Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover image

Series: Vorkosigan #15
Publisher: Baen
Copyright: 2015
Printing: February 2016
ISBN: 1-4767-8122-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 352

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This is very late in the Vorkosigan series, but it's also a return to a different protagonist and a change of gears to a very different type of story. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen has Cordelia as a viewpoint character for, I believe, the first time since Barrayar, very early in the series. But you would still want to read the intermediate Miles books before this one given the nature of the story Bujold is telling here. It's a very character-centric, very quiet story that depends on the history of all the Vorkosigan characters and the connection the reader has built up with them. I think you have to be heavily invested in this series already to get that much out of this book.

The protagonist shift has a mildly irritating effect: I've read the whole series, but I was still a bit adrift at times because of how long it's been since I read the books focused on Cordelia. I only barely remember the events of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which lay most of the foundations of this story. Bujold does have the characters retell them a bit, enough to get vaguely oriented, but I'm pretty sure I missed some subtle details that I wouldn't have if the entire series were fresh in memory. (Oh for the free time to re-read all of the series I'd like to re-read.)

Unlike recent entries in this series, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is not about politics, investigations, space (or ground) combat, war, or any of the other sources of drama that have shown up over the course series. It's not even about a wedding. The details (and sadly even the sub-genre) are all spoilers, both for this book and for the end of Cryoburn, so I can't go into many details. But I'm quite curious how the die-hard Baen fans would react to this book. It's a bit far afield from their interests.

Gentleman Jole is all about characters: about deciding what one wants to do with one's life, about families and how to navigate them, about boundaries and choices. Choices about what to communicate and what not to communicate, and, partly, about how to maintain sufficient boundaries against Miles to keep his manic energy from bulldozing into things that legitimately aren't any of his business. Since most of the rest of the series is about Miles poking into things that appear to not be his business and finding ways to fix things, it's an interesting shift. It also cast Cordelia in a new light for me: a combination of stability, self-assurance, and careful and thoughtful navigation around others' feelings. Not a lot happens in the traditional plot sense, so one's enjoyment of this book lives or dies on one's investment in the mundane life of the viewpoint characters. It worked for me.

There is also a substantial retcon or reveal about an aspect of Miles's family that hasn't previously been mentioned. (Which term you use depends on whether you think Bujold has had this in mind all along. My money is on reveal.) I suspect some will find this revelation jarring and difficult to believe, but it worked perfectly for me. It felt like exactly the sort of thing that would go unnoticed by the other characters, particularly Miles: something that falls neatly into his blind spots and assumptions, but reads much differently to Cordelia. In general, one of the joys of this book for me is seeing Miles a bit wrong-footed and maneuvered by someone who simply isn't willing to be pushed by him.

One of the questions the Vorkosigan series has been asking since the start is whether anyone can out-maneuver Miles. Ekaterin only arguably managed it, but Gentleman Jole makes it clear that Miles is no match for his mother on her home turf.

This is a quiet and slow book that doesn't feel much like the rest of the series, but it worked fairly well for me. It's not up in the ranks of my favorite books of this series, partly because the way it played out was largely predictable and I never quite warmed to Jole, but Cordelia is delightful and seeing Miles from an outside perspective is entertaining. An odd entry in the series, but still recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-05-15

Last modified and spun 2016-05-16