On the heels of finishing SyFy’s Childhood’s End, I also managed to get through a novel: Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest Vorkosigan book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. I absolutely love Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga; I think it is one of the greatest works of science fiction, up there with Herbert’s Dune, Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, and Brin’s Uplift Saga. However, it is a very different type of story from those other series above; while the above stories are all about meaning and grand-scale, universe-shattering changes, Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is much more modest in terms of astral scale, but it more than makes up for it in its deep probing of social questions and development of characters. Her accounts of the interaction between a backwards, feudal society and the technologies of the more advanced universe are a joy to read and extremely thought-provoking, in particular the way in which she explores the gradual granting of autonomy to women’s bodies, and the forces that resist this.
Of course, the series itself also develops several of science fiction’s most memorable characters, from Piotr, Aral, Mark and (the titular) Miles Vorkosigan, to Simon Illyan, Ivan Vorpatril, Bel Thorne, Elli Quinn, and Ky Tung, and of course, to Cordelia Vorkosigan (nee Naismith). I had no idea what to expect from this book from the title, which is neatly vague, but was pleased to see a return to focus on Cordelia, a galactic stranded in the backwards Barrayaran Empire for love. Yet, Cordelia manages to avoid falling into the woman-who-does-anything-for-her-man trope, while still being able to love deeply. It is Cordelia’s love and love-life that make for the focus of this book, which is also the latest chronologically in the series.
Not much goes on in the book, until a sort of very short climax at the very end. This was surprising, given the relatively action-packed rest of the series (which, I should mention, also slowly changes genre, from military science fiction to political commentary to romance, while always having elements of all three), but in no way diminished it; despite the lack of a real plot, I was hooked from the first chapter. Bujold has an amazing ability to draw characters, and these characters I already knew well. While most Vorkosigan books can, I think, be enjoyed on their own without having read others, this one is full of enough references that you really need to have read almost all of the rest of the series to enjoy.
There is also surprisingly little of the series’ central character, Miles, who the series for the most part follows from childhood to old adult, in favor of his mother; a nice return to the old Shards of Honor and Barrayar stories (with plenty of references to the former!). It was fascinating to see Miles (grown Miles) from the point of view of someone who is smarter than him, which was a welcome viewpoint and helped expose some of Miles’ vulnerabilities that don’t come across as much when he is the center of attention. The book itself takes place on the Barrayaran colony world Sergyar (which Cordelia helped discover), and deals with Cordelia and a close friend, Admiral Jole, dealing with the aftermath of the death of Cordelia’s husband and Jole’s mentor. The story deals with the pair of them (re)-finding each other while trying to manage an expanding colony, and reveals a lot of surprising facts about the past relationship between Cordelia, Jole, and the late Aral Vorkosigan. The introduction of Jole – an entirely new character as far as I can recall – was a bit clunky at first, and I never felt he really developed much, but the discussion of the relationship between the three of them, and its evolution (despite one of them being dead!) was very moving and, as always with Bujold, thought-provoking. Though nothing happens, the book still somehow remains a page-turner due to Bujold’s great gift with the pen (or rather, the keyboard). Though not what I was expecting, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen was still a joy to read!