Paul wrote a review of the book over at the Skiffy and Fanty blog, in which he makes some very good points. I don’t normally write about books, myself, partially to disguise my shame at how little I read these days compared to the number of movies I watch, but I’ve got a few thoughts of my own and wanted to get them down.
I’ve read this book twice now, in the sense that I’ve listened to the audio book–a lot of my reading these days is audio books, since I’ll listen to them while I’m describing core or taking a walk. I recently revisited the entire Vorkosigan saga since a friend of mine is reading the books for the first time, so that took me right back through to this book again. I hadn’t realized Jole had made an appearance of sorts in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance until then, for example. But Lois McMaster Bujold is very good at either slipping little nods in, or going back and taking characters mentioned in an offhand way and really expanding them out. (Thinking of Arde Mayhew’s cameo in Shards of Honor, here.)
I’ve got a lot of feelings about the Vorkosigan novels in general, because I love them entirely too much and am also frustrated by some of the gender stuff in ways that are too tangled for me to really want to write out. But something that’s made these books incredibly dear to me is the fact that Aral Vorkosigan has been explicitly bisexual from the start, and it’s an identity that Cordelia has defended as his spouse. His bisexuality hasn’t been erased after decades of being married to a woman.
I can’t emphasize how special this is to me as a bisexual person. The fact that a beloved, amazing, hyper competent, badass, complex character is bisexual? Super important. The fact that it’s made a point that he is still bisexual even while in a monogamous relationship with someone of the opposite gender is even more so, because that’s something that is so often and easily erased in fiction. And I appreciate also that while Aral’s early relationship with Ges Vorrutyer is stated to have been incredibly unhealthy and self destructive, that’s a thing not pinned to his bisexuality; his sexuality is not a phase, isn’t just an act of rebellion, isn’t self-destructive in and of itself.
So then we come to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and there’s a bit of retconning that goes on, where we find that Aral hasn’t been a happily monogamous bisexual dude for these last forty-ish years. For a couple of those decades, he’s been a happily polyamorous bisexual dude with Cordelia and Oliver Jole, a relationship that works because Cordelia is still so very, very Betan.
There are a lot of weaknesses to the book, not the least of which is that it’s such a dedicated character study that it really doesn’t feel like it has much of a plot. I like the characters enough that this didn’t bother me too much, though I missed the “Space Nancy Drew” (as my friend calls the Miles books) vibe that a lot of the other books had. But this book is special to me because of this exploration of the relationships.
I love that there’s a depiction of a loving, stable, polyamorous relationship. There’s always the thought of oh god, please don’t let this play into the “bisexual people are promiscuous cheaters” BS, which I’d argue it doesn’t considering no cheating was involved. (Bisexual people are also not all polyamorous–though some are–and at this point we’re starting to tread on the ground of wanting a character to be all things for all people, which is an issue specifically caused by lack of representation.) But this is something that really struck a chord with me:
“…And then there was that herm. Remarkable person in its own right, Captain Thorne, but do you know–the best thing about that fling was that for one whole week, I could stop worrying about my damned categories.” He blinked and frowned, as if this were a sudden new realization.
Coming from the context that Barrayar is a socially backward place that’s not too far off our own landscape as far as sexuality goes, I felt this one. There’s this consistent pressure placed around identity, when you’re bi. It’s a sexuality that’s very easily erased by the assumption that you’re either gay or straight, depending on who you’re with at the time. Or that if you do fight through to say you’re bi, there are people who will argue with you, or say you’re confused, or challenge your self-identification. Hell, you can spend a lot of time questioning and doubting yourself. So not having to worry about any of that for a while? Yeah, that would be kind of nice.
And so now the Vorkosigan series has given us two bisexual male characters. (Petition to get a book where we get to see them together because I adore Aral anyway
and don’t have time to write that fanfiction.) Not 100% perfect, but it shouldn’t have to be–the answer to that is more bisexual characters. All of the bisexual characters. Give them to me. People like me in this way exist in Space Nancy Drew Opera Land, and they have adventures and romances and are cool. They get to be messy and emotional and define themselves and find happiness.
That’s why, for all its imperfections, this book made me incredibly happy.