hedda62: my cat asleep (Default)
I read the eARC of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Verdict: disappointing and, to a large extent, boring. Oh dear.

It's really sad to read the latest book in a beloved series and end up saying to yourself, "Well, there's good fanfic material here..." I did really enjoy reading snippets about Sergyar, and Jole is a nice person (though still rather bland as a character), and it's good to see Cordelia's POV again - but there was no substance to what plot existed, no tension, no twang, and while it's fun enough to revisit old friends and hear their stories once again, there's a point where you want something to blow up (besides animate floating gas-bags).

I think the source of all this disappointment is how LMB is approaching her universe at this point. For a book where people kept saying how important it was to look forward, most of the action (if you can call it that) looks backward. So Cordelia finally, after Aral's death, uses stored genetic material to produce all those daughters they were going to have and didn't because of the soltoxin attack, fragile Miles, politics, and lack of time. Now, I may vibrate better to notes of tragedy struck on the thematic tuning fork, but I always liked that particular bit of sadness and lack hanging in the air, the idea that Cordelia came to Barrayar in part because she could have more than one child there, and then ended up only having one (well, eventually two) because, you know, Barrayar. The fix reminds me a bit of Laurie R. King's Locked Rooms and the discovery that Mary Russell didn't, after all, accidentally kill her entire family - I enjoyed that book (which had a plot) and retrospectively am okay with the universe reversal, but there was a big moment of "no" on first read, thinking back to the perfection of the bit in The Beekeeper's Apprentice when Russell tells Holmes about the accident and he basically says, "Yup, you did this. Now move on." Perhaps having more children is Cordelia moving on, and it fits with the "all true wealth is biological" theme, but it seems kind of cheating. A rewrite of settled history. She can't actually rewrite history, of course - she can't go back and have the children with Aral when he's alive - so perhaps we ought to view new motherhood more as a retirement hobby (but who the hell wants to read about retirement hobbies, unless they intersect murders or spy rings or something like that?).

But okay. I want Cordelia to be happy as much as Lois does. And new romance with Jole! Except it's only sorta kinda new, because surprise, she and Aral and Jole had a three-way going all along (for Sergyaran values of all along, anyway, after the long Aral/Jole that started when Aral cheated while she was away, because you can do that with Betans because they understand. Yup). I admit all that would be a shocker for those out there who hadn't read Dira Sudis's fic. Or fic in general.

That's the thing, though. It's still very past-looking, and I don't just mean all the Aral stories that crop up in the course of the book (I will happily read Aral stories anytime), but the whole basis of the surprise, and why it falls flat. While (thanks largely to Cordelia) the Barrayaran Empire is a happier, hipper, fairer place than it once was (if still one where you can't have a demanding career and children at the same time, apparently - what happened to Aral popping in to spend lunches with little Miles while he was running an empire?), and they are almost to the point where they could admit that Aral and Jole had a long (if much interrupted by military action and meetings) fling, and that Cordelia later joined them in it, and that Jole is going to have sons with Aral's gametes, and apparently Jole's inclinations are pretty much out there already at least to his friends - we are still supposed to be happily shocked by all of this, pretty much against the background of Piotr Vorkosigan's Barrayar, because that's the Barrayar that counts (sorry no pun intended). The new Barrayar (and Sergyar) is fanfic of the old one. It's curtainfic, it's fix-it fic, it's happy-ending fic. It's the kind of fic where two characters get together in front of a backdrop of universe, with nice little details that are just there for the pretty, and all the characters turning up to have meaningful conversations the conclusion of which is obvious from the start. There's no conflict because the characters shouldn't have to suffer any more. There's no plot because that just gets too complicated and who wants to bother. Oh, Lois.

I think, also, that so much of the series has been wrapped around Miles and his ability to generate conflict spontaneously (in the context of a world that readily supplies the raw material) that it lost momentum when he finally grew up and started being reasonable. Barrayar is also growing into reason and sanity, which is splendid in a cultural sense, but not as a basis for plot development. Which is why I kept reading this book thinking "ah, here's a spark of something that might set things afire! Maybe there's an abduction or a Cetagandan plot or some bodies in the concrete!" But no. I mean, things did literally catch on fire, but that was still boring. And it was oh so frustrating to get those hints of potential plot - even if they were going to be corrupt contractors or runaway teens or something equally lightweight - lightweight plot is better than no plot at all, though I would have preferred a deadly haut menace and Jole being killed off before he could meet his sons, you know me - and have them go nowhere.

It actually reminded me - maybe this was on purpose, but if so it didn't work - of the introductory part of Shards of Honor where Cordelia and Aral are hiking across Sergyar-to-be dealing with menacing fauna and caring for poor Dubauer and camping and telling each other stories and falling in love, but only if that was the entire book and when they got to the base everyone came out and welcomed them and offered them a drink and said the Betans and Barrayarans had made peace, yay. And even if so there would be less conflict and tension in GJRQ, because we didn't know Aral and Cordelia would fall in love (I mean, we did, but not really), and we hadn't seen the Sergyaran fauna before (even if it hasn't been sufficiently studied decades later), and they were injured and bereaved and under horrific stress and combatants on opposite sides, and had to manage a long trek on foot with minimal supplies and defense. They didn't pop around in a flyer and have lake vacations.

The Red Queen says that you can run as fast as you can and still find yourself in the same place, and Cordelia has done a lot of running and there she is on Sergyar where she started. But it's not the same place; it is wonderfully not the same place in ways that should be celebrated with fireworks and crystal ships and happy little zygotes. And then everyone should turn around and face forward and start running again, off balance and strung with tension and desperate to get somewhere they can't predict and don't understand.

On the other hand - lots of Sergyaran Shack fic coming up, I suppose there's something to be said for that.
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