Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
With over a dozen books, and multiple Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards to its credit, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most successful series of science fiction adventure books. A series like this can be a bit daunting to read, but that’s not the case with Bujold’s books.
That’s because many of the books in the series are only loosely connected, which means that you can actually pick up any book in the series and start there. That’s handy because the latest book in the series is now available to buy online – as an advance proofing copy, before the final book will be released in February 2016.
The books in the saga defy classification; some, particularly those that focus on Miles Vorkosigan in his younger days, are space operas with cruisers and battles, tense commando missions, and loving detail about high-tech weaponry. Others, like Ethan of Athos, blend this together with strong social commentary. Yet others such as Komarr and Cryoburn are more like whodunnits; while A Civil Campaign was a book about politics, reproductive rights, and gender definitions. And Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance was a hilarious comedy, a love story, and a heist movie.
We will not discuss the plot too much here, but we will certainly say that the book is going to be one of the most divisive ones in the series. Not because of its writing, or the twists and turns that the plot follows, but simply because of the subject matter – Bujold has already confirmed to fans that this book is not a war story, and that it is about grown-ups. In classic science fiction fashion, Bujold uses her alien settings and advanced technology to directly address the questions and concerns we are facing today, about age and gender and relationships and modern culture. And she does a brilliant job of it, as usual.
The book does drop a rather big revelation about a major character, and although the groundwork has been laid out in earlier books in the series (if sparingly), it still feels like an unexpected surprise. So it’s a good thing that Bujold gets the twist out of the way quickly, and matter-of-factly. This means that the book is given the breathing room to tell its own story, instead of twisting itself into knots around this revelation.
Outside of the main story, the B-plot figures around some typical Bujold tropes – military and logistics feature heavily, as does urban planning, and inter-cultural relations – but these all feel a little underdeveloped in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. But despite a few small missteps, this book feels like one of Bujold’s most cohesive and mature works, and so it’s perhaps fitting that it’s in this book that she finally returns to the planet Sergyar, which was also the stage for Shards of Honor, the first full novel in the Vorkosigan Saga.
There are frequent references and callbacks to the first book, and reflections on how the story has matured over time, and this works really well in establishing a sense of history to the novel. Even if you aren’t familiar with the adventures that the various members of the Vorkosigan family have had, the sense of real characters who have lived storied lives is clear, and does a lot to ground some of the more fanciful creatures and creations that we find in the book.
What fans may not like is that this is one of the few books in the Vorkosigan saga that does not revolve around Miles and his manic adventures, but rather a much quieter story that does not have the same kinds of moments of chaos, conflict, and triumph. It’s a quieter story, and if you are looking for detailed descriptions of how wormhole warfare would work, or high tech weapons like plasma mirrors and gravitic imploder lances, then you’ll be disappointed.
But Bujold has shown – repeatedly – that the Vorkosigan saga doesn’t need to be about just one sort of book, again and again. She’s taken the freedom offered by setting it far into the future, with all sorts of changes in technology and social mores, to explore lots of different types of stories already, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is another example of this.
It’s one of the reasons why her work is so popular and appeals to so many different tastes, and we think that when the book is finally released in February, people should definitely give it a shot.