Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen — the Vorkosigan Saga Project

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the latest and very last novel in our Vorkosigan Saga Project! This novel follows Cordelia and Oliver Jole — who has previously only been a minor side character — and takes place after Cryoburn, currently serving as the chronological end of the series.

You can read Katharine’s review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: To me this book is a bittersweet ending to the series. The characters all get happy endings, but it’s not one of my favourites. There’s not enough action or comedy (either would do) for my liking.

Katharine: It certainly is a slightly odd addition as one of the more recent books. But it also such a nice balance to have Cordelia’s story at both the start and the end of the series.

Tsana:  I agree. It’s nice that Cordelia gets a happy ending and I certainly understand why Cordelia likes her new life, etc but it didn’t make for as exciting reading as most of the other Vorkosigan books. I remember the first time I read it I kept waiting for something “exciting” to happen — by the standards of the series — and so many disasters just utterly failed to come to pass.

Katharine: Especially with how much the party was built up, and then described scene by scene… and then while something did happen he was literally able to sit up and watch the fireworks later… but this is jumping ahead by quite a bit… Basically, I agree. But it was still interesting.

Tsana: I’m going to list all the things that didn’t happen as soon as the spoiler shield is up. But before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about Jole. He’s mentioned in passing in some of the other books, but this is the first one in which he’s a main character. Not that there’s anything wrong with introducing a new character in the last book. And his presence does shine a light on events that happened in parallel with a lot of Miles’s stories but which Miles was entirely unaware of.

Katharine: Which means now I want to read back in the previous books to see if there were any hints to his importance in Aral and Cordelia’s life.

Tsana: He was definitely mentioned a few times as being in places and saying a few words to Miles or whatever. But I barely remember him from The Vor Game, even though that’s the most exciting event from his early career that gets brought up a lot on Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Of course, this is partly because we saw events The Vor Game from Miles’s point of view and Jole was hanging out with Aral at the time...

Katharine: Ah yes, I’ve just re-read that bit. Miles ‘sighed in hopeless jealousy every time he ran across him’. I really like Jole - there’s something about people who are ridiculously capable.

Tsana:  Wait, which bit is that from? Why is Miles sighing and jealous of Jole?

Katharine: The bit about Jole in The Vor Game. I looked it up to see if there were any hints, and Miles’ sighing is amusing.

So Oliver Jole is Admiral, Sergyar Fleet and the other person almost in charge on Sergyar along with Cordelia, who is currently Vicereine. Aral passed away three years ago now and their jobs have kept them both incredibly busy.

Tsana: Compared with before Aral’s death, when they weren’t busy at all /sarcasm. But yes, they’ve been busy and sad enough that they haven’t hung out much except for work. Which is a bit of a departure from their lives before Aral’s death.

Katharine: Time for spoiler shield?

Tsana: Before we get into details, yes. But I think it’s relevant to mention that Cordelia, Aral and Jole were in a polyamorous relationship before Aral went and died on them.

<spoiler shield up!>

Katharine: Which is a surprise to Miles, but this book isn’t about him (although the blurb puts on a spin on how Miles ‘dispatches himself on a mission of inquiry, into a mystery he never anticipated; his own mother.’)

We get to learn a bit more about Aral and his highly traumatic upbringing. It’s almost surprising that he managed to grow up to be a reasonable person, and be loved by so many people (especially by such decent people) for the majority of his life.

But yes. They were in a poly relationship, and while Cordelia and Jole tried a few things directly after Aral’s passing it was just too upsetting for them, and so they’ve let things lie. Until Cordelia drops a bombshell on Oliver and offers him something he never thought he’d get the chance to consider.

Tsana: The real goal of this book, from Cordelia’s point of view, is to get Sergyar in order so she can resign her post as Vicerine and start the next chapter in her life: raising the daughters she always wanted to have. A bit of commentary that has come up in earlier books that Cordelia and Aral decided not to have more children after Miles so as not to threaten Miles’s inheritance or give people an even greater reason to assassinate him. But now that Aral is dead, Miles is Count and Barrayar is in a state of peace and prosperity, Cordelia feels that she can safely have daughters, who, in any case, would not be in the line of succession according to Barrayaran rules.

That’s not the bit that shocks Jole, though. Well, it does a bit, but the more life-changing shock comes from the part where Cordelia offers Jole her leftover (denucleated) eggs and some of Aral’s DNA to mix with his own to make his own sons.

Katharine: Yay for Betan science and the fact Cordelia has been so determined to make it accessible literally everywhere she lives. Of course things aren’t always that simple though, and Oliver is soon offered Head of Operations (the chap that Ivan used to aide) which, if he were to accept, he’s quite certain the children that he never thought he’d get a chance at (especially not with Aral) wouldn’t be possible for at least another ten or twenty years.

