The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
This is Marion’s review of The Vor Game, Brothers in Arms, and Mirror Dance.
Miles Vorkosigan is nearly a dwarf, with bones as brittle as fine porcelain, and he is a Vor, one of the elite, the son of the Imperial Regent. The Vor, and everyone on Barrayar for that matter, are terrified of mutation because of their history, and Miles looks like a mutation even though he isn’t one. During the middle books of this series, Miles finds a way to serve his planet while succeeding in space, where for the most part people judge achievement more than physical appearance.
Miles cannot escape his Barrayaran heritage, however. In The Vor Game, he must rescue his cousin and planetary emperor Gregor from a kidnap attempt. In Brothers in Arms, Miles travels to Earth and meets a long-lost relative who may be his most dangerous adversary. Mirror Dance finds Miles, for part of the book, back on Barrayar.
The Vor Game mixes space opera with political drama, and gives us a charming, dangerous character in Commander Calvino. Miles plays a double game in order to rescue Gregor, but is he tempted, just for a moment, to let the plan play out? Gregor, who is smooth, calm and deliberate — the complete opposite of Miles — is no pushover, as he reminds us:
… both of my parents died violently in political intrigues before I was six years old. A fact you might have researched. Did you think you were dealing with an amateur?
Until now Miles has had two identities, his “real” Barrayaran identity and the cover role of Admiral Naismith, mercenary commander, secretly in the employ of Barrayaran Intelligence. Brothers in Arms adds a new facet to the Vorkosigan character when Miles meets his clone.
Miles goes to London, on old Earth, a city that has built locks at the mouth of the Thames to keep the rising waters from flooding the city. While there, Miles has a strange hallucination in which he sees himself in a Vor military uniform. Shortly, he discovers that this was no hallucination. Someone got DNA from Miles when he was a baby and cloned him, setting in motion a long-range plan to assassinate Miles’s father and plant a mole in the heart of the Barrayaran government. Because a true clone of Miles’s DNA would not show the damage caused in utero by poison gas, the clone should be about six feet tall and robust, but he is not. He is the same height as Miles, with a disproportionately large head, and his bones show every break, check and flaw as Miles. This gives the reader some idea of the clone’s early days. He does not greet Miles with whoops of brotherly joy. Miles, though, does manage to win him over, which is good — since the clone, who names himself Mark, is also a highly-trained assassin.
The final scenes take place in the locks, an exciting hide-and-seek action sequence. At the end of the book, Mark reluctantly agrees to meet his DNA-host family on Barrayar.
One of the different things about these books is the mix of high tech with the rigid social society on Barrayar. Bujold offers a critique of the concept of the male-dominated, paramilitary society while simultaneously writing fine military sci-fi — the Vor are fine with energy weapons, but things like uterine replicators, which make pregnancy safer for the woman and the fetus, are viewed as newfangled and probably evil. Clones, however, are commonplace, most of them the product of a planet called Jackson’s Whole, which is the Rodeo Drive of cloning with a Costco at the end of the block.
In Mirror Dance, the story follows Mark as he pursues a black-market cloning operation. In Bujold’s universe, cloning is used for the purposes we would expect; genetic engineering to create super-soldiers, sex slaves, and the most logical purpose, spare parts. Mark’s early years and his identification as a clone have engendered in him a seething hatred for those he calls “clone consumers.” When he is not on Jackson’s Whole, Mark struggles to deal with his resentment of the Vorkosigans, and his desire for a family, for love. The mirror dance, which is danced at a formal ball Mark attends, is a fine metaphor for his struggles in the book.
I have a couple of quibbles with the Vor books. One is the perfection of some of the characters. Gregor should win a gold medal for too-good-to-be-true, but Cordelia and Aral are bafflingly permissive as parents. Aral is a revolutionary, a patriot and a Vor through and through. In spite of his love for Cordelia and his love for Miles, is there never the teeniest bit of shame about his less than perfect son? He lets Miles, his fragile son and sole heir, gallivant around the universe with only the occasional manly sigh of concern when he finds out, after the fact, how bad things were. Cordelia, a Betan, is open-minded and accepting, having no trouble taking in her clone-son Mark, and in fact shares intimate information about his biological father’s sexual hardwiring. This behavior is either admirably egalitarian or downright creepy. I also roll my eyes at the anachronistic language. Commander Calvino growls that she will grind someone “into hamburger.” Hamburger, really? This is in marked contrast to the studied, mannered, carefully paced language the characters drop into when they are about to deliver a bon mot.
I did say they were quibbles, however. In the long run, the Vorkosigan books keep me up reading way too late at night, and that is the mark of good storytelling.