Oh, Cordelia!

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen - Lois McMaster Bujold

I loved this book. For me, it was one of the best in the entire Vorkosigan saga, but some reviewers don’t agree with me. I saw 2- and even 1-star reviews for this novel, but I think it’s not as much about the book as about the readers’ expectations. The earlier books of the series were mostly space ballets, hysterically funny sci-fi tales of action and mayhem, with the hero Miles as traditional as they come in his personal and sexual attitudes.

This book is not such a book. It’s a quiet love story of two unconventional people, both on the wrong side of middle age, both bogged down with pain and experience, both burdened with responsibility of high command, both unique in their attitudes towards love and sex. The sci-fi aspect is purely incidental to the story. They happen to live on another planet, and there are space ships somewhere on the periphery of the readers’ awareness, but all that is just a wrapping for romance.

The heroes of this romance, their deep convictions and utmost decency, their drive to understand and accept, to teach and to learn, is what made the book shine. And unlike the other books of the series, this one is not actually funny. Instead, it’s full of soft irony and faint sadness. Both the author and her heroine are aging and both try to catch the last few years (or decades) of happiness.

Cordelia... oh, Cordelia. One of the most interesting fictional females in the sci-fi universe, she is a role model for me. She has lived for her family and for her adopted planet, Barrayar, for forty-odd years. She survived political upheavals and wars, a great Barrayar political figure as her beloved husband and a hyper genius as her medically-challenged son. She has invested all her considerable acumen to make Barrayar a better place, but now she wants a bit of peace and quiet for herself.

She wants to retire from her position as Vicereine of Sergyar, the planet she and her late husband, Aral Vorkosigan, the former Viceroy, led for thirteen years. He has been dead for three of those years, and she is finally over her grief. Almost. But life goes on, and she knows what she wants now. She wants more children – girls only. It’s possible in sci-fi, even for a 70-plus-year-old heroine. In her world, fertilization could be done in a lab, from a couple of samples frozen long ago, and the embryo gestation takes place in a machine. And she wants a new partner: Oliver Jole, Admiral of the Sergyar Space Fleet.

A complex history is behind them. Oliver had been her husband’s lover for years, with her own willing participation in their unconventional tri-some. She always loved Oliver; jealousy has never been an issue for Cordelia. She was raised on Beta Colony after all. The Betan sexual diversity is legendary and almost incomprehensible for a regular Barrayar citizen. Or a regular Earth citizen, for that matter, but Cordelia and her creator, Bujold, were never constrained by our rigid and excluding sexual codes.

Now, Cordelia is ready for a new level of intimacy with Oliver, but the question is: would Oliver want her without Aral? Would he agree to an open relationship or would he want it as secret as his affair with Aral was? Or perhaps he would choose his career instead. He is 25 years younger than Cordelia after all. And how would her family react to her choices?

Although the obstacles in Cordelia’s love story seem small – there is no interstellar war or any other cosmic cataclysm in sight – the philosophy behind her decisions is huge.

The book reads slowly. It doesn’t gallop from action to action, so I couldn’t skim through the text. Instead, the pages are full of conversations and contemplations on wide-ranging topics. Parenthood and aging, sexuality and tolerance, career and identity, grief and love – Cordelia doesn’t shy away from hard subjects. Her intelligence and integrity sparkle in every word, and I wanted to savor them all.

Below are a few quotes, each one a gem of wit and the writer’s skill.

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Admiral Jole talks to his young office assistant, Lieutenant Vorinnis, about a war that happened twenty years ago:

“I guess you have known Vicereine Vorkosigan just as long, then?”

“Nearly exactly, yes. It’s been...” He had to calculate it in his head, and the sum took him aback. “Twenty-three years, almost.”

“I’m almost twenty-three,” Vorinnis offered, in a tone of earnest helpfulness.

“Ah,” Jole managed.

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Admiral Jole contemplates having children of his own and talks about it with one of his friends. The friend is a father of several and shares his experience willingly:

“... at least babies stay more-or-less where you put them, at that age. Now, toddlers... suicidal maniacs, the lot of ’em, boy or girl. I’m so glad that stage is over.”

Later on, the friend continues his grumbling about his teenage daughter:

“Horrible age, fifteen. Part of the time, she is still my little princess, Da’s Cadette, and then, with no warning—it’s like some hostile alien life-form takes over her brain. One minute it’s all puppies and ribbons, the next—the female werewolf! ... The bathroom is a war zone right now.”

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I enjoyed every word of this book and I hope to read it again one day.