Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

I dearly love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and I heard some rave reviews of this book from folks who read the ARC, but in the end it left me cold. At best, it’s a charming extended coda that ties up one of the Vorkosigan Saga’s loose threads.

I can see why many fans are happy to have a story about coming out. The much quieter, character-driven plot is also an interesting experiment, but not entirely a successful one, in my opinion. There’s a discombobulating revelation around pages 15 and 16 that makes you see certain parts of all the previous novels in a different light, which is fun, but that’s the only real highlight.

The problem for me is that the stakes are set very low. The plot is about adults in positions of great power and the life decisions they make, particularly regarding sex and relationships. Since these people are the most powerful leaders on their planet, nothing really impedes their romance. What little tension the plot has is supplied by such mundane questions as Will Admiral Jole Accept the Unappetizing-Sounding Promotion he Clearly Doesn’t Need? and How Will Cosmopolitan, Galactic-Raised Miles React to the Discovery that Consenting Adults Have Had Sex? The answers are never in doubt.

In recent Vorkosigan novels, the caper plot arcs have felt more and more forced, and in this book the author simply declines to put her characters in physical or emotional danger at all. Time and again, the merest hint of suspense is squelched within one or two sentences. Bujold writes well enough to make individual scenes moderately entertaining, but frankly the book felt more like self-indulgent fan fiction than a novel in its own right.

And that’s probably why my attention started to go sideways. I began asking myself questions like Do I respect these people as political leaders? and peering around corners, trying to see what this story looks like from other characters’ points of view.

The thing I loved best about the Vorkosigans of the early books in the series was their dedication to public service and their determination to hold themselves to the highest standards of integrity. These qualities didn’t stop the Barrayaran side of the family from being violent, illiberal barbarians, but they were fun barbarians because they were self-aware and not the least bit ashamed of their conduct. By contrast, the Cordelia of Gentleman Jole is a burned-out politician at the fizzling end of her career. She still preaches hard work and responsibility, but she’s desperate to retire from her own public obligations and suffers no consequences for her own mistakes. That’s not nearly as much fun.

The problem is partly me. I’m a former political staffer, so I’m hyper-alert for abuses of power that need fixing before they become disasters. For me, none of the tension in this book comes from the characters’ personal and family relations: all of it comes from their terrible political decisions—none of which touch on their sex lives. When I read the book, I kept cringing at Jole and Cordelia’s judgement, waiting for the fallout, and then feeling irritated when it never materialized. I hesitate to underestimate Lois McMaster Bujold’s powers of storytelling, but I have a bad feeling that she just didn’t think through some of the implications of her characters’ actions. I’ll give you some examples. (Mild spoilers follow.)

At one point, Jole and Cordelia come across a lightflyer (flying car) accident. No one has been hurt, but they discover that one of the six teenagers at the scene appears to have caused the accident when she set the flyer on fire by using a firearm improperly. It transpires that the teen is the daughter of Admiral Jole’s top general and the firearm is her father’s service weapon, which she has stolen. Jole quietly makes the weapon disappear before the police arrive. He and Cordelia accompany the teens back to the police station and see to them solicitously. The cops take the hint and lay no charges, because these are clearly Kids from Good Families. (It also turns out that the mother of one of the teens works at the station.) In the real world a Solicitor General of Ontario had to resign in the eighties after a similar incident involving the police.

Jole and Cordelia’s behaviour probably seems decent and considerate to most people, and it would be if the couple were ordinary citizens. But they’re not. They’re the two most powerful people on the planet. Their very presence hanging around the station puts political pressure on a police investigation. That makes my inner politico howl in dismay. Is it really true that the Kareenburg police routinely let off people who wreck other folks’ lightflyers, as Cordelia seems to think, or are these kids getting special favours?

Furthermore, the couple ends up benefiting financially from the episode. The general’s daughter is later obliged to do them a personal favour instead of performing the community service she would otherwise have earned. What do the owners of the wrecked lightflyer think of all this? Those characters don’t have a voice in the narrative, but we’re told that they’re lower-ranking military personnel under the general’s command.

In another incident, Jole’s officers give him a gift fabricated on the military base using the military’s materials. Both Jole and Cordelia realize that this was not an authorized use of public funds. Cordelia approves the peculation retroactively because hey, her boyfriend deserves a birthday present.

In a third example, the couple sees that the ball at a sporting match has been decorated to look like the facepaint of the consul of Cetaganda, an empire with which their own society has had a rocky history but now enjoys cordial relations. “Any, ah, diplomatic concerns about that, Vicereine?” Jole asks.* “On the whole … no,” she replies. Not long afterward, the losing team gets drunk and destroys an art installation set up by people from the Cetagandan consulate, who include the consul’s young son. The police, following the example set by their leaders, stand around and do nothing until the installation is thoroughly wrecked and a consular staffer is injured. Neither Cordelia nor Jole ever acknowledge their own role in the incident. There’s later a plot point involving a Cetagandan seeking refugee status. One wonders about his safety on Sergyar.

Other episodes aren’t as serious, but they’re rookie mistakes. There’s a scene where Cordelia tries to “win” an in camera stakeholder meeting as if it’s an election debate. Predictably, she succeeds only in antagonizing the delegation who came to see her. The author makes the delegates deeply obtuse—a tactic I would expect from Ayn Rand, not Lois McMaster Bujold—but if you read the scene against the grain, you can see that they have a point.

At issue is a plan to move the planetary capital (and presumably the whole civil service) to a new location because it’s currently situated on a dormant volcano that will erupt in some future century. Cordelia summarily dismisses the delegates’ concern that this plan will cause economic hardship in the current capital. She herself lives in a government-supplied palace and is having another palace built at public expense in the new capital; she can’t seem to understand why everyone else can’t afford to just abandon their homes and move. It looks like she’s acquired a bad case of entitlement in her old age.

Cordelia is hard on her staff too. She spends the novel all but sneering at her enthusiastic young communications assistant because he’s been trained as a publicist and not an issues management guy. She never wonders if maybe she should have hired an issues management person in the first place.

Her armsman Rykov has to put up with a lot as well. Twice, she leaves him on duty late into the night with no prior warning, no one to relieve him, and no indication when his shift will be over. I know a lot of people are excited that this book is a romance where the lovers actually communicate with each other, but I kind of wish Cordelia would also display some communication and consideration to her subordinates.

Even the love story makes me a little sad. It seems to be saying that the best way to balance a non-traditional family with high office is to stay in the closet to everyone but your closest relations. That’s certainly one legitimate response. But as I read the book, my local newspaper was carrying stories of Premier Wynne and her wife finessing their diplomatic visit to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. Somehow, in the last decade, my reality has become more hopeful than my science fiction.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to feel about this novel, but I know what messages I got out of it.

Even heroes run out of heroism eventually.

Power doesn’t so much corrupt as make one oblivious of one’s subordinates.

Absolute power means there’s no accountability, and consequently very little plot.

The whole story just makes me feel tired. I’m going to go find me some good old space battles and assassinations now. Maybe Ancillary Mercy will fit the bill? I haven’t read it yet.
*What’s with that title? It’s like calling Joe Biden the Vice-First Lady.


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