Author: Everina Maxwell
Release date: 2nd February 2021 (US), 4th February 2021 (UK)
Publisher: Tor US), Orbit (UK)
Genre: Science Fiction, Political, Space Opera, Romance, Mystery
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.
Is it just me or does Orbit secretly have the key to my bookish heart? It looks like they just know I’m in the market for some satisfying standalone reads. As much as I love the many champions of Science Fiction-Fantasy, I find the genre to be somewhat oversaturated with multiple-volume series lately. In addition, I hadn’t had much luck finding SFF standalones I really enjoy until this year (okay, I’ve had some but not as many as I would have liked).
Winter’s Orbit came to my radar as someone recommended me to try reading romance, and figured that I would consider it as long as it still falls under SFF (they were spot-on about that). Space opera, politically-arranged-marriage-to-friends-to-lovers, and mystery? Bring it on.
Winter’s Orbit sees Iskat Empire controlling its political relationships with vassal planets with a system of treaties and often marriage alliances. After the Imperial Prince Taam dies in a freak spaceship accident, his black sheep cousin Prince Kiem is pushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s widow Count Jainan who also happens to be the planet Thean’s diplomatic representative. When Taam’s death is revealed to may have been a murder, the implications result in the couple’s diplomatic privileges hindered (a huge problem for the Empire, as the Auditor’s visit is imminent and required for the signing of the Resolution, which will guarantee peace among empires for decades). The two must now work together to solve the mystery before the political ramifications of the possible-murder snowballs into an interplanetary war.
The first thing I noticed about Winter’s Orbit is how reminiscent it is to fanfiction a la Archives of Our Own (I later learnt that this was originally published there). Familiar romantic tropes taken to a joyride in longer, self-contained chapters. Winter’s Orbit takes said tropes and does them in a refreshing, exciting way. The romance is put into heavy focus with a lot of introspection, emotional connection (at times physical😉), and push-and-pull style yearning bursting at the smallest touches. Forced marriages are such a trope, and watching it unfold in Winter’s Orbit was a delight. The chemistry between the jovial, puppy-eyed Kiem and stoic, brainy Jainan was electric — and their slow-burn relationship was developed with just the right pacing. Even the hurdles in their relationship (e.g. miscommunication and insecurity) were navigated with a sensitive manner appropriate for each other’s personalities and pasts.
Naturally, this being mainly a romance, the book focuses on the main leads Kiem and Jainan. Maxwell manages to write a couple whom we can definitely root for either individually or together. Easygoing, charming Kiem may not be academically-inclined as Jainan is, but he’s more sensitive and perceptive than people tend to give him credit for. He’s also “street smart,” given that he knows how to use his networking connections to survive in a society full of journalists always ready for the next big scandal. Shy, nervous Jainan, on the other hand, tends to complement Kiem’s street smart with his own book smart. He tends to be duty-bound, a trait which influences his attitude and actions based on how they may affect Thean’s relationship with the Iskat Empire. Jainan, however, is harder to understand, particularly he withholds a key secret until a good way into the book (though I’m sure readers would have guessed this well ahead of Kiem).
On another note, Winter’s Orbit dives into the topic of emotional, psychological abuse and physical violence, which Maxwell analyses and explores in a delicate way appropriate to the sensitivity it requires. Maxwell’s portrayal is realistic to the point where its effects are persistent and inherent although the bruises have faded. As often and tragically as most cases are, the victim ends up internalising his long-term pain and blame to himself, shaping his every interaction with others and his expectations for the future. Winter’s Orbit is a mature, realistic approach to how such abuse can deeply scar someone; and Maxwell strives to make a point that everyone, abuse victims included, deserve to be loved and that no one deserves to be mistreated as such.
While I understand that Winter’s Orbit is a space opera rather than hard science-fiction, Winter’s Orbit world/space building left me striving for more details, especially since in terms of world structure certain details are left unsaid. The remnants, for example, I felt was not sufficiently explored as the reader was clued in to their purpose only towards the end of the book. I felt that exploring these, and the Auditors in general, would have helped emphasizing the importance of Kiem and Jainan’s mission to the intergalactic politics more appropriate to its high stakes. The book, however, has a beautifully described scenery in which a particularly iconic tent in snowy mountains scene is an imagery hard to forget.
I appreciated how this book has a special emphasis on culture and politics over technology and space battles. They truly bring that grounded feel to space opera while expanding is scope beyond planetary borders (honestly not even I have any idea if that made any sense). What I liked most of all, however, Maxwell’s fantastic depiction of gender and sexuality representation. In this world, people’s gender is a choice that they can choose, or not, to express with accessories they wear (like glass or wood) rather than using physical traits. Also, homophobia doesn’t exist, simple as that. No need to justify your gender and your sexuality. This aspect was truly refreshing to read and should be appreciated more in the SFF genre.
All in all, I liked Winter’s Orbit for what it ended up becoming for me: a fast, action-packed stand-alone read with a delightfully sweet and nuanced romance between two people brimming with history and circumstance. It’s a refreshing book with a lot of arsenals up its sleeve: it had the fluff, it had the mystery, the angsty drama fitting for space operas, twisty turns, and heart-clenching moments. It also handles the sensitive, heavy topic it sets out to do in a mature and realistic way. I may have longed for more in terms of world/space-building, but what this book has it does really well. The diversity in this book is impressive, and I liked how easy and accessible Maxwell’s prose is. It’s definitely something I would recommend to Science Fiction-Fantasy fans looking for a quick, comforting bite of romance as this book would appeal for fans of both genres.
Thank you Orbit and Little, Brown Book Group UK for giving me an advance review copy of Winter’s Orbit! I have been provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.