One of the great things about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels is the sheer variety of genres and stories that she manages to wring out of her universe. It speaks to how well the worldbuilding in the series works, but also to her breadth as a writer. I’m sure you could generally categorize the series as action/adventure in the mold of Horatio Hornblower, but when you start to narrow it down, you find a wide array of sub-genres: military SF, spy thriller, drawing room intrigue, political conspiracy, mystery (of many kinds), legal drama, and even straight up romance. As the series has progressed, she has trended away from the more action oriented aspects and more towards interpersonal dramas and romance. Most of the series is told through the eyes of the pint-sized force-of-nature that is Miles Vorkosigan, though the series (chronologically) began with his mother Cordelia Naismith and father Aral Vorkosigan. It’s been 25 years since Cordelia headlined a novel, but she has returned in Bujold’s latest novel, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Spoilers, I guess, more from the series rather than just this book, though I guess some of that might pop up too.
Three years after her husband’s untimely death, Cordelia Vorkosigan thinks it’s time to resign her post as Vicereine of Sergyar and move her life in another direction altogether. Along the way, she ensnares the unsuspecting Admiral Oliver Jole in her schemes, and he suddenly finds himself contemplating possibilities he would never have dreampt up on his own.
This may not sound like much of a plot, and truth be told, there really isn’t one. There’s no grand political conspiracy driving the events, no dead bodies, no explosions, no Cetagandan invasion fleets, just a rather well executed character piece. This usually isn’t my sort of thing, so I think it speaks volumes about Bujold’s worldbuilding and capability of producing lovable characters that I really enjoyed the novel. Part of this is certainly that this is something almost completely new to the series. The books it most resembles would be A Civil Campaign and indeed, there are some light parallels between the stories (I’m thinking primarily of an unexpected family visit). But even A Civil Campaign had the structure of an adventure, even if it wasn’t strictly so. The centerpiece of that novel was a dinner party for crying out loud. And what’s more, it was fantastically exciting. No such disasters here.
There are subtleties here that Bujold has yet to explore in the series. Since most of the series was seen through the eyes of the young, we don’t get a lot of insight into what was actually going on with the parent’s generation. It turns out there were some, er, interesting relationships being built. This novel reveals many of these things, and concerns itself with the concept of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one. Aral’s loss is keenly felt by most of the main players, and Cordelia’s plan to course correct her life is her way of acknowledging that she must move on.
For reasons I’ll leave unclear, Admiral Jole felt the loss of Aral nearly as much as Cordelia, and her plans have suddenly given his late-life a hope that he never really considered. Jole is not strictly a new character, having been briefly mentioned in several previous novels, but his part was always as a handsome, competent aid to Aral Vorkosigan. As usual, I’m left wondering if Bujold always had this story in mind and was peppering hints to this obscure side character in order to lay groundwork for this story, but this generally speaks to her ability to craft lovable characters.
The pairing is a good one, and it deals with late-life issues in a way that most stories never dare. This being a science fiction universe, a 76 year old woman deciding to change careers and have more kids does not seem so far fetched since she can expect to live to 120 years old. Similarly, a career military man can find other uses for his keen observational skills, and maybe have some kids of his own. Interestingly enough, Bujold is still wringing new and intriguing implications out her concept of a Uterine Replicator, even now, thirty years after she began writing these stories.
The usual coterie of side characters pepper the story, both new and old, and as per usual, they are all delightful. Despite a wide cast of characters, it never falls into an unfocused, episodic trap, and generally remains deceptively compelling.
It’s a fascinating book primarily for what it doesn’t do. One of the things I cherish about this series of books is how frequently Bujold manages to subvert expectations. I often find myself thinking This can’t be right!? Is she really doing this? and then being utterly enthralled as Bujold sooths whatever stupid reservations I may have. I have learned that you must simply go with the flow and trust in Bujuold. In this case, I suspected that we might see some political intrigue or inciting incidents, but as the novel progressed and the story stubbornly refused to indulge my predictions, I started to get a feel for something different and interesting. Like Cordelia and Oliver, you have to be willing to let the story go its own way.
In a recent interview, Bujold noted that sort of difficulty in certain audiences:
Bujold, 66, remarks she was once part of a book club discussion of her fantasy novel, The Curse Of Chalion, with a group of junior high students, “where it gradually became apparent that the hero was far more alien to them by being an old man of 35 – practically like their parents! – than by being a demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman.”
I suspect Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen would garner a similar reaction, though I think ones experience in SF/Fantasy greatly reduces any complaints you might have about the exploration of late-life challenges this novel confronts. After all, if you’re willing to consider the implications of a “demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman”, why not a 76 year old widowed Vicereine and her desire to raise a new family? Or maybe I’m just getting older and wiser…