Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold
Science fiction, Vorkosigan saga

I didn't have high expectations for this one. The previous entry in the series, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, was objectively pretty bad. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the first Vorkosigan book that I deliberately chose not to buy. I anticipated that I'd have to say something like: "Well, if you're a Vorkosigan fan, this one's worth reading if you get it from the library."

I was wrong. This one isn't worth reading under any circumstances. In fact, the more of a Vorkosigan fan you are, the less you should read this one. It's a flaccid, self-indulgent mess. Here's how it breaks down.

Pages 1-122: Nothing happens.
Pages 123-125: The scene you've been plodding along anticipating since page 2.
Pages 126-197: Nothing happens.
Pages 198-200: A man gets a job offer, and he's of two minds whether to accept it.
Pages 200-327: Nothing happens.
Page 328: Man turns down job offer. Cue dramatic music.
Pages 329-340: Would be an epilogue, except that the whole damn book is one big epilogue.

Seriously: other than the job offer, there is literally not one thing that any character wants that is opposed in any way by any other character, circumstance, force of nature, social custom, monster, psychological hangup, or astrological conjunction. This book consists of characters talking to each other about non-controversial subjects. It is, in a word, the one thing that I could never have envisioned a Vorkosigan book being: BORING. Sorry, three words: MIND-NUMBINGLY BORING.

I have a theory that there are two general types of writers: the intuitive and the workmanlike. The intuitive writer is the one who says "the character was telling me that he wanted to do X." The workmanlike writer is the one who says "I needed that scene there to set up scene Y and to establish the motivations of character Z." Lois Bujold, I'm pretty sure, is an intuitive writer. She doesn't analyze. She's been quoted as saying
The rule for finding plots for character-centered novels ... is to ask: "So what's the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?" And then do it.
Which describes, to absolute perfection, what she absolutely, cosmically, totally, and horribly failed to do in GJatRQ. It would be ironic if it weren't so ghastly.

I have another theory, too. Some years ago Bujold wrote a brilliant book called A Civil Campaign, modeled on a Regency romance. This book was so good, and was so successful, that it convinced Bujold that she's a terrific romance writer. She's not. She's a terrible romance writer. (For one thing, she can't write female characters.) What she did in A Civil Campaign was to throw a romantic problem around what she is terrific at, which is the caper-adventure novel. You know: the protagonist gets thrown into a developing situation, and she improvises a plan, and she's executing it when holy shit well that was a monkey wrench, gotta have a new plan, except whoa I didn't see that coming! and she's just getting that under control when, uh-oh, you know that thing that seemed like such a great idea back in Chapter 3, well, the problem is ...

Lois Bujold is a genius at that. You can see it not just in A Civil Campaign but in Ethan of Athos and Memory and all the "Dendarii" novels and Mirror Dance and ... hell, just go read them. Just don't read Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Really, I'm serious about this. No matter whether you are a Vorkosigan loyalist or a newbie, a casual follower or an obsessional fanboy, do not read this book. Just because an author has produced some wonderful books, it doesn't follow that everything by that author is wonderful. This isn't.


  1. Wow, you really didn't like this.

    I usually enjoy Vorkosigan stories, even the weaker ones. I've enjoyed some Bujold fantasy stories, too, even ones you didn't like so much.

    Sounds like I'll give this a pass.

    Why did you even finish it?

    1. I finished it so that I could review it. There may have been some skimming in the later chapters.

      For what it's worth, my opinion is not an outlier. Robin and Lisa had similar reactions. Even your employer's website gives it a relatively low ranking--especially when you consider that the people who review series genre fiction are 90% fans of the series.

  2. Yeah. There were moments when there was a faint stirring of what might have been a plot or conflict, but it was quickly set aside and died from neglect. I disagree a bit with JT in that I found some of the character study and observation interesting. Much discussion of the nature of parenting and parenthood, and on when and how one tells one's children of one's own questionable decisions. But as a character study, it is far too long.

    It feels like it and Captain Vopatril might be trying to set up a more plot-y story about turmoil in the Cetegandan empire. There are hints of it here, and in Captain Vopatril, but I'm not holding my breath for a return to past form.

    1. She used proto-plot in the Genesis matrix. Consider this partial list of things that could have led to conflict, but didn't:

      * Potentially shocking revelations about the late Aral Vorkosigan's personal life
      * Cetagandans come to visit and get involved with the locals
      * Some of the locals are angry because the capital is being moved
      * Substandard construction supplies foisted off on the government
      * Jole and Cordelia have to deal with their feelings

      Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. None of them is developed.

  3. I read the first two paragraphs in the book store, realized I now knew exactly how the book would go, and put it down.

    1. If you thought the book would "go" anywhere, you were over-optimistic. It just lay there, flopping spasmodically.