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Book Report: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about the new Vorkosigan book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. I had been waiting for this book for some time—I mean, I had been waiting specifically for Jole since it was mentioned on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Goodreads blog, but I had been waiting for a book about Cordelia and Sergeyar since… well, I first wrote about it on this Tohu Bohu more than ten years ago. So I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that I was disappointed, with all that build-up.

It’s not a bad book, by any means. A little dull, for those of us interested in plot. The things that the characters want are eminently achievable, the conflict is small-scale, mostly internal. Like the later seasons of Downton Abbey, the pleasure is being with the familiar characters we like, and seeing them succeed in various ways. On the other hand, like the later seasons of Downton, that’s pretty much all the pleasure in it for me. Oh, there’s the pleasure of well-written passages, true, and some romance-ish stuff, though not very much. But there is little of what I really like about her work, what I think she does better than other people do, which is plot.

My reaction was that it read like fanfic to me, and I know that sounds disparaging, and I only sort-of mean for it to. Here’s what I mean by that: I don’t read much fanfic, and when I read fanfic and enjoy it, it is largely because I get to spend a little more time with characters that I like, and the writer fills in some gaps in the world, ideally in a surprising way that is still consistent with canon. That sort of enjoyment is exactly the sort of enjoyment I got from this Jole. I have rarely read any fanfic that is well-plotted in the way that the Vorkosigan stuff usually is; that sort of lack is exactly the sort of lack I felt in Jole. And, yes, I suppose, there’s a focus on unexpected sexual pairings (or treblings) which is in a lot of fanfic, but (a) there’s a ton of fanfic that isn’t about sex, and (2) this novel isn’t erotica and isn’t even particularly prurient in its evocations of what John Irving calls sexual suspects. My Perfect Non-Reader (who may well be reading this Tohu Bohu these days, for all I know) claims that fanfic means smut—Jole is not smut. But it is… smut-adjacent? Reclaiming a minor character from a series, making him the main character in a story of his sexual relationships with of the two main characters… well, that is the sort of thing that fanfic seems to do a lot of. And often well, although not perhaps as well as Ms. Bujold has done it here, in the manner of hitting on her own style pretty much exactly.

I believe one of Ms. Bujold’s lines has become a sort of catchphrase for talking about series novels or indeed plot of any kind: she has said (I’m paraphrasing) that she attempts to figure out the worst possible thing she could do to Miles, and then make that situation much worse, and then figure out how he can get out of it. There are books where that method is obvious (Memory, obviously, and Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance) and others where it is somewhat less so, but in each of the Vorkosigan books there is something that goes very wrong, with disastrous consequences. In addition to the thing that has gone wrong, there some other thing that has a high probability of going wrong in the near future, and that would have disastrous consequences. In Jole, well, not so much: Gentleman Jole has a choice to make, but both choices are lovely (a new family or a huge promotion) and neither would be obviously disastrous. There is nothing stopping him from making either choice he prefers, or delaying the choice for a while, either.

Also, and this is connected, the sheer amazing privilege of our characters got up my nose after a bit. I mean, yes, when we met Cordelia she was a ship’s captain and her influence has only increased from there, and the Vorkosigan clan has always been insanely rich and powerful, enough to buy or bully their way out of any ordinary situation, but then Ms. Bujold takes them out of ordinary situations and makes them prisoners of war, or escaped convicts, or else constrains them with rules of honor and loyalty that prevent the use of their amazing privilege in the direness of their specific direness. In this book, that privilege is everywhere evident. Is there a potential logistic problem? Foist it on a minion. An awkward social situation? No-one dares challenge the (effective) Queen or the (effective) Commander-in-Chief, so it’s not a problem. The closest to a potential problem would be disapproving relatives, but those relatives are conspicuously broad-minded (which is consistent with their earlier characters—I’m not saying it would be better if they weren’t, just that there was little suspense of whether they would be) and besides, Jole and Cordelia do not seem at any point worried about what their insanely rich and powerful relatives would do if they disapproved. In the end, they just buy a couple of new houses and boats, hire some nannies and have fun! Which is nice for them, it’s true, and certainly not unpleasant for us to read about, but goodness gracious me the privilege. Might as well go ahead and watch Isobel Crawley marrying Lord Merton. Which, you know, I also enjoyed, so there’s that.

One of the things that Ms. Bujold has said in interviews and on her blog (hey, she evidently read my Tohu Bohu, I can read her Goodreads) (wow, that was a long time ago and on MySpace for the sake of everything holy) is that some readers appear to be disappointed that the book is not what they were expecting, and those readers are therefore attempting to read a book that isn’t there, rather than the one that is. I know I was looking forward to aspects of Ms. Bujold’s writings that I like very, very very much, and which it turns are not so much in the book, and yes, I am disappointed not to find them. Not as much so as I might be if they were in the book but somehow screwed up, I point out. That would suck. No, I recognize that this is the book she wanted to write, and if it isn’t exactly the book I wanted to read, well, I suppose that’s my problem.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


> My reaction was that it read like fanfic to me

I was struck by this comment, because my impression is that at least a slice of fandom is unhappy with it because the book seems to erase Aral's bisexuality, which (at least a slice of) the fic community is super into.

(I haven't read the book yet.)

Well, and if you are here, you have been warned about spoilers... That's not quite what that slice of fandom is unhappy about. Aral's bisexuality is highlighted, rather than erased, although as he is dead at the time of the story, it's necessarily about his past (and other people's).


Are you trying to avoid spoilers at all here? I'm not really, i figure mostly people have either already read it, or know what to watch out for.

Pretty much everyone i know who has read Jole has made the fanfic comparison. I've actually read this fanfic --- there's a very nice series somewhere about a relationship between Aral and Jole --- and i liked it better than the canon book, i think largely because it actually stopped to think about what a gay relationship on Barrayar would look like, and gave the characters some actual problems (as you note the lack of here).

Anyway, i'm mostly me-too-ing here --- i wanted something more to happen (i'd somehow gotten the impression that they were going to go to Beta Colony for some reason, so i was waiting for the MacGuffin to show up and drag them off there, which didn't help), i wanted more of the book to be set in the past and actually involve Aral in a plot way (or a smut way, though that's not really Bujold's thing), i was predictably eyerolly about "what everyone secretly wants is a straight relationship and a bucket of babies."

I did think the book picked up quite a bit from a reading pleasure standpoint when Miles showed up, presumably just because Bujold likes writing Miles.

I didn't dislike it a lot, but i feel pretty done with new canon in this universe.

Chaos—My general rule is that I will talk about plot, often in detail, if I have anything to say, and I don't mind other people doing so in the comments. I personally don't find that knowing the plot in advance spoils my enjoyment of most stuff, and of course by the time I've written about it, I've already finished the thing anyway.

I am not at all surprised to discover that there is Aral/Jole fic out there, nor would I be surprised to find Aral/Jole/Cordelia in various combinations. And it also wouldn't greatly surprise if some of that stuff invented a more interesting, specific and indeed implausible backstory for Jole than was in this particular book.

It's always odd to me reading Miles from someone else's point of view, and I'm not sure it ever 'works'. In some sense. For me. Maybe in bits of Komarr. If we were going to get the relative coming to fuss over her, I'd rather have had Gregor, I think, although those lines led me to a different book entirely—what might have happened had Gregor actually objected to the introduction of new heirs into the succession line. What would Jole have done if the Emperor told him to stop the incubation? What resources come in to play on various sides? Imagine what Ms. Bujold could have done with that plot. If she were interested in writing that book, which she isn't. And, I suppose, if she hadn't already made it clear that Gregor wouldn't do that. Ah, well.


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