Ah, another entry in the Vorkosigan-saga of books - and I just couldn't wait and bought the advanced reader's copy.
First of all, I just love Bujold's writing style. It's understated, yet full of deeper meaning, easy to read and entices the imagination. So I enjoyed this most recent entry just from this point of view. On the other hand, I'm not quite sure about the purpose of the novels since perhaps Diplomatic Immunity. I get the feeling that Bujold strives to tie up loose ends, to give everyone a happy ending even though it's not really needed. Unfortunately in part to the detriment of the whole storyline because she adds facts and a backstory that haven't even really been hinted at in prior novels. Granted, those were for the main part from Miles's point of view with his parents worlds away... still, I can't help but feel like some things were added now as an afterthought... but to what end?
"Gentleman Jole..." picks up 3 years after Aral's death at the end of Cryoburn. Cordelia is now Vicereine on Sergyar and just coming back from her annual visit to Barrayar. And she brings with her 6 embryos created out of some gametes Aral and she had extracted back in the time of the Regency. Which is my first issue. It was one of the main points of the whole Vorkosigan saga that Miles is an only child - and even the only child possible after the soltoxin attack since Aral was rendered infertile by the gas. And even if a second child had been possible they wouldn't have created one because of Miles's insecure standing. Granted, the last point is rendered moot - Miles is now Count, his standing secure. So, from that point of view - and given Cordelia's wish to have daughters (which I remember from Cordelia's Honor), the new embryos make sense. The second argument is explained away by saying that it only needs some viable sperm - much less than in a natural conception - or even, due to scientific breakthroughs, a somatic cell from which the gametes are kind of retrofitted. Yes, it makes sense - but there's never been any hint about them storing gametes anywhere which would have been possible even at the time of Cordelia's Honor if infertile only meant "not enough viable sperm" instead of the proclaimed "no viable sperm at all".
But actually, that's the lesser problem with this story because whether Cordelia gets to have her daughters doesn't really matter in the greater scheme of things, it doesn't affect Miles or the story so far. And I'm really happy that she starts living again. It just rankles perhaps that once again, death is rendered somewhat impermanent. How many movies are there where the hero dies, and the heroine's grief is rendered bittersweet because she carries his child? It's a cliché... and a bad one at that. And I'm sorry to see Bujold stoop to such lows.
The more serious part is the whole triangle relationship between Aral, Oliver Jole and Cordelia. Quite frankly, I'm happy we've even seen Jole in the previous books (The Vor Game), because I wouldn't have been surprised if Bujold had decided to pull an entirely unknown character out of the hat and present him as Aral (and Cordelia)'s longtime lover. Given the depiction as a 3-way marriage the whole canon seems to get retconned here, explaining Jole's absence during the various crises by longterm missions away from Barrayar. And of course, Jole's also grief-stricken - and also gets to have some children at the end to remember Aral by (including some angsting about children vs. career). See above.
The whole story, Jole and Cordelia coming together and getting over their grief, would have worked without that backstory. I enjoyed their romance, I enjoyed Miles's arriving on Sergyar to investigate (even though he seemed way too settled now as Count, no longer the man whom you're compelled to follow even if you're not sure where he'll lead from one minute to the next), I enjoyed Cordelia's story coming full circle. It felt real, her grief, her working through it, her allowing love back into her life. And the same applies to Jole whose grief for Aral wouldn't have been diminished if there hadn't been a physical aspect to their relationship. And some people find love later in their lives than others - take Aral. So his not having had a relationship before Cordelia now wouldn't have posed a problem (especially given his military career off Barrayar).
The problem lies more in my belief that Bujold tried to be extra progressive - let's introduce another bisexual, let's have Aral live out his bisexuality, let's have Cordelia be extra-"Betan" in not making a scene once she learned of Aral's taking Jole to his bed. But where is it written that Betans don't make a scene after being cheated on? Which is what Aral did. Granted, she might accept his bisexuality - but Bujold shouldn't confuse that with accepting a love-triangle... especially if Aral hasn't even talked with her about it before-hand. Again, that's cheating - and nothing in Cordelia's Honor (and later) hinted at Aral being even inclined on cheating on Cordelia, quite the contrary. So that's pretty out of character for him - and adding that to his background without having him sort of screen being able to defend his actions is cheating story-wise. Let's not mention the inconsistencies of the triangle-depiction which at first seemed as though it was wholly Aral-centric, later on interaction between Cordelia and Jole but for Aral's sake and at long last apparently also truely a triangle... And let's not mention the fact that for all the laudable progressive attitudes towards the various sexual inclinations everyone who's even remotely depicted as not quite heterosexual ends up in a neat monogamous heterosexual relationship anyway in the end? Maybe this part of the story would work better, if there had been some substance as well instead of well-meaning intentions.
But I suppose I could have swallowed even these inconsistencies if it had mattered at all, if the revelation of the polyamorous relationship had had any consequence, either legally or concerning Aral and Cordelia's reputation. But every time trouble looms on the horizon, it vanishes just as quickly, which is quite frustrating - because nothing much happens in this book. It's simply a book about settling down after a personal catastrophe. And that's okay - but it could have been just that without all the possible complications which aren't carried out.
Having said that, I'm left feeling a bit confused here. I'd have been content with Cordelia and Jole's relationship. I like Jole, I like that he's the focus here, it is more his story than Cordelia's... but its anchor is incredibly weak to the detriment of the whole story. That this novel is still reasonably entertaining is due to the wonderful world- and characterbuilding in the previous Vorkosigan-books. But no mistake, this is certainly one of the weaker parts.
On a sidenote: I love Alex, Miles's son and heir - what about a book about him and Gregor's children, sort of a next generation book? After all, the only family we don't know anything about yet is Gregor's...