Book Review: Ocean’s Echo by Everina Maxwell

Title: Ocean’s Echo
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 484 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone space adventure about a bond that will change the fate of worlds, set in the same universe as Everina Maxwell’s hit debut, Winter’s Orbit.

Rich socialite, inveterate flirt, and walking disaster Tennalhin Halkana can read minds. Tennal, like all neuromodified “readers,” is a security threat on his own. But when controlled, readers are a rare asset. Not only can they read minds, but they can navigate chaotic space, the maelstroms surrounding the gateway to the wider universe.

Conscripted into the military under dubious circumstances, Tennal is placed into the care of Lieutenant Surit Yeni, a duty-bound soldier, principled leader, and the son of a notorious traitor general. Whereas Tennal can read minds, Surit can influence them. Like all other neuromodified “architects,” he can impose his will onto others, and he’s under orders to control Tennal by merging their minds.

Surit accepted a suspicious promotion-track request out of desperation, but he refuses to go through with his illegal orders to sync and control an unconsenting Tennal. So they lie: They fake a sync bond and plan Tennal’s escape.

Their best chance arrives with a salvage-retrieval mission into chaotic space—to the very neuromodiifcation lab that Surit’s traitor mother destroyed twenty years ago. And among the rubble is a treasure both terrible and unimaginably powerful, one that upends a decades-old power struggle, and begins a war.

Tennal and Surit can no longer abandon their unit or their world. The only way to avoid life under full military control is to complete the very sync they’ve been faking.

Can two unwilling weapons of war bring about peace?

Once I started reading Winter’s Orbit last year, I basically couldn’t put it down — so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of Everina Maxwell’s follow-up novel, Ocean’s Echo. Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone, but it is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit. There are no cross-over characters, but the basics of the galactic system and some key political and scientific aspects connect the two books.

In Ocean’s Echo, Tennal is about age 20, from a powerful family (his aunt is the head of government of the Orshan planets), and is incapable of (and has no interest in) staying out of trouble. After one scandal too many, his aunt orders his conscription into the army. As if that’s not bad enough, she’s also ordered him to be synced. Tennal is a talented reader — he can read other people’s thoughts — but readers are both rare and considered very dangerous if left uncontrolled. Control is exactly what his aunt wants, and so Tennal will be forced into a sync, where an architect — someone who can telepathically influence others’ minds — will force a sort of mind-meld with Tennal. From that point on, the architect will be able to control Tennal’s actions. Worst of all, the sync is permanent — a broken sync results in death for both reader and architect.

Needless to say, Tennal is not at all happy about his fate, but he truly has no choice. He’s surprised, therefore, when he meets Surit, a young lieutenant with strong architect abilities and an even stronger moral compass. Despite orders, he knows deep down that a forced sync is wrong, and he suggests that he and Tennal fake it. They’re successful in their deception at first, until they are pulled further and further into an impending civil war where their own survival and the fate of their world is at stake.

Tennal and Surit are both terrific characters, with very distinct characters and personality traits. While the chapters alternate between their perspectives, there’s never any confusion about whose point of view we’re getting. They are definitely a case of opposites attracting, and while the intricacies of the reader-architect dynamic are the main focus, there’s a romantic chemistry as well that keeps bubbling to the surface.

The world-building is very detailed, but occasionally confusing. While Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone, I think it would be somewhat baffling for a reader who hasn’t first read Winter’s Orbit. Without a basic understanding of the books’ universe, I’m not sure that talk of the Resolution, the Link, and remnants, among other concepts, would make a whole lot of sense. As is, even having read the first book, some of the high-concept military and scientific scenarios went over my head. That’s okay, though — I didn’t have to fully grasp every single detail in order to appreciate the characters, their connection, and the big picture stakes of the storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ocean’s Echo. The writing pulled me in, and even when concepts such as chaotic space started boggling my mind, some nifty turns of phrase would get me back on track and impress me with the author’s creativity and descriptive skill.

Since the moment they’d synced, the sea had come in roaring, a glorious, terrible torrent. Where there had been ordinary rooms and cabinets and stairs in Surit’s neat mental house, there was now a tumult of swirling water, deep-sea caverns instead of foundations, whirlpools instead of floors.

You need to have an appreciation for space battles and sci-fi drama and high stakes military adventures to truly love this book, I think… but if you do, then don’t miss out on this book (and check out Winter’s Orbit too!).

Book Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

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
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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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Shelf Control #220: The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Last Astronaut
Author: David Wellington
Published: 2019
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

How and when I got it:

I received an ARC from Orbit last summer.

Why I want to read it:

I always love a good space adventure — and throw in women astronauts, especially one trying to save the world — and it all just sounds too perfect for me. My only excuse for not having read this already is that I’ve just had too much else to read, and never got around to it.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!