Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first book I've read in the Vorkosigan Saga, and somehow it feels appropriate to be coming in on the tail end of the series. I'm meeting the characters for the first time in their maturity, and in some cases the twilight of their lives (although Cordelia, at seventy-six, says she will live to be at least a hundred and twenty). There is a great deal of history here. These characters have weight and depth, and Bujold does a tremendous job of showing this, mostly through dialogue, as Cordelia Vorkosigan, her son Miles, and Cordelia's former paramour Oliver Jole (with her now dead husband, Aral Vorkosigan), reconnect, reestablish old relationships, and begin new ones.
This is a mature book, written by an adult for adults. There are themes of aging, acceptance, moving into a new period in one's life (retirement, which means something far different in this universe and to Cordelia; for one thing, due to uterine replicator technology, she is going to be starting a brand-new family at the age of seventy-six, using previously frozen eggs and sperm from herself and Aral), and reconciling the past with the future (mainly in the person of Miles, who had no idea of the nature of his father's poly marriage). Cordelia is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up: completely at home in her own skin, content with her life, and needing no one. She is delighted by the new turn in her and Oliver Jole's relationship, but she will not go with him to what once was her home planet, Barrayar, if he takes an offered promotion there, and she is not shy about telling him so. (This conflict is resolved at the end of the book; Oliver turns down the promotion, retires from the military, and finds a new career and purpose of his own, with Cordelia on Sergyar.)
There's nothing earth-shattering in this book. The fate of Sergyar and Barrayar does not rest on Cordelia's decisions, and no one dies. (Aral died three years before, but Cordelia and Oliver talk about him so much, he's basically a third protagonist. This is all done in a healthy way, however, as the fond reminiscences the two principals have about someone who was vastly important to both of them, while they have nevertheless moved on with their lives.) The tone is quiet and restrained, but there is a great deal of wry humor, all character-based, and I laughed out loud several times. One passage in particular made me chuckle, when the truth about Cordelia and Oliver is finally revealed to her son (p. 214):
Cordelia perked up in the hope that this might lead into some more personal revelations, but instead Oliver went off into an enthusiastic description of the Serena lake life as observed through the crystal canoe. The flash of self-forgetfulness brought his considerable charm to the fore, and Ekaterin [Miles' wife] smiled.
"But you can't be planning development out that way," said Miles. "Mother is trying to get people to move away from the local tectonics."
Cordelia abandoned patience as unrewarding. "Actually, Oliver and I are dating."
Miles stared. The silence stretched just a little too long, though Ekaterin raised her eyebrows, looked back and forth between Cordelia and Jole, and ventured, "Congratulations!" Miles closed his mouth.
In another moment, he opened it again. "Er...what exactly do you mean by dating? In this context."
"Screwing, dear," Cordelia replied, in her flattest Betan tones.
Cordelia Vorkosigan is a badass, and everyone in this book knows it.
These are, by far, some of the most fully-realized characters I've read recently, and it was a pleasure to eavesdrop on these pivotal moments in their lives. Now I'll have to go back to the beginning of the saga, and see how they got to where they are today. Given the author's obvious skill, I'm sure I'll enjoy the earlier books as much as I did this one.
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