Lois McMaster Bujold is being nice to characters now?! A Review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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I consider this review is spoiler-free, though I could not avoid hinting at some of the events. So … spoiler-free, but not teaser-free?

I just finished reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the newest book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.

I enjoyed reading it. I also I think it could have been much better.

First, some of the things I liked:

– I liked that it explored certain aspects of polyamory
– I also just plain liked that it torpedoed the Vorkosiverse equivalent of the relationship escalator. Finally. I was getting tired of having so many sexual-romantic relationships in the Vorkosiverse following such a similar trajectory.
– A suspicion I have had for a long time about what was happening behind the scenes was … partially confirmed true. As in, I was correct about the broad outlines, but the details came out of left field (as in “What the hell, out of all potential characters, it was that no-first-name Lt. Jole from The Vor Game??!!!”)
– As in most of her novels, Bujold’s wit comes through, for example:

Miles’s lips twisted up, but he did not pursue whatever objection he was entertaining to that.

Cordelia, frowning, said to him, “I’m sorry that you were disturbed by the slanders. You never said much…”

“It happened at school, mostly. Boys trying to get me going, when the mutie insults stopped working. I eventually taught them…not to. Ivan had it easier. He could just slug them. I couldn’t get him to slug them for me very often, except for the one time some twit accused Aunt Alys of sleeping with you. That…went off well. In a sense.” A vicious grin.

“Alys came in for a lot of criticism in her own right for not remarrying,” said Cordelia. “Still, at least that one credited me with good taste. I was flattered.”

“Grandfather once said to me, when I was upset about, God, I don’t even remember which one, ‘We’re Vorkosigans. If the charge isn’t at least murder or treason, it’s not worth rolling over in bed for.’ Then he thought a moment and changed it to, ‘Treason, anyway.’ And after another, ‘And sometimes not even then.’”

– Much of the novel is driven by the suspense of ‘How will character X react when they find out the truth about Y?’ And I lap that kind of thing up in fiction.
– Sergyar is now my favorite planet in the Vorkosiverse.
– I loved the scene where Alex looks through his grandfather’s drawings

Now, there are a number of things I did not like about the novel, but the substantial ones are all tied to one thing: Lois McMaster Bujold is being too nice to the characters in this novel!!!!

Lois McMaster Bujold’s guideline for many of her works of fiction has been “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” as she explains in the afterword to Cordelia’s Honor:

I now had in hand a messy first draft of about a hundred pages of narrative, with no chapter breaks, that clearly wasn’t long enough to be a novel. I paused briefly, flirted with a really bad scenario about a convenient alien invasion that would force Barrayar and Beta to ally, decided “Why should I make things easy on my characters?”, and plunged on to the much better and more inherent idea of the Escobar invasion, thus accidentally discovering my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” And then do it.

I think this “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” line of thinking inspired her to write some of my favorite parts of the Vorkosigan saga.

Alas, Lois McMaster Bujold did not do her worst to the protagonists of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

I’m not suggesting that, say, the Cetagandans should have attempted a genocide of everyone on Barrayar via biological warfare. I would not have wanted an action-adventure/mystery/etc. plot appended to this story if it did not belong. However, even within the scope of what this story is about … Lois McMaster Bujold really held back.

Now, one could argue the “worst possible thing” was the bombshell which dropped about three years before the novel begins. However … it dropped three years before the novel begins. I suspect this novel might have been better if it had been set (or at least begun) before that bombshell, because that was serious shit hitting the fan. Additionally, had the story been set at that earlier time, we probably would have been treated to even deeper explorations of polyamory/unconventional intimate relationships, which I would have liked. However, by the time this novel begins, the characters have already gotten past the worst aftermath of that bombshell, so that event no longer works as a “worst possible thing.”

One of the consequences of not doing the worst to the characters is that … it limited the amount of growth the characters could experience. Rather than the protagonists learning, adapting, and maturing to deal with their challenges, it seems they were mostly ready to meet they challenges already (again, this is why I wish the story could have started at an earlier point, before the characters had learned so much about how to deal with these challenges).

It’s not a bad novel but … arghh, it tantalizes me with wonderful possibilities which are not realized. Another review I read said that the novel feels like an epilogue. I agree. I felt like the real story happened before this one began, and darn it, I would like to read that story. Or failing that, I would have liked to read a sequel where the protagonists are thrown into a serious NEW challenge.

Vorkosigan fans will read this no matter what I say. I also recommend this book to people who are interested in polyamory and/or bisexuality in fiction, or in fiction which features protagonists over the age of 48 years old (and a female protagonist who is 76 years old). As far as the general reading public … it is a decent novel which covers some topics which are under-represented in fiction. Make of that what you will.

This is not part of the book review, but since this is an asexuality blog…

… I feel obliged to quote the part in Chapter 6 where asexuality (in humans) comes up. Has asexuality ever come up in any of the other Vorkosigan stories? I’ll let the asexuals who are reading this blog try to figure out this passage:

She sat back, crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and studied him. His chin came up in unconscious response to the challenge, and what a fine chin it had always been. “You know, it occurs to me—belatedly—have you actually had any practice at seducing people?”

His eyes widened, then narrowed back down. “Certainly! I’m hardly asexual, Cordelia!”

“I didn’t suggest that! You have to be one of the least asexual people I’ve ever met. Much to the puzzlement, I have no doubt, of those who have flung themselves so futilely at you over the years, poor sods. And odds.” Definitely both odds and sods.

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2 thoughts on “Lois McMaster Bujold is being nice to characters now?! A Review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

  1. I’m not going to go into the Vorkosigan saga after reading this, but it does contain good advice for people who write fiction of any kind.

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