Gentleman Jole and The Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold: a squeeview

After much deliberation, I concluded that there is no way that I can talk about this book without going into huge spoilery detail, which is why it’s not in the usual Wednesday books slot. It’s here. Where I can put in a read more cut and hide all those spoilers for people (like me) who hate unexpected spoilers.

If you read past this line, I take no responsibility for the spoilers or the flailing squees of joy.

The eARC for this was on public sale for months, so I saw a lot of reactions to it before I ever had it in my sticky paws. I like to read something like this in hardcopy, though, so I patiently waited – and worried, because reactions were so mixed. Going in, I had no idea how I would react to it, and I was prepared to be disappointed. Because no author is perfect every time, and maybe this was Bujold’s imperfect and bad book?

Which would have been an even bigger disappoint than, for example, a new Miles book not being up to scratch, because this is a new CORDELIA book. The first for over two decades.

Bujold describes this as a character study, and I think that’s why reactions were so mixed. Don’t read this expecting huge action adventure space opera. That’s not what she’s written here. If you go in expecting the usual shenanigans that a Vorkosigan book bring, you’ll be disappointed. Bujold didn’t set out to write one of those.

She set out to write a character study, an examination of two characters who have reached connected crossroads in their lives and are flailing around, trying to work out what happens next. If that’s the book you go in expecting to read, you’ll be rewarded in spades.

There were so many things I loved about the book that I need to break them down into subsections, otherwise I’m going to get lost in my squee.

1) Aral and Cordelia’s marriage – more complex than we knew

Happy poly marriage! Ahem 🙂

Bujold doesn’t retcon Aral and Cordelia’s marriage, because the last time we saw their relationship from the inside was before Oliver was introduced. We’ve seen their marriage from the outside for years–primarily through Miles’s eyes–and it’s made quite clear from early in this book that Aral, Cordelia, and Oliver kept their relationship private from almost everyone including Miles. In fact, it’s one of the issues Oliver is conflicted about when he’s debating something else during the book: should Miles be told that there was, for many years, a third person in his parents’ relationship?

Oliver is actually there on the page a couple of times in previous books, but it’s always Miles’s POV, so of course we don’t know his true significance.

It’s not a retcon; Bujold showed us what was happening for the people directly involved. I loved that, and I loved that Cordelia was so Cordelia about it all. And that it was a relationship that clearly changed and evolved over the years, where everyone was happy in it, and where everyone was an equally important part of making it work.

I was also delighted that it wasn’t always easy, trying to coordinate a relationship between three busy and important people, but they clearly always made the effort to do it without causing each other pain.

2) Triped becomes biped

The other part of the relationship story that I absolutely loved was that losing Aral hadn’t been a smooth transition for Cordelia and Oliver. They didn’t immediately become a two-person thing. They had to grieve for him and for the way things had been, and it took time.

When we meet them, they’re both at a crossroads in a lot of ways, and their relationship is part of it. Seeing the confusion they both felt about how their feelings had evolved again, and watching them learn how to go about making a new thing that was separate to their old thing, was beautiful and raw, and felt real for them. It was a romance, but part of the dilemma around it was how to navigate the new direction that this iteration of their relationship would go.

And it wasn’t left as an unabashed happily ever after. It was left as a “beginning of a new stage…”, because it would have been unrealistic for them to immediately have it all figured out and set up house together at the end of the book. Instead, they’re working out how to set up separate but intimately connected lives and houses, which really worked for me.

3) The implications of those uterine replicators…again

Over the course of the series, Bujold has gone back to the uterine replicators multiple times, positing interesting ideas about their use beyond the most obvious “take the maternal danger out of pregnancy” one. In this book, she’s gone there again, and it’s interesting to me that Cordelia and Oliver have connected and completely different relationships with them.

For both of them, it’s a way to have children they never expected to have, with Aral.

I did love that Aral’s will made very specific mention of the unfertilized gametes and Cordelia’s rights. It’s an element that should already be something people are considering today, with frozen eggs and embryos causing post-mortem court cases just through the possibilities inherent in IVF.

For Cordelia, she’s a fit, healthy woman, who has at least another fifty good years in her even though she’s post-menopausal (and has no desire to have another body birth anyway). Her story is almost an “of course”, because there’s no debate for her over whether she wants to have more children. Her story here is that she knows she has reached a stage where she can make a change, have more children, and it’s a second phase of her life that she’s been looking forward to. The relationship with Oliver is the complicating factor for her, but there’s never any doubt that she’ll stay on Sergyar and raise her daughters, no matter what happens with Oliver. Her transition into a new life isn’t something she doubts, but she has to deal with everyone else’s doubts and with the implications of beginning a new relationship at the same time.

Oliver’s dilemma is that he’s been given a chance he never thought he’d have. A chance for sons, a chance for children that are a product of that tripedal relationship that’s defined so much of his life, and he never expected to get that. It requires him to make a choice: children or career? This is the choice that’s usually put on the woman in a story, so it was wonderful to watch Oliver work through it and find his path.

4) Character study and romance, not spaceships and fights

It’s a completely different kind of book from Bujold’s usual pattern, and in part, that’s why I like it. I loved spending so much time just wallowing in these people, their world, and the choices they’re given. Usually the pace in a Vorkosigan book is frenetic, with no time to breathe and really appreciate the characters. And I’m not say that I’d turn away from a more action-heavy story if Bujold wrote one, but what really made me happy in this book was the change of pace. I felt like I was being wrapped up in something wonderful and comforting, even though the ideas made my brain work hard in places.

In summary

You know those books that just make you happy in ways you didn’t know you could be happy? The ones where you can’t stop telling people how much you love it? The ones that you can’t be objective about and find flaws in, because you’re too overwhelmed with love? That’s what this has been for me. And now I’m reading Shards of Honour because I feel the need to reread everything with the new knowledge I have about Cordelia, Aral, and Oliver. I have a feeling this is going to be one of my top five books of the year.


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