Title: Winter’s Orbit
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.
While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.
But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.
Ugh, ignore the bit in the synopsis about Ancillary Justice meeting Red, White & Royal Blue. I assume that’s just meant to make sure anyone who glances at this book knows that (1) it’s in space! and (b) there’s a royal match between two male characters. But there’s so much more to this book, and it’s worth looking beyond marketing blurbs to learn more.
Winter’s Orbit takes place in the Iskat Empire, seven planets bound together by treaties and ruled by the Emperor from the system’s dominant planet Iskat. The Empire, though, is but a small system in the known universe, which is ruled by the Resolution and accessed by the Iskat Empire through one single space/time link. (Bear with me.)
Every twenty years, the Empire re-ups with the Resolution through a formal ceremony. Without the official reestablishment of the treaty, the Iskat Empire would be on its own, unprotected, and subject to invasion by the powerful armies of the huge conglomerates that control other galaxies. In other words, the Resolution treaty is vital to the Empire’s survival.
A key piece of the treaty renewal is passing muster by the Resolution’s Auditor, an inspector who comes to verify that the planets of the Empire are maintaining their treaties with Iskat appropriately and without conflict. And here’s where the person-focused aspects of the plot come into play.
Treaties within the Empire are cemented by political marriages. In the case of the small planet Thea, it’s through the marriage of Thean representative Jainan to Prince Taam of Iskat’s royal family. When Taam is killed in an accident only months before the treaty renewal, it’s imperative that a new political marriage is arranged. Enter Prince Kiem, the ne’er-do-well, dissolute, party boy of the royal family. He’s not at all interested in a political marriage, particularly to the grieving partner of his dead cousin, but duty calls — and it’s an order directly from the Emperor, so really, there’s no choice.
Where Winter’s Orbit is at its best is in the depiction of Kiem and Jainan’s relationship, from its awkward beginning through all sorts of turmoil and misunderstanding, until finally they break through their miscommunications and cross-purposes and start to truly talk to one another.
Kiem and Jainan are both complex characters, and they alternate POV chapters, so we get to know their inner workings, their doubts and fears, well before either of them start to grasp what the other is experiencing. It works very well — even though we readers may cringe at how badly they’re bungling their attempts to connect, it helps that we’re let into their thoughts and feelings and understand WHY they’re having such a hard time.
If you strip away the sci-fi trappings, in many ways this book can be compared to any novel about arranged marriages. Whether it’s the Tudor reign or books about imperial Japan or any other powerful dynastic settings, there’s something compelling and awful about people’s lives being used for political advantage, but it’s certainly been a reality for generations. I think this is why Winter’s Orbit works so well. It’s not an alien concept to think that Kiem and Jainan’s feelings about a forced marriage would not count — the partnership is for alliance and control and political purposes. Feelings are secondary, if even that.
Given that context, I loved the developing emotional connection between Kiem and Jainan. They’re each wonderful, and I really appreciated the sweetness of their growing bonds and their consideration of one another. The book also explores issues of abuse and trauma, and handles it very well, sensitively showing how it affects the pair’s attempts at connection and intimacy.
The more external plot, about conspiracies and political maneuvering, assassination attempts, rogue military officers, and more, is fast-paced and has plenty of action. There’s never a dull moment.
However… I do wish the world-building in this book had been better explained. You can see by my clumsy attempts at plot summary above that the greater world of Winter’s Orbit is complicated, and we’re thrown into the action from the start, having to piece together the significance of the Empire’s structure, the Resolution, the Auditor, the remnants, and more. To be honest, I’m not sure how much I got it all. I had to make a conscious decision not to worry about the details and just focus on the people aspects, but still, there are pieces that did (and still do) confuse me, and I feel like a little more exposition early on would have helped a great deal.
Beyond that issue, though, I greatly enjoyed Winter’s Orbit. The characters and their relationship are terrific, there’s a low-key explanation of how gender identity works in this world that I found very interesting, and the plot does maintain strong tension in the key dramatic moments.
This is a strong debut by a talented author, and I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.
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