Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan saga most often centres on the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, the onetime spy, spacefleet admiral, hyperactive strategist, trouble magnet, and most recently Count of one of planet Barrayar’s most noteworthy noble families, although the saga is significantly bigger than any of its protagonists. The Vorkosigan books should be required reading for any student of space opera, since they range from epic improvised interplanetary gallantry to closely-observed comedies of manners, with well-nigh every conceivable intervening shade represented somewhere within their pages.
Oh, and they’re great fun.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Bujold’s umpteenth (and most recent) book in the sequence, does indeed feature the irrepressible Miles, but the principal characters in this one are his recently-widowed mother Cordelia, currently vicereine of the Barrayaran colony planet Sergyar, and Admiral Oliver Jole, Sergyar’s military commander. There’s a long (and mainly previously untold) history between these two: Jole served as both aide-de-camp and love interest for Vicereine Vorkosigan’s late husband Aral. Yet their history is not as rivals for Aral’s affection, but as co-conspirators who were primarily motivated by a desire to moderate Aral’s most risk-attracting excesses.
If your preference among the Vorkosigan books is for the taut-plotted mayhem of the early adventures of Miles’ mercenary fleet, such as The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game, you might find GJ&tRQ a little on the slow side. But there’s a wealth of character-driven observation here, alongside Bujold’s evident affection for the series’ ever-expanding list of participants. One of the highlights of this book is the opportunity to view the series’ lynchpin, Miles through his mother’s eyes, a deft reversal of the saga’s more usual perspective. (Indeed, Miles in this book is treated almost as an adversary, and certainly at least an obstacle to the ambitions of the two main protagonists: this, I would suggest, is the kind of play which just would not work were the series not focussed as much on breadth of character as on depth.) And the scene where Cordelia explains to Miles her relationship with Jole is a classic, a note-perfect exercise in choreographed discomfiture.
Jole, the junior partner in at least three senses, is arguably a less-fully-realised character than Cordelia, but that’s likely because the Vorkosigan matriarch already has several thousand pages of backstory under her belt at the book’s outset, whereas Jole, if he’s mentioned at all in the earlier canon (and I’ve no recollection of it, but it’s a couple of decades since I read some of those books) must pop up only fleetingly, and never has a pivotal role before this one. He’s an intriguing enough character, but it’s arguably the minor characters that add the story’s main zest—Lieutenant Kaya Vorinnis, Admiral Jole’s politically-innocent new aide, and her attempts to combine romance with intelligence-gathering through a dalliance with a junior member of the Cetagandan consular staff; Cordelia’s bodyguard / chauffeur Armsman Rykov, whose powers of discretion get a fairly substantial workout in these pages; Cordelia’s office staff Ivy and Blaise, one an old hand, the other on training wheels—as events play out. It is, as I’ve noted, a little on the uneventful side, uncharacteristically so for something that Miles has even the smallest hand in. But I don’t see that as a negative: Bujold’s narrative, here, requires the space to move freely, so as to give effective play to the characters of Cordelia and Oliver; too much plot would simply get in the way.
And besides, how can I possibly cavil against an author who closes one chapter with the sentence “And then his world turned into a pelting rain of burning snot,” thereby provoking a reaction from the reader, not of the puerile sniggering one might expect, but of genuine, informed concern for an important character?
Bujold can wring pathos from the most unlikely places, and it’s always rewarding to see how she does it.