When this new book in the Vorkosigan saga was announced I was doubly thrilled: because a new Vor novel is always a treat and, more important, because this one’s POV would be Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan’s, whose “voice” we had not directly heard since Barrayar, the second novel in the chronological order of the series. My anticipation was however slightly marred by some disappointed, sometimes furious, comments I read online when the e-ARC of the novel was put on sale by Baen: wrong as it is to spoil oneself this way, I was curious about this new story, and those comments did not bode well for the upcoming fresh installment in one of my favorite series.
Since the last two novels were pleasant but somewhat unsatisfactory reads (at least compared to their predecessors), you can understand my concerns, but I’m glad to say that they were quite unfounded – and here comes the mandatory SPOILER WARNING. I can’t discuss this book without delving into its narrative threads, so this is your last chance to stop reading if you don’t want to know important details beforehand.
The story opens three years after Aral Vorkosigan’s sudden death, the shocking revelation at the end of Cryoburn. Cordelia still holds her post as Vicereine on Sergyar, the Barrayaran colony planet where several decades ago she met Aral, and she is a changed person: loss and grief, though they have not dampened her spirit, have left their mark on her, as is to be expected. Almost immediately, the author drops not one but two bombshells on her readers: one, now that Cordelia is preparing to resign as Vicereine and go back to a more private life, she intends to take her genetic material, and Aral’s, out of cold storage to produce up to six daughters, and two, she offers a few of her enucleated eggs to Admiral Jole – Aral’s former aide and now the commander of the Sergyaran Navy – for sons of his own. This second part of her project springs from the revelation that Jole was far closer to Aral than his mere duties entailed, and that the two of them and Cordelia enjoyed a poly-amorous relationship.
This last is indeed the reason for the… exuberant reactions of some long-standing readers – not so much because of Aral’s bi-sexuality (established since the very first book in the series), or because of Cordelia’s unruffled acceptance of the menage-à-trois (being Betan, she grew up with a very broad mindset), but rather because they thought the whole situation sounded contrived, with no prior hints pointing to such a peculiar marital arrangement. Some called it preposterous, and some even used the word ‘retconning’. Now that I’ve read Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I feel comfortable in saying that such reactions – though understandable – seem a little exaggerated, to the point that these issues give me the impression of having taken over any other discussion about the book itself, and the story.
It’s true, Oliver Jole is mentioned only in passing here and there, and always as Aral Vorkosigan’s aide, and it’s equally true that there were no hints about the special relationship involving the three of them, but apart from the first two books in the series, the POV through which Bujold observes the events is Miles’, so it comes as no surprise that he – being away from home so much in his adult life – could have no inkling about the whole business. What about gossip, some would point out. Aral and Cordelia being such public figures, there would have been a great deal of it, in many more-or-less imaginative variations, so it would have been easy – had something about this specific item been brought to the table – to dismiss it as another attempt at a smearing campaign. So no, I don’t think this revelation came out of the blue, and to me it did not sound at all far-fetched, nor did it “destroy” my own mental image of the characters. If anything, it added some more interesting facets.
That said, let’s move forward to the review itself: first things first, I enjoyed the book very much. It’s somewhat different from your usual Vor Saga novel, in that there are no classic space opera elements in it, no behind-the-scene political plots that need to be discovered and unraveled, no “adventure” to speak of. Yet it drew me in all the same, because it’s all about people, and about the way they react to the surprises that life hands out to them, and this is exactly what Bujold does best: showing us what makes people tick, and weaving complex and fascinating tales about them, laced with her peculiar brand of humor.
First there’s Cordelia, who is still processing the pain of Aral’s loss: she appears a bit subdued, her fires somewhat banked, but she’s still the same woman who can take life by the horns and bend it to her will. She has reached the stage in which the passing of her husband, while still harrowing, can be tempered by memories – and we are treated with a great number of them, both her own and the ones she shares with Jole, that fill in the small corners of the biggest picture painted until now by the novels in the series. More important, now that she has learned how to come to terms with that death, Cordelia responds in a way that is purely hers, i.e. with the creation of new life that is both an affirmation of defiance and a legacy of her dead husband. Her very best, the essence of her Cordelia-ness, if I can use that term, comes out of her talks with Miles, who is at first taken aback by the news, but slowly learns to process and accept the information so suddenly dropped on him. In the course of the series, Cordelia’s no-nonsense approach has always been one of the foundations of Miles’ psychological makeup: here we see more – and in more depth – of that wonderful practicality, balanced with wry humor and a great capacity for understanding and love. This older, grief-matured Cordelia is a joy to behold, and an even better person than she was at the beginning.
Then there is Oliver Jole: he comes across immediately as an appealing character: he’s a consummate soldier and politician, but he’s also a good, considerate individual who is dealing with his own grief over the loss of Aral in a most difficult way, since he was not even allowed a public expression of that grief as was Cordelia. It’s easy to perceive the man’s loneliness and isolation – the frequent mention of his spartan, utilitarian quarters is a good indication – and at the same time he does not close himself to the world, as testified by the easy approach to his subordinates and the way that it’s reciprocated. There’s a scene toward the end of the book where this is shown in a wonderful, touching way, that gives us the real measure of the man. On the other hand, Jole has reached the brink of the inevitable midlife crisis, and Cordelia’s offer makes him question his goals – both short- and long-term ones – and the future he had envisioned for himself. His journey through these difficult decisions is both fascinating and organically developed, and makes it easy to sympathize with him.
This story, despite the huge red herrings placed at its beginning, focuses mainly on legacies, on the ways we put our stakes on the future and work to make it happen. It does not do that in a flamboyant way, since on the surface it might look like a series of… non-events: in a way Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the twin of A Civil Campaign, in that it tells us about feelings and relationships, only it does so without the comedy (and the butterbugs!). The lesson at the end – if there is one – is that life goes on, sometimes in unexpected ways, but it does, and we must be ready to embrace it, no matter the path it takes us on.
This novel has the definite feeling of a goodbye to the Vor universe. Not a sad one, of course, because there is the definite perception that things will keep going on out of the readers’ sight, but still too many threads have been nicely tied and it looks as if there will be no more stories from our beloved characters. While I understand this, I can’t deny I will miss them all. It’s been a great journey.