Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Three years after the sudden death of her husband Aral, Cordelia Vorkosigan is still the Vicereine (governor) of the colony planet Sergyar, and is still recovering from the grief of losing Aral. Cordelia is now seventy-six, but still young both at heart and physically, since she enjoys the much longer-than-usual lifespan of a native of Beta Colony. Barrayaran Admiral Oliver Jole, who is nearly fifty, greets Cordelia as she returns to Sergyar, and as they share a lunch and some reminiscing a few days later, it soon becomes clear that Cordelia and Oliver share a deeper history: an extramarital affair by Aral with Oliver, who was his young, stunningly handsome aide many years ago, morphed into what was essentially (though not legally) a three-way marriage, with the bisexual Aral as the center point, but all of them sexually open enough to occasionally enjoy threesomes.
Since Aral’s death, Cordelia and Oliver, though friends, had gone their separate ways, consumed by work and grief. But at their lunch Cordelia surprises Oliver with the news that she is planning to have up to six daughters, using eggs and sperm she and Aral had stored many years earlier. She further floors Oliver an unexpected offer of three of her enucleated eggs, which Oliver can use with Aral’s genetic material to have sons that share both their genes. As Cordelia and Oliver (who is, like Aral, bisexual) spend time together, discussing their plans for children and exploring the extremely odd and diverse biology of the planet Sergyar, they find their attraction to each other growing. The two have to deal not only with their still-secret developing relationship and their unconventional reproductive plans ― and the reactions their family and others are going to have to both of those things ― but also Cordelia’s push to move the capital of Sergyar to a new town, unpopular with many people, as well as various other minor personal, political and diplomatic difficulties. Things come to a head when Cordelia’s son Miles unexpectedly blows into town with his wife Ekaterin and their six rambunctious children.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is a rather different VORKOSIGAN SAGA book, most of which focus on adventure, action, and military and political stratagems and mysteries. It’s more reminiscent of A Civil Campaign, primarily a social comedy in a science fiction setting, with a focus on a particular romantic relationship. I kept waiting for some compelling political conspiracy or military conflict to develop, as typically does in a VORKOSIGAN SAGA book, but it never happened. The tone stays light and fairly placid throughout the book; all incipient crises are averted or die down before they have a chance to fully bloom. Cordelia remains firmly in charge throughout, even, somehow, when she is allowing others to make their own decisions. Her opinions on all issues are invariably right; the only question is how long it takes others to come around to her point of view, or get out of the way.
The only real surprise in the book is the bombshell that goes off in the first fifteen pages. The three-way relationship with Aral, Cordelia and Oliver is something of a mind-blower if you weren’t expecting it… and I, not having read anything more than the book blurb before I opened the book, was completely unaware of what was about to hit me. Reactions to this disclosure about Cordelia and Aral’s marriage will vary greatly among fans, depending on your own personal social views. Some VORKOSIGAN SAGA fans will be delighted, some bemused, and some disappointed, by the revelation about Cordelia and Aral’s polyamorous marriage. For me personally, as a committed monogamist, it fell in the category of “too much information.” While I respect others’ rights to live a different lifestyle, it’s not something I generally care to read about. And while the polyamory is all in the past, Cordelia and Oliver both frequently and fondly reminisce on these bygone days, so it stays in the forefront of the overall plot, and informs their current decisions regarding going public with their relationship and their respective plans for children.
In the early days of Cordelia and Aral’s marriage, Vorrutyer, in Barrayar, tried to blindside Cordelia by casually stating about Aral: “He’s bisexual, you know.” Cordelia absently responded, “Was bisexual. Now he’s monogamous.” In retrospect, this is a very odd statement for someone as sexually knowledgeable as Cordelia to make, since being monogamous and bisexual clearly aren’t mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, all these many years that statement probably left most readers, like me, with the comfortable assumption that Cordelia and Aral were faithful to each other in their marriage. It was disconcerting to find out that that assumption was incorrect. Whether this is retconning by Bujold is debatable; Oliver Jole did make a few appearances in earlier VORKOSIGAN SAGA books, albeit very briefly, as Aral Vorkosigan’s aide and then as a military commander in his own right.
