You and your husband have been at the center of a lot of events in history over the last few decades, especially involving a tricky succession and regency that nearly blew up an entire planet more than a few times. But all that is in the past. Sadly and tragically, your husband is now dead. Your former charge is now a secure Emperor on his throne, and you yourself are Vicereine of a colony. Your son is now firmly in the Ducal seat that your late husband held, and is doing well. More so, thanks to Betan genetic engineering and breeding, you are pretty sure that you have many decades of productive life left. So, what do you do *now* — especially if you are Cordelia Vorkosigan? Not go to Disneyland, that’s for sure. And definitely not fade away.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the latest Vorkosigan novel by Lois M Bujold, sets out to answer that question.
Gentleman Jole also brings to the forefront a more minor character from the Vorkosigan universe and gives him a co-starring role. Admiral Oliver Jole, who has been in the Vorkosigan orbit for many years, now commander of the Fleet based in Sergyar, the colony that Cordelia is Vicerene over, finds himself caught again in Cordelia’s plans and hopes for the future. Along the way we get Miles (and his growing family) coming in for a visit (and in an unofficial auditing capacity to find out just what his mother is up to).
As the book is a character study, and focuses on characters and their motivations, growth and plans for the future along with reconciliations of the past, this is a difficult book to talk about without absolutely spoiling it to death. While the initial goals and plans of Cordelia, and her offer to Jole, are laid out neatly in chapter one, it is how those goals and plans play out that is the motivation of the book. Suffice it to say, Cordelia, with the power and freedom of the technology that uterine replicators offers, decides to have more children by her late husband — and offers Jole, who has neither been married, nor ever had children, the same opportunity.
The change in beat from some of the previous novels was a bit jarring. And there is a character revelation that I really feel conflicted about. It is not the first time that Bujold has reframed the past and the actions and outlook of a character in a very substantial way. The previous example I am thinking of is Ivan Vorpatril, who really gets his character retconned in CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE, and in a way that I think is definitely for the better. The character revelation here is much more complex and I am not sure that Bujold does enough with it. We certainly get a much more Betan Cordelia than we’ve seen since the early days of the Vorkosigan universe, as if she sheds some of her Barrayan outer layers, and returns to her original state, or a transformed version of same. Frankly, by comparison to Cordelia, Jole does not come off anywhere near as interesting a character. His point of view was admittedly useful, however, as a parallax and parallel to Cordelia’s.
There is some lovely stuff about the rawness and newness of a colony world that we get, too, given the tenuousness and big unknowns about the planet Sergyar. This has some good resonance with the novel that started it all, SHARDS OF HONOR. I might have preferred a novel where a return to what Sergyar was, and what it was going to become, was much more of a focus or a central problem, although it is a subplot of the novel. There are other minor subplots, all personal, that wend their way through the narrative, but not a one of them, frankly, really has an impact on the story save for a single climatic scene that jumpstarts a character’s decision about their future. As I read about the wild life and geology on the planet, I felt myself wishing for a novel that really focused on that. While this is a character study, and the author herself warned me about that, I think there did need to be some more meat on the bones, in the end.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is not the the Vorkosigan book that I necessarily hoped for and not the Vorkosigan novel that I expected.