I recently finished my re-read of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (which in some cases was a first read). The series is an incredible achievement – sweeping space opera, generational family saga, the occasional comedy of manners … it’s a remarkable sequence of tales.
When Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the chronological final volume as things stand, was released a few years ago, I remember seeing some negative reactions and associating them with certain other negative reactions to beloved science fiction franchises that cropped up around the same time. I mostly dismissed them as nonsense, because I felt that I could devour anything Bujold writes and be left wanting more. After all, that’s been true of every one of her books I’ve read.
Spoilers ahead. I’ve done my best to keep them minor, but you’ve been warned.
Eh. I’ve read it now, and I can see … some of the complaints. I kept waiting for the reveal of the sinister Cetagandan plot, or at least the treasonous machinations of the low-bidding plas-crete corporation. As I neared the final chapters, it dawned on me that these weren’t coming. No, this story really is “just” a romantic yarn.
It seems remarkably shitty of certain “fans” of the series to begrudge Cordelia Vorkosigan a new romance in her not-at-all sunset years. But maybe they’re put off by the nature of the relationship, given that we’re suddenly to believe she and the late Aral Vorkosigan were carrying on what this volume explicitly refers to as a three-way marriage all along.
Jole had been mentioned a number of times, going back years and years. He even turns up in a scene or two at Aral’s side. But while Aral’s bisexuality was addressed from the very beginning, these dots had never before been connected outright. It seemed fairly obvious to me this time through, but then I already knew a bit of where the final volume would go… I have to confess that the first time I read these books, I never noticed Jole at all.
Maybe it’s that we haven’t learned to love Jole? I wept at Aral Vorkosigan’s death. I genuinely love these people. (Even Ivan.) Maybe it’s simply our unfamiliarity with Jole that put readers off?
I dunno. I liked the guy, and I had zero objections throughout the book to him and Cordelia retiring together and making babies. If nothing else, Cordelia deserves another shot of happiness. Cordelia is too fucking awesome to wither in widowhood. She could have run off with the Cetagandan attache (who does have a story, just not one with much meat on it) and I’d have been okay with it. She’s Cordelia, for fuck’s sake.
The only problem I had with the book is that there really is no plot and scheme to uncover, no intrigue, no invasion, no Milesian denouement. I kept thinking – even though I’d read it quite recently – that there was more to A Civil Campaign, which I consider the true high point of the entire series. But there isn’t, not really. Sure, there’s some stuff going on beside the various parallel romantic threads of that novel, but … no huge, galactic ramifications to any of it. The chief difference is that we cared deeply about Miles, and Mark, and Gregor, and yes even Ivan; we were, if reading in chronological order, also quite fond of Kareen, newly enamored with Ekaterin, at least interested in Laisa, and … Oh yes. Ivan hadn’t met his Jacksonian bride yet. That was Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which had a whole ensemble-cast-heist-movie as its B-plot.
It helped, over the final 5 or 6 chapters, for me to view Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen for what it truly is: a capstone. An epilogue.
The story’s ended, and this is how they all wind up:
Miles and Ekaterin have achieved the joy they deserve (yes, deserve, in more senses than one); Ivan’s gotten married and finally moved to a new phase in his career, no longer ducking and playing dumb every chance he gets; Mark’s undergone extensive therapy and at least learned to live with himself, we trust that he and Kareen know what they’re doing, and he’s making gobs of money throughout the Nexus; Gregor has wed and produced an heir, to the great relief of many; the Barrayaran Empire itself has progressed through its character arc, shedding the neo-barbarism Cordelia found when she first arrived, advancing into a better future through the efforts of her family and Gregor’s, and taking its proper place in galactic society.
There’s no need for another clash with the Cetagandans. We’ve had several, and through the course of decades the Vorkosigans have beaten them and earned their highest respect. We don’t need to revisit Jackson’s Whole. Mark and Kareen, I have little doubt, will continue dismantling the worst of that planet’s criminal enterprises. And for Barrayar itself, we can trust that the world and people that once would have killed Miles outright for the misfortunes of his birth has grown wiser and kinder and more civilized, to the point where Miles’ wields power and influence second only to his foster brother the Emperor.
This book didn’t need intrigue, or treason, or salacious gossip for political purpose. It teased us with all three, mind you. I half-expected that Cetagandan exhibit to be a sinister plot right up until the penultimate chapter. I never quite stopped waiting for the Plas-Dan storyline to turn into some economic bid for a coup d’etat, right until the last. But those were red herrings, and that’s fine.
All the battles, of wits and of plasma weapons, have led to this: a happy ending. The struggle, at least for now, for this generation of Vorkosigans, has ended. Let them have their happy ending, even Cordelia. Aral would have wanted it.