make things interesting.

None of those things are particularly revelatory and if the story had’ve gone the way I was expecting, I probably wouldn’t have been moved to write a review, notwithstanding that my blog has been lacking content because holidays. I’ve learned to not freak out when there’s not a new post up two or three times a week. Holidays are good like that.

No, the thing which, frankly, shocked me was the torture. Bujold doesn’t shy away from having horrible things happen to her main characters (see Miles dying as an example) or even to secondary characters (Ellie Quinn’s face injury) and maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I don’t think the violence has been quite as graphic before. I expected that any torture Mark suffered would be alluded to rather than spelled out. I was wrong.

I think on audio I take in the information differently. As I can’t skim, I absorb it more. In print, I can make my eyes move so fast over a piece of text, it barely touches me. But on audio, as Mrs. Marsh used to say, it gets in, “like liquid into this chalk”.  And it was awful.

To detail what the torture was and just how horrible it was to listen to, I’d have to perpetrate the same thing on my blog audience – so I won’t. Part of my brain was wondering how authors come up with things so heinous. Part of my brain was cowering in the corner mewling “make it stop”. At every stage when I was listening, I thought the detail would stop soon. It’s not going to keep going surely? I thought to myself. But, for quite a while, it did keep going. I suppose it was little more than a chapter out of the entire book but given it was a chapter of pure horror – Mark’s torture was continuous over FIVE days – it stands out to me as a larger than actual section of the book.

I suppose that my reaction to the torture would have been lesser if it had not been so gruesomely detailed. I suppose that the fact that my emotions and my gall were engaged so strongly meant that the author drew out of me an intended response. But I think I’d have cared as much (or, if not as much, then sufficiently) if it had been alluded to and the details left to my (clearly inferior) imagination.

While Mark ended up as more than a plot moppet, he did get to that destination by traversing some kind of weird-substitute-for-Miles-torture-porn territory. What was done to Mark with a shock-stick was bad enough – and that was mentioned sufficiently often throughout the story as to render it unable for a listener to pass over it and known by enough of the characters as to rob Mark of significant privacy. That he ended up with any humanity, any compassion or softer emotion by the end of the book was something of a miracle I think.

So, yeah, I did end up caring about Mark but I also felt a bit annoyed (even, a lot annoyed) that what was perpetrated on Mark was somehow acceptable because he’s not the hero of the book/s. It seemed to me that Mark was again acting as a stand-in for Miles in more ways than the obvious here and it added an extra layer of sad and terrible for me.

What else? The narration was, as usual, very good. And, of course, I’m still up for the rest of the series. I am a fan of Miles and I can hardly wait to get to the romancey books which are coming up. I also liked here the further insight into Ivan Vorpatril – a character I’d long suspected had more to him than had been previously revealed. (It is always nice to feel smugly right, after all.)

But I can’t see Mirror Dance as a book I’ll ever revisit. And I think I will be forever wary that a repeat of the kind of graphic terror and pain may come up again either in this series or with this author. There is a kind of innocence lost there I guess. (I feel churlish even saying that because Mark suffered so very much more. And yes, I know he’s a fictional character and I’m a real person but given the relative damage, he still counts more here I think.)

Grading is hard. What do you say about a book which won you over after a lackluster start? I really didn’t want to learn more about Mark. I didn’t think I’d like him. I did. So that’s a win, right? And the narration is very good so that’s a win as well (although I will add here that there were more than a few episodes of editing fail – both mistakes and their fixes were left in the finished product – something very unusual for Brilliance Audio in my experience). But the torture… well, I couldn’t enjoy it and I certainly don’t want to repeat it. Then again, the fact that it affected me so strongly probably says something about how I came to feel about Mark (or perhaps I’d have felt that way about anyone it had happened to – that’s just as possible I suppose). Anyway, toss a coin and say eeny meeny miny mo – I’m giving it a C+ but I’ve no idea if that’s fair. You decide.

Grade: C+



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