Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

June 26, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

In books, movies, and other forms of popular art there are works which are nauseatingly popular. I don’t know how well the Miles books sell (but they are all in print, I believe) but with the Internet’s chattering class they have armies of fans. Approaching extremely popular work for the first time, I am always cynically predisposed to not liking it. What does anyone else know anyhow? Depending on why something is popular, of course, I am often won over anyway. Such was the case with the Miles books. When I first read Shards of Honor and Barrayar I was unimpressed. Then I read the first Miles books and was finally won over. Her writing, I felt, improved so that I didn’t mind it (although I still don’t see why it is so often exalted), and Miles truly is a very likable character. I read a couple of the books, not quite addicted but not really stopping for anything else either, until I bounced off Mirror Dance.

My reviews for those earlier books generally go something like, “Well, it’s a Miles book, so it’s a good lighthearted romp.” My reasons for giving up almost immediately on Mirror Dance are a matter of taste: I really don’t like watching characters slowly get themselves into ever-deeper trouble, as happens at the beginning of the book. This sort of empathy with fictional characters is a somewhat embarrassing reason for not liking a book, so I decided to come back to it.

The fact is, I was halfway through Mirror Dance when I realized what was really bothering me was a matter of expectations, for it is not light like the previous Miles books were. In fact, for long stretches it is very serious, with only occasional winks to Bujold’s fan club. I still feel the writing is clunky at times, but these times are rare enough they can be overlooked. But what surprised me was in taking Miles seriously there really is a lot of interesting material. I saw his alter ego as wish fulfillment before, but now it seems to be about a lot more. It’s someone who through force of will bends the world away from what it really is into what he imagines. It’s someone who plays two roles and isn’t sure which one he really is.

Although Mirror Dance goes into these themes in more detail than the previous books, the ramifications of Miles’ life are not new, so perhaps some fault lies with me, the reader, for not having noticed it earlier. Still, Mirror Dance forces the reader to confront the realities of Miles’ various personas. To my mind it is the first of the Miles saga to really aspire for something more than engaging reading. That it is not wholly successful in its psychology is not a huge problem, nor is its disappointing shirking of some of the military ethics issues that earlier books in the series admirably faced (in particular, I felt the ethics of medical triage by rank…a crucial plot point…needed a bit more examination than just one or two characters mentioning they had vague bad feelings about it). People who liked the previous books, and that should be most people, will find much to like here and maybe some deeper themes besides. Readers new to Bujold should, in my opinion, start with Warrior’s Apprentice.

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