There seemed to be an implication that Aral took the step of beginning an affair with someone outside their marriage while Cordelia was away from home, without, apparently, first getting her consent. Regardless of how sexually liberated she is, it does seem out of character, given the nature of their relationship, that Aral would do that without getting Cordelia’s explicit buyoff, and that Cordelia wouldn’t take him to task for that lapse. I think we are to infer that they had discussed it at least conceptually in advance, and Aral knew he had Cordelia’s permission to take that step, but it would have been preferable if the text had made that clear.
Unless you are a fan of romance-driven books, the plot of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen becomes desultory after a while, with its lack of any compelling action. But Bujold’s writing, insightful and excellent as always, with frequent doses of wry humor, kept me interested through the end. Miles Vorkosigan, as might be expected, brings a breath of fresh air with him when he bursts into the story midway. His interactions with his mother Cordelia and his clumsy efforts to pin down Oliver Jole are priceless, as are many of his comments:
”No, darling, you can’t pet the hexaped. It would bite your hand off, and then your Grandmama would execute it, which wouldn’t be fair to the poor beast, would it?” A surly hiss underscored this.
But Miles, too, is somewhat diminished from the wild intensity of his younger days: he’s now older, a father, and suffering more than ever from physical ailments. His concerns in this novel are, like Cordelia’s, primarily about personal relationships and family.
“Everyone has it wrong way round. Parents don’t make children ― children make parents. They shape our behavior from the first wail. Mold us into what they need. It can be a pretty rough process, too.”
It’s fitting to see Cordelia, in her later life, coming full circle, with her decision to settle permanently on Sergyar, where so many years ago the first VORKOSIGAN SAGA novel, Shards of Honor, began with Cordelia as the head of a Betan Survey exploration team, and where she first met Aral. Now she and Oliver Jole explore the unique biology of Sergyar (floating vampire radials!) along with their own nontraditional relationship. In the end, that’s what Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is ultimately concerned with: love, and family, and people and their relationships, however unorthodox.
About half a decade ago, I sent Hilari Bell some fan mail and, naive reader that I was, begged her to write more books in one of her more popular series. To my genuine surprise, she replied to my email and gently declined to write more books. I’ve found that I no longer have that email, but I remember that she wrote something along the lines of “sometimes, once you’ve told enough stories about a character, there’s just not enough material to write about. A series with too many instalments becomes repetitive and uninteresting.” From a fan and reader perspective, I think my attitude toward Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen has a lot to do with this comment.
Normally, I’m all for the nontraditional relationships that Bujold chooses to take on here. Like Tadiana, I was highly surprised by the love triangle Bujold unveiled in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, but it wasn’t a bad sort of surprise. Though it seemed a bit strange that Bujold would choose not to give us any hints about this relationship and that she would pivot the focus of the series from Miles to Cordelia, I took it all in stride and kept reading. Where things really went downhill was the plot twist that had [HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILER] Jole falling in love with Cordelia [END SPOILER]. For me, this plot line just seemed very forced. Even Bujold’s portrayal of Jole seemed to mark him as [HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILER] having no attraction towards women, so to suddenly introduce this romance into the plot was quite unnatural [END SPOILER]. All in all, it made Jole’s character seem a bit unreal for me, as if Bujold had bent his personality out of shape to fit a specific plot-driven story she had in mind rather than crafting a more character-driven story.
Up until this novel, which is the latest chronological work in Lois McMaster Bujold’s amazing MILES VORKOSIGAN SAGA, I’ve been a huge fan of the series. Bujold is witty, entertaining, and innovative; her clever plot twists, engaging action scenes, and humorous prose kept me engaged for much of the series. However, the direction that Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen and the way Bujold approached Jole’s character really disappointed me; in the end, I put this work down more than a fifth of the way through because of this. In summary, I think Marion’s comment below put it best: “I fall into the ‘disappointed’ category of fan, not for social value reasons but because of the revisionist history.”