by Lois McMaster Bujold
1995 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
Once more Bujolds returns to get an award for another novel in her Vorkosigan series. This time it is a direct sequel to Brothers in Arms in which her brittle, sarcastic protagonist Miles found that he had been cloned. (Brother in Arms has no hard cover release and as such holds the distinction of being the only paperback novel I've purchased in nearly ten years; yet another thing I can hold against Bujold.) I found The Vor Game to be a fun but not particularly deep space opera and Barrayar to be a bit of an improvement on that with its tighter theming. Mirror Dance on the other hand is spectacular.
Miles's clone, now going by the name of Mark, impersonates him to lead a commando raid to free prisoners he feels a connection with. The raid is a disaster and Miles sweeps in to rescue his soldiers who have been swept up in it. Then Miles is killed by taking a missile to the chest.
That's not a spoiler: it happens by page eighty.
Bujold takes Mark, drags him through the mud, breaking him down as far as a character can go, and then tells a novel about rebuilding his life. And it works spectacularly.
The broad sweeping operas of the previous Bujold titles are gone as of this moment. The mad actions that Miles gets away with in previous books have dangerous, deadly consequences now and no one comes through this unscarred. The sudden transition from an adventure novel style to something more realistic is jarring but I think it was supposed to be. Daring rescue missions are supposed to work, disobeying orders for the sake of doing what's right isn't supposed to get innocent people killed, and the hero isn't supposed to have their internal organs reduced to a fine mist.
This wouldn't be as effective without seven previous books setting up her space opera universe and from this point on in her writing she retreats from the standard tropes. They're still there (Mirror Dance after settling down for a few hundred pages goes back for adventure novel finish, for example) but by turning things over it makes the whole thing feel fresher. This novel is about a teenager learning life is not like action movies and growing up, for example.
The only reason this works is that all of the major characters are so richly drawn, something that Bujold is very good at though she hadn't really applied her efforts in this direction before. The villains still might as well be twirling their handlebar mustaches while tying women to railroad tracks but everyone else is so interesting it doesn't seem to really matter.
A word of warning to the queasy on this book: it features one of the more graphic torture scenes I've ever encountered. It's toward the end of the book and even mentioning it is a bit spoilerish but I know at least one person who was turned off of the book by this section. It's not S&M erotica; it's brutal, graphic torture of one of the characters presented in detail.
This time Bujold has taken her adventure novels and turned them into a mature novel. I found it to be her strongest novel to that point and well worth reading. The only real problem is that it is completely dependent on her earlier body of work. If you haven't read the rest of the series then the book loses a significant portion of its impact.