As long as I've been reading this series (by internal chronology, although someday I think I'll read it by publishing order) I've refrained from giving out five-stars, even though I liked what I read very much. There were two reasons. First of all, I've been reading omnibuses (omnibinininibi?), which are less disposed to feel cohesive and more likely to have something that doesn't quite work simply by virute of having more content. Secondly, and more importantly, I alwasy felt like Bujold was leading to something, like as great and fun and smart and gripping as each book I read was, there was something larger out there. Well, Mirror Dance showed me how much more there could be. (Barrayar, arguably, could be a five-star book on its own, but my memory's faded and that omnibus thing pops up again.)
Everything in Miles Errant is great stuff, and it gives us all of the disparate flavors that I've come to expect from the series. So far, it is the perfect Vorkosigan volume (not that I'd tell a new reader to start there -- that probably wouldn't end well). It's got the exhilarating "watch-Miles-pull-himself-out-of-a-shitty-situation" adventure story that one has grown accustomed to, the issues of identity and oppression, and a great big helping one of my favorite, often underused, aspects of the series, planet Barrayar itself.
Borders of Infinity, the novella that opens the book, is a great example of why Miles, as a character, works so well in novellas. So much of the fun is watching him sort through a strange problem, and his mercenary army provides him with plenty of them, and so a novella strips us down to the basics (um, no pun intended, what with him spending most of the story naked and all). In another world, Bujold probably could've just written The Warrior's Apprentice and then a series of novellas, each about a different mission, and that could've been the whole series, and it would've been damn fun, but not as nuanced. Borders is especially good, as the very concept (a prison that officially follows every rule of fair treatment for POWs but manipulates them in such a way as to make it a hellhole) is brilliant, and Miles is made about as helpless as humanly possible from the outset. Another good example, too, of how you can get so caught up in Bujold's stories and characters that you can miss how intrinsic the sci-fi elements really are.
Brothers in Arms is an especially good "classic" Miles Vorkosigan story. That is to say, it boils down to the basic twisting and turning adventure story with relatively familiar beats driven home very, very well, and a couple of great new characters with uncertain, but believeable, motivations (Duv and Mark are both counterpoints to Miles, with the former being moreso than you might think at first). With the addition of some nice romance for Miles (it's a measure of how good Bujold is that I'm always rooting for her protagonists to get laid) and a really great setting (Earth as a backwater tourist trap), it's a great read, but not without anything a reader of the series wouldn't already expect (considering that, in publishing order, it's only the second she wrote about Miles, this shouldn't be too shocking), and with a climax that, at times, got a little hard for me to follow.
Those two stories together would already be leaning toward a four-and-a-half rating anyway, but Mirror Dance is something else entirely. Though it is very dependent on earlier books, it jumps away from feeling like "one in an episodic series" and feels more like a big ol' novel (not big in length, although it is that too). It starts feeling like more regular novel in the series, but with Mark showing up to stack the deck especially against our hero, but it also does something else right from the start: it gives us the first damn time that we actually see these stories from another perspective, that we actually get to see how the world (and Miles) are from another set of eyes. At first, I didn't like it, but that's mostly because Mark starts the book as an entitled dick (I've been using a lot of parentheticals, so I thought I'd put one here too). What would be a normal royal fuck-up for Miles to get out of escalates, and soon we're wondering how the hell this scenario can be stretched out for the few hundred pages still remaining. Then, no spoilers, but the bottom drops out and the story starts to go in directions that I absolutely did not expect. That one of those directions is back to Barrayar and Miles' parents (who I'm especially fond of) made it even more fascinating.
What make Mirror Dance really work, is Bujold's insistence to not let us get comfortable and go "ok, so THIS is what the story will be" in just about any way. Mark is never an exact opposite or an exact match to Miles, it's much more messy than that, and the directions we move in as we follow the story are so hard to gauge. These books are often structured like an action movie (and I mean that as a compliment), but this one really embraces the tangents that a novel can go into and is better for it. There's still plenty of bad-ass shit, no worries, and there's also a lot of really gruesome and horrible stuff too. Also: a lot of talking while wandering around Barrayar, which is as captivating as the horror, in its own way.
I've heard that the next book, Memory, makes sweeping changes and leaves Miles a very different person, and considering Mirror Dance, I don't really see any other direction that Bujold could've gone in. I do hope that something comes about to change my one main problem with the series, and this popped up especially with Mirror Dance: so much of these stories is about that whole "rooting for the underdog" thing, and yet Miles' family is one of the most influential on the planet.
Miles is deformed on a world that hates deformity, a weakling consistently in combat situations, etc, etc, but I can't help wondering how much more challenging his life would be if he were the son of minor nobles. Naturally, he has to come from some money to not have been killed as a baby on his planet, but the amount of power and influence that his family wields sometimes feels like a cheat. It's like when you read the original Zorro novel and see that Diego is from SUCH an important and upstanding family that he probably could've done more through political influence than he did with a mask and sword, and so it's no wonder that later adaptations usually diminish his family somewhat. When Miles is best buds with the Emperor, it's hard to see where the challenge is, at times. That said, I find Emperor Gregor, Simon Illyan, and all the other people and things that come with his privilege fun to read about, so I guess I can't complain too much.
Phew, that was a lot. Uhhh... I liked this book!