Michaeline Recommends: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

A stylish woman sailing on a lake in the mountains.

The future of Sergyar!

Lois McMaster Bujold’s new book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, was released on February 2, and when I checked just now, it was #11 in Space Operas on the Amazon rankings chart, and #18 in Adventures –> Science Fiction. (find the links here on GJ&RQ’s Amazon page; BTW, the rankings listed didn’t jive with the links) (Don’t put too much trust in these figures; they change hourly, and are sure to be different by the time you read this. At any rate, hooray for book number 17 in the Vorkosigan Saga!)

Studying this release is interesting from several angles. First of all, it’s a great book from the fan perspective (it ties up a lot of loose ends in surprising ways), and it’s also accessible to the first-time reader. (Bujold blogs about it – a long-time concern is that she’s afraid fans are scaring off new readers by saying, “Oh, you really need to read all 15, 16, 17 books in order to really appreciate this one.” Here on her Goodreads blog, she links to proof that it’s not so.)

Second, it was released from Baen Books as an eARC, with is an electronic advanced reader copy (Baen explains here ). The very interesting thing is that anybody with $15 (price of earc) could become an early reviewer. (Offer only lasts until the book comes out; after that, you can buy a regular ebook.)

Fans get an early look, the writer gets a good cut of the proceeds (Bujold mentions it here on her mailing list), and if the book is good, it gets word-of-mouth. How does that affect sales? Well, many fans (myself included) spring for the hardcover, which will have the errata corrected (and will be suitable for reading during power outages and in wire-free environments). So, she’s gaining in that quarter. Will the buzz be sufficient to attract new readers to balance out the “lost” readers who bought the eARC? I think it’s too early to tell with this book, but I suspect the answer is yes. I think it’s a case study we can learn a lot from. (By the way, I talked a little bit about eARCs in October here, when the GJ&RQ eARC came out.)

a Holliday Junction -- some sort of DNA thing. In four colors. Should be three for this book.

Genetic manipulation is a little bit scary — if we set it 800 years in the future, it’s a little easier to look at.

Third, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is definitely science fiction, but it’s not mainstream science fiction. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that the book is about a woman cleaning up her life and really thinking about what her legacy to the universe is going to be. And also, she’s thinking about how she can get the best quality of life out of the years she has remaining to her. The biggest explosions are emotional ones; Cordelia and her cohort are saving the universe with common sense, not light sabers. I wouldn’t call the conflicts smaller, but they are more intimate, and they don’t allow the reader to escape the niggling concerns of daily life. The conflicts make some readers reflect on their own lives.

Sometimes we complain that slapping a label like “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” is a kind of ghettoization of women’s issues. “Stand over there: girlz only.” But how can we say this when women make up 51 percent of the population, and a majority of the reading market? I would like to see more women’s science fiction. Putting a girly label on it would make it easier to find, and cause enough controversy that people would realize it’s out there. And judging from the Bujold mailing list I belong to, there are plenty of men who are interested in women’s literature and see it having just as valid a viewpoint as from a male point of view (when both are done well).

And fourth, because it’s almost Valentine’s Day, I would say GJ&RQ is definitely worth a read for the non-traditional-genre romance. Cordelia has lost her husband, Aral Vorkosigan. Jole has lost his long-time lover, Aral Vorkosigan. They’ve all been very good friends, and they have suffered through a respectable time of mourning. Then, Cordelia drops the bombshell on Jole in the first chapter: through the wonders of modern genetics and uterine technology, would you like to have some children with Aral’s DNA?

I guess technically speaking, we can’t call it a romance. It’s really about a woman’s journey and a man’s journey at a specific point a few decades before the end of life (gosh, I hope they don’t get killed off!). But it is so suffused with love, and love of all types, that I find it hard not to read it as a romance. It’s a beautiful romance that doesn’t spring from power imbalance or silly misunderstandings, but a real sorting-out of things. How does Bujold do that?

Famous illustration of the chess piece, the Red queen, dragging Alice in Wonderland through a scene.

The poor Barrayarans have to adapt as fast as they can just to stay still. The Red Queen drags them along in her wake.

Which brings me to my fifth and final point: write what you like. When you are writing, don’t worry about genre or boundaries or anything else. Just write. If it’s good enough, someone’s going to want to read it, and these days, we have so many ways to get our story to the reader. If it’s not good enough, it’s probably beneficial to your mental health to have gotten it out on paper, anyway. Either way, doing it will make you a stronger writer.

Bujold has made a career by sharing great stories with surprising twists. She didn’t make great stories with reader-friendly formulas in order to have a career. Do you see what I mean? I’m pretty sure she would argue that the career part was pretty darn important to her. But, she doesn’t take the “easy” way: she doesn’t play in other people’s universes (ie: no Bujold novelizations of, say Jurassic Park, which would be a lot of fun indeed, considering the movie came from a Michael Crichton book), she doesn’t sharecrop her universe out to journeyman writers for shared writing credits, and she just doesn’t follow the template that a lot of SFF writers and fans like to follow – in fact, she seems to take unholy glee and pleasure in taking a template or meme, turning it on its head, and shaking it good and hard until something interesting falls out of its ears. And I say thank all the gods of story for writers like that!