Tsana: At which point he’d be too old, since he is Barrayaran and not Betan like Cordelia. We get to see Jole’s 50th birthday near the end of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (the only source of excitement in the whole book) so waiting a decade or two for kids would mean not having kids. It’s interesting how, once he’s presented with the possibility, Jole is sad every time the possibility shrinks, even a little.

Katharine: That’s also a good part of the books - how being from different planets has so many differences but also minor differences such as the life expectancy. But sad for Cordelia.

It was super interesting in how the book focused on family expectations and relationships. Cordelia is her own person, and though she briefs Miles and Mike she also keeps Gregor in the mix (and Simon and Alys etc), but then Miles also has his own feelings about her decisions. It was interesting how taken back he was at the thought she wouldn’t be returning to Barrayar.

Tsana: But on the other hand, he’s much less taken aback by the news of the thruple. On that side of things he’s more upset that some of the accusations hurled at him in his youth were not completely baseless but he didn’t know that at the time.

This is maybe the time to mention that Bujold comes very close to conflating bisexuality and polyamory, which caused me to side-eye more than a bit. But on the other hand, Cordelia’s recounting of when Aral and Jole first hooked up was pretty hilarious.

Katharine: Hrm that is true. While parts were progressive, there still wasn’t much variety in a way?

Tsana: And while this book is about a polygamous relationship as much as any others that we see more directly on the page, it’s set after that relationship is over. What we get on the page is actually a straight, monogamous relationship with some complicated history behind it. Which is not to say it’s terrible, but it’s certainly not the epitome of representation.

Katharine: Also very true. Huh.

Well then, Bujold. We need another novella, please.

Tsana: Or novel. I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off series about Helen in the new peaceful (but of course things can still go wrong) Barrayar.

Katharine: Yup. Done. Sign the contract, Bujold!

Another focus I liked of the novel was about the flora and fauna of the world, and how they’re still discovering so many things (and pretty much accounted for the action). Oliver is a cutie in that regard.

Tsana: Yeah, I really liked the parts with the university (and how Cordelia has been quietly working with them all this time). And I have to say, this was the book I’d read most recently before we started out re-read with Shards of Honour. When I read Shards of Honour the first time I didn’t particularly remember any of the fauna on Sergyar. But re-reading it on the heels of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen it was really interesting to see how much of the fauna described more memorably in the later book actually did show up in the first book. Just less catastrophically.

Speaking of catastrophes, I want to talk about the complete lack of them in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

Katharine: Agreed. So what happened? The kids who had the earlier run in with the fauna, the one at the end at Oliver’s party, andddd… hrm. I’m trying to think of other catastrophes…

Tsana: I’ll tell you what didn’t happen. There was no Cetagandan invasion or plot thereof. There was no volcano eruption. There were no spies, no conspiracies. All that happened was some teen shenanigans and some dodgy business practices from the plascrete company. And indeed, some fireworks going awry at Jole’s birthday party and exploding a large radial — an acid-goo-filled example of native fauna. I mean that part was kind of exciting, but it was also right at the end. And the closest thing to a Cetagandan plot was a consular aide enjoying Sergyar so much he didn’t want to go home again. It was a bit of a frustrating read the first time around. Saved only by witty dialogue.

Katharine: And in the end the plascrete wasn’t really ever an issue that even they weren’t too bothered about. I’d have to agree this is the biggest downfall, and that the main thing I felt it had going for it was the progressive poly tone… but as you point out, it wasn’t really anything much in reality. Maybe a comment or two about Aral’s drawings that Cordelia awkwardly swept from Alex’s view. Still… it’s well written?

It did take me a century to actually read.

Tsana: The plascrete was a problem that Mark swooped in to fix. But even in the worst-case scenario it wasn’t, like, a war-starting problem.

I enjoyed the book, but because of all that didn’t happen I didn’t love it as much as the other Vorkosigan saga books. It actually turned out to be the one I dreaded re-reading the most. But I guess your slowness in reading was more not wanting the series to end?

Katharine: I think half that, and then half was that it was just a chill read, rather than ‘oh no, what will happen next!’ read…

Tsana: Fair enough. It’s strange to think that it’s all over now, isn’t it? We’ve been living with these books during this read and discuss project for a year and a half. And now there are no more *sob* 😢

Katharine: Until there’s a new novella or novel!

Tsana: We can only live in hope. In the meantime, we hope our readers have enjoyed this journey with us.

Katharine: And we’d love to hear your feedback on which your favourite and least favourite books are!

Tsana: Or what gaps in the stories you’d most like to see filled with future books or novellas. Let us know in the comments!

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