No one gets beheaded; some readers are displeased. Science fiction and fantasy legend Lois McMaster Bujold has just published her 25th novel, and the first since 1991 to focus on one of her most popular characters, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. Initial reader responses to Gentleman Jole And The Red Queen are beginning to come in. They skew strongly positive, but inevitably, the book's quiet and witty exploration of late-life issues has taken some by surprise.
"There is a great deal of 'This wasn't the book I was expecting!' as if books were like menu items ordered in a restaurant, and the waitress has brought a hot fudge sundae instead of a plate of lasagne," says Bujold. "This is ... perhaps not entirely unjustified.
Most of it is complaint because it's not an action-adventure."
The last time Cordelia was the protagonist of a novel, she ended a civil war by beheading the man who had kidnapped her son so, says Bujold, some of it is because it presents a view of lifelong love that is outside a certain narrow, stereotyped box of exactly what such love should consist of. For the last 21 years, we have only seen Cordelia's marriage through the eyes of a younger generation, who did not, we now learn, see everything that was going on.
The irony in these negative responses is substantial. Gentleman Jole And The Red Queen is precisely to do with what happens when a woman refuses to be constrained by the assumptions of the people who think they know her. Cordelia is 76, in a future society where she can expect to live to 120.
"This, of course, has metaphorical import for our own times, with more people living longer. What should we do with ourselves? Is something genuinely new possible, that isn't just a variant of things we were doing earlier in life?"
It will not spoil the book if I tell you the answer is that it depends on your perspective; which does indeed change with age.
Bujold, 66, remarks she was once part of a book club discussion of her fantasy novel, The Curse Of Chalion, with a group of junior high students, "where it gradually became apparent that the hero was far more alien to them by being an old man of 35 - practically like their parents! - than by being a demon-ridden medieval fantasy nobleman."
And her own perspective on action-oriented novels: have quieter books become more interesting to her over time? "I'm not sure it has anything to do with quieter, but I find I have less tolerance for angst or self-dramatisation on the parts of the characters. Makes me want to whack them upside the head and tell them to get a grip.
"I'm also finding it strangely harder to write villains; unrealistic ones don't convince me and realistic ones are banal and boring and just not people I want to invite into my head for the length of time it takes to write a novel. Since most action stories are villain-driven - to a surprising degree, once one starts looking at them - this rather cuts off a bunch of story possibilities at the root."
Gentleman Jole is not directly distributed in New Zealand, because our international books come mostly via the British publishing system, and Bujold has not been published in Britain for more than a decade, since the UK edition of her novel Paladin of Souls, burdened with appalling cover art, failed to sell to expectations.
"Less than 10,000 copies - this a book that was a bestseller and won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards in the US."
Independent bookstores Unity, Time Out and the Women's Bookshop estimate that they can get copies of the US edition within 10-14 days and Auckland Libraries list 10 copies. In this age of Amazon and e-books, has the loss of British distribution made a noticeable difference to Bujold's career?
"Complicated," she says. "All foreign sales of my books in English are now of the US editions, and folded in with the rest of my royalties. It seems my UK e-sales are steadily improving as a new, still-expanding audience is trained to read e-books ... I have watched the shift in writers' income from paper to e- with riveted interest.
"The great game change came, of course, with Amazon's Kindle, and it's been huge. I now make as much or more - every month! - from my [totalled] e-sales as I used to make every six months from my paper sales. I have no idea how long this manna from e-heaven will last but it's holding steady at the moment."