Well, anyway, don’t take my word for it. Check out some reviews (here’s a nice one from Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog), and see if Bujold’s new book is a worthwhile study in fun and profit. For further edification, I direct you to two interviews. The first from “nerds of a feather flock together” blog/fanzine shows us what Bujold is reading. The second from Goodreads is chock-full of writing insights. I would love to hear what you think!

(Full disclosure: Bujold shared many of these links on her Goodreads blog and on the mailing list, so a lot of my work here today was just re-mixing, not going-out-and-seeking-and-reporting-back. Still, I hope you enjoy having all this in one place.)

15 thoughts on “Michaeline Recommends: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

  1. Thanks for this, Michaeline, I really enjoyed your post. A question: do you really think this book would work as a stand-alone? I love the sound of it, but I fall squarely into the ‘intimidated by seventeen books’ camp. I read Cordelia’s Honor and loved it, but then I tried to cheat and read A Civil Campaign as a stand-alone and it didn’t work so well.

    • That is a really good question. I think it does stand alone, if you go into it as a women’s fiction. She’s doing a lot of experimental things, and you’ll be like, “Wow!” (-: And I’m pretty sure Bujold would like the extra data point if you left a review.

      I do think the optimal experience is going into it with all 16 books behind you — but, here’s the deal. If you start with GJ&RQ as a stand-alone, by the time you work the way through the series, you’ll be getting a quite different book when you re-read it — so actually, you get two books for the price of one!

      IIRC, you were a little scared off by the dark elements in the middle of the Vorkosigan series that people talked about. But honestly, after reading Ilona Andrews, I don’t think you’ll see much more darkness than that.

      So, here’s my advice. Read it as a stand-alone. Then buy the first three in-Universe-chronology Miles books. Then decide whether it’s worth continuing.

      These are definitely books to re-read. They are great on the first read, but then they get deeper and richer with every re-read. Excellent world-building, excellent characterizations.

      • I like your plan! You remembered right – I was a little scared off by the darkness (a whole book or more on depression if I recall correctly?) but four books? I’m willing to give it a go. It’s been a while, so I’m going to re-read Cordelia’s Honor to ground myself. Then I’ll read GJ&RQ, and then three Miles books, and we’ll see if I end up hooked. I could use a masterclass on world-building and characterization 😉 .

  2. I’ve been meaning to check out Lois McMaster Bujold ever since you pitched her during the McD classes, but, like Jilly, I’ve been wary of being behind by 17 books. Maybe that should be my new year’s reading goal: just start at the beginning and read through. I think I could learn a lot about world building, not to mention following the Girls!

    • (-: See what I told Jilly about it being a stand-alone. You like women’s fiction, and you like that touch of exotic of new lands and diverse peoples. GJ&RQ is really a very smart book, and it’s so cool that the woman is coming of age for the second (third? fourth?) time, just like so many of us do. That her lover is coming of age for the second (third? fourth?) time at the same moment is just . . . gosh, it’s like a simultaneous life orgasm!

      Don’t go in expecting wars between empires; I’d say the most action takes place during a family outing. There’s really so much to learn in this book, I think, and perhaps going into it as a stand-alone, you won’t be carrying a lot of the baggage that made this book very shocking to some fans. (I don’t think you’d be terribly shocked by it even if you’d read the 16 books before, actually; I guess I’m referring to all the Miles stuff that is an amusing distraction from what Cordelia is going through.)

      One fan did say he felt there was too much backstory in it. So, there is backstory, but I think it’s mostly introduced quite smoothly, and you won’t be left floating in a sea of subtext.

  3. I enjoyed your insights a great deal. (Just a quick comment; I reviewed this, the latest of LMB’s 17 Vorkosigan novels, at Shiny Book Review, and talked about it on my blog as well.)

    • I think you’ll enjoy the blog, here, as a writer who uses romantic elements. We talk about a variety of things, and some of the Ladies are thinking about taking the plunge into self-publishing, so your comments about your adventures with the Elfyverse and self-publishing will give us an added perspective.

      • It looks interesting. I noticed you were talking about perspective in several posts — writer’s perspective — and I was intrigued by that.

        So far, I’m having an unusual road into publication. I’m a hybrid writer — the two novels (that were originally one, Elfy) are published by Twilight Times Books, a small press out of Tennessee. (They are reputable and have a good contract.) And my novel CHANGING FACES is also coming out from TTB later this year…my publisher has high hopes for that.

        But everything else is self-published, mostly because I’m trying to keep Michael’s work alive. Some of what I’m doing with his stories would undoubtedly not be what _he_ would’ve done, but I like to think he’d understand and maybe even approve. (The two Joey Maverick stories are out, and I wrote one in Michael’s ancillary Peter Welmsley series that he hadn’t finished, and the first in the Columba fantasy series is out. All novellas.)

        I found it almost impossible to sell Michael’s stuff to a publisher, so to me, self-publishing gives me a route into that audience that I wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s still a difficult and frustrating route, no lie…but at least it’s a route. 😉

  4. It’s that unholy glee, tossing memes, and shaking up & out the results–that approach has her faithful readers willing to wait the requisite time to read anything she cares to write.


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