Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest novel of the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is one of my recent favorites from the series. It is also practically impossible to talk about without discussing plot details from earlier in the series – this is perhaps the least stand-alone Vorkosigan book yet, steeped as it is in the history of its characters. So, stop reading now if you haven’t at least finished Cryoburn, the end of which I will be spoiling shortly.
I’ll also be discussing Gentleman Jole’s plot in more detail a little later, but I’ll warn you before I get into anything that isn’t apparent within the first chapter or two of the book. Ready? Here we go.
Cryoburn was one of my least favorite books in the series, but its ending makes it hugely important: its themes of handling mortality and death are capped off by Miles learning of the death of his father, Aral Vorkosigan, who has stood astride Barrayaran history like a colossus for the last forty years. Aral served as Admiral, Regent, and Prime Minister of Barrayar, as well as Count Vorkosigan, and Miles’s entire life had been lived under that shadow. But naturally, Miles is far from the only one to be affected by Aral’s death. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen examines the echoes of Aral’s life and the shape of the hole he left in his passing by returning to the viewpoint character that started off the entire series, and perhaps the only person who grokked Aral in fullness: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Aral’s widow and the Vicereine of Sergyar.
Cordelia isn’t the only protagonist, though. The narrative flows relatively fluidly between her and the other main character of the story, Admiral Oliver Jole. (Jole was first introduced in The Vor Game, though I had honestly forgotten about his existence until this book.) And as not only an old friend of the Vorkosigans but also the senior Barrayaran military officer in Sergyar space, the former Viceroy’s passing left a hole both personal and professional in Jole’s life as well. Aral has been dead for three years by now, but his ghost is essentially the third main character of the book.
(And here is where the spoilers for the latest book begin. You have been warned.)
In fact, Jole’s relationship with the Vorkosigans is much more profound than we had been able to see from Miles’ point of view in The Vor Game. Gentleman Jole opens with Jole in his role as Admiral greeting Vicereine Cordelia upon her return to Sergyar space, and they arrange for a more unofficial reunion – whereupon the reader learns that Jole was, for many years, effectively the third person in the Vorkosigans’ marriage. And Cordelia has a proposal for him: she is going to use some frozen gametes to have some more daughters, and offers her former co-spouse the use of her “eggshells” (i.e. enucleated ova) and Aral’s X-chromosome-bearing gametes so that Jole could have sons by Aral.
Cordelia’s return to Jole’s life, her offer, and the emotions redeveloping between them naturally turn his life upside down (in a way that only entanglements with Vorkosigans can), and the bulk of the novel is the two of them navigating the new opportunities that they see in front of them and the memories they have behind them. The story is, at heart, a romance; it is clear well before the midpoint that Cordelia and Jole will rekindle their relationship, but the questions of how and for how long remain open.
The structure and setting of this book – a romance between Cordelia and a Barrayaran admiral taking place on and above the planet Sergyar – mirror that of Shards of Honor, the very first book of the series, and in that way I see Gentleman Jole as a bookend to the series, wrapping up the story of Cordelia and Aral with a bow and a happily-ever-after (at least to the extent that Aral can get such an ending posthumously).
Which leads me to the question: is this the end of the Vorkosigan Saga? It very well could be. If so, I found it an extremely satisfying one, both structurally for the series and as a story in its own right. Cordelia Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters – not only in this series, but across all of science fiction – and she deserves all the happiness that this ending gives her.