Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Victorian Britons were deeply culturally invested in the idea of mothers as “Angels In The Home,” providing a gentle moral example to their husbands and children. This fantasy proposed that women could act as agents of reform in the British Empire both despite and because of not having the right to own property or vote. Being deprived of legal and political rights excluded women from effective participation in the public sphere, the realm of all politics and business. But these public matters intruded into the private sphere of the household, and women’s concerns extended out of it. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan would be appalled by Victorian Britain, and it would be in awe of her. In her career in Barrayar’s empire, Cordelia is intimately familiar with the darkest depths of the overlapping portions of the Venn diagram of public and private.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s announcement of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen gave rise to both excitement and trepidation, the last coming from readers who wanted more space opera from their Vorkosigans and less romance than other recent volumes in the series have offered. With due respect to readers who prefer public stories to private ones, or space battles to smooching, for Vorkosigans the categories are inextricably intertwined. In space opera, our heroes go to war. In romance, we get to see them come home. In Cordelia’s case, the space opera has had dramatic personal impacts, and the idea of coming home raises complicated questions. Where is home? What does it mean to go there?

Minor spoilers for Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, plus spoilers for previous books in the series.

As Bujold revealed when the book was announced, at some point Aral stopped being monogamous and resumed being polyamorous. The relationship between Jole, Aral, and Cordelia was not really discernible in earlier books, but Bujold has made it visible through this story. Romance lovers will read Gentleman Jole several times and then reread the previous books in the series, looking for the clues they didn’t see before.

When we last saw Cordelia, she was cutting off all her hair to burn for Aral, an offering far in excess of the cultural requirements of Barryaran widows. Aral’s former secretary, Oliver Jole, was one of his pall bearers. Now, three years later, Cordelia and Jole are contemplating how to move forward with their lives. From its earliest beginnings, Cordelia’s relationship with Aral was shaped by the context and demands of Barryaran politics. As Countess Vorkosigan, Cordelia was wife to the regent and Prime Minister, foster-mother to the orphaned Emperor Gregor, mother to a count’s heir, and the woman who beheaded the Pretender. She was a force of nature in Barryaran politics for decades, most usually an advocate for technology and human rights. As Gentleman Jole opens, Cordelia is Vicereine of Sergyar, a position that is important and impressive, but comparatively low key. She is pursuing long-deferred personal projects. Cordelia is as focused and determined as ever, and I’m so pleased to see the return of her perspective without the mediating lens of Barryaran surprise.

Sergyar is the planet where Aral and Cordelia met, already burdened with secrets of intergalactic significance, when she was a Betan Survey captain. This is where Reg Rosemont is buried, and where Cordelia was a POW. It’s named after the prince Aral helped kill in the war with Escobar, the war whose secrets Cordelia fled Beta Colony to keep. Now, Miles’ entire lifetime later, it’s the Wild West of Barryar’s empire. They got rid of the worm plague! And there’s a movement to reintroduce it as a form of tattoo art. Sergyar is a military outpost with a growing civilian population, lots of business opportunities, and an inconveniently located volcano. Its military base offers excellent career opportunities for the Imperial Women’s Service Auxiliary, a branch of the service we have not seen before.

Other things we have not seen before include skatagators, boot polo, and very nearly Oliver Jole, who was so far in the background of previous books that he was practically invisible. Jole became Aral’s secretary when Koudelka retired. A video of Jole ripping off his shirt goes viral on Sergyar’s information networks, in case you were worried he might have let himself go since Miles described him as a recruiting poster, back in The Vor Game. Jole, about to turn fifty, is an admiral, commanding the Sergyar Fleet and contemplating the next moves in his career. His relationship with Cordelia looks both forward and back. In their nostalgic moods, Cordelia and Oliver provide new perspectives on events we have seen primarily from Miles’ point of view. In their present tense, they deal with the world they built in several previous novels’ worth of space opera.

In the past, Bujold has admitted to thinking of the worst thing she can do to her characters, and then doing it. If she has done that here, the worst thing she can do to Cordelia is an unannounced visit from Miles, accompanied by Ekaterin and their six children. Ekaterin seems to have had a mellowing influence on Miles, and I enjoyed seeing him again, even though he and his entourage are primarily an inconvenience. He is not conducting an official investigation at this point, nor is he called upon for any plumbing projects. His parenting philosophy shows Cordelia’s influence. The most notable impact of all this space opera has been the liberal application of Cordelia’s influence to virtually everything.

Over the course of her career, Cordelia has devoted a great deal of her influence to improving Barryaran women’s access to galactic medical technology. I admired the starship projector, and the historical significance of the plasma mirrors is undeniable, but the uterine replicator is indisputably Bujold’s most important invention. In most of Bujold’s stories, uterine replicators change the conditions and complications of pregnancy. In Gentleman Jole, they offer an expanded set of possibilities. The real problem here is not so much the issue of reproductive technology, which is well established in this universe, but the question of what secrets should be kept, and which shared. Secrets have played an important role in Cordelia’s story. Here, Bujold contrasts Cordelia and Aral’s secrets to the scandalous lack of secrecy with which Aral conducted his affair with Ges Vorrutyer after the death of his first wife. That relationship was toxic, destructive, and incredibly public. The relationship between Aral, Oliver, and Cordelia is its polar opposite—psychologically healthier, but a time bomb as long as it remains secret.

It’s not clear whether Bujold is ending her Barryar series here or passing the torch to a new generation of characters. Recent novels in the series have resolved most characters’ story lines. If this is an end, seventeen books is enough to do the Empire honor, and Sergyar is a fitting place to resolve Cordelia’s arc. If Bujold has more to say about this universe, it is more vividly detailed now than ever.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is available now from Baen Books.


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