Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Published by Orbit Books
Adult, Sci-Fi, Queer
Release Date : February 2nd 2021
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.
Trigger warning : Past domestic physical and emotional abuse experience (on page)
“Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.
ARC provided by the publisher Orbit Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
An evocative, emotional, and wonderfully layered story about relationships in a space opera setting weaving dire circumstances and nuanced inter-galactic diplomatic sequences.
In November, I’m making it my mission to read as many advance reader copies of books that I was given by publishers from last year to now. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell is one of those ARCs that I am determined to read this month. It is the second book I picked up and by far it is one that I didn’t expect to hit me as hard as it did. Since I’ve seen mixed ratings and reviews by trusted friends it is a book that I shrouded with doubt and side eye-ing for quite some time.
Truthfully, I shed all those thoughts by sheer will and stubbornest because if I keep doubting myself I wouldn’t read it AT ALL. And as you can see from my rating that I clearly really really loved it.
Winter’s Orbit is a queer space opera romance story between a prince and a count of a small planet part of The Iskat Empire by Everina Maxwell. It was originally a series under the title “The Course of Honour” that gained traction in 2017 on Archive of Our Own (Ao3) that ran from 02 February 2017 – 15 May 2017. By August 2019 it is announced that the story is acquired by Tor Books to be published as a book as part of a three book deal. The book is published with the title Winter’s Orbit on February 2021 earning raving reviews from critics such as the New York Times, NPR, etc.
There is a long history connected to this story that I didn’t know about before I dived into the story as I was not present at that time and wasn’t much of a reader back then. Honestly, I only found out after I finished the book so for readers that have read the Ao3 version of the story do let me know if there are differences from the original with the published one. Would love to know! Without further a do let’s get on with the review!
“I love him,” Kiem said. He shouldn’t say it. Jainan’s declarations had just been politics, he knew that, but Kiem was unable to stop smiling. “Of course you do,” the Emperor said. “You have never made good choices. Sell this, or the Empire falls.”
The story of Winter’s Orbit follows two main perspectives; Kiem, the easy going trouble maker and one of many princes of The Empire of Iskat, and Jainan nav Adessari, a reserved count with an engineering background from Thea.
Kiem is arranged to be married to Jainan as planned by the Emperor to continue diplomatic relations and to become the Iskat representative for Thea during the resolution renewals that is set to be done in the coming weeks after their marriage. This abrupt marriage arrangement is thrusted upon Kiem by the Emperor a month after the death of Jainan’s former partner and cousin to Kiem, Prince Taam, during a freak flying accident. Taam and Jainan were the picture perfect example of an ideal pairing that is well known and beloved in the inner circles of the Iskat Empire.
Prince Taam, an accomplished decorated military personel and dignified royal, is the absolute opposite of Prince Kiem, the unfavored prince that mostly does charities with a knack for causing media uproars that seems to always getting himself into more controversies than any other royal. Long story short Kiem is the joke of the royal family that is set to marry someone way out of his league and tying himself to responsibilities and diplomatic functions that requires him to behave himself for the sake of the empire.
The Empire didn’t just mean Iskat: the Empire was Thea as well, and five other planets with hundreds of millions of citizens, all drifting away from the rest of the universe like the axial tilt of winter.
Maxwell’s world building that sets as the background for this space opera romance series is imaginative and teasingly expansive. I say teasingly meaning that there is a potential for this inter-galactic to be explored further in future books that Maxwell has mentioned in the interview attached to this book.
In Winter’s Orbit the story mostly takes place in Iskat and it’s surrounding regions that is blanketed in snowy mountain terrains and windy cold climate. There isn’t a good amount of world exploration in it as the relationship takes the spotlight for Winter’s Orbit.
Fair warning for readers who anticipate a good dose of exploration would more likely find it a tad disappointed if you expected this. Another thing I would like to gush about the world building is how gender is incorporated into the society of the world.
In Winter’s Orbit, gender identity is adopted freely by each individual through the accessories they wear; anyone can identify as either male or female or if they don’t want to identify as either gender they can too. It can be differ planet from planet which makes it even more fascinating though it is such a small part of the world that emphasizes how unapologetically queer this book is.
Maxwell’s writing is intricate, articulate, and yet accessible that makes the world with it’s many complex factors can be easily understood. The pacing is slow yet addictive and engaging that it was hard for me to put down the book. Even with it’s longer than average chapters Maxwell still managed to ensnare me and immerse me into the story that for the time period it took me to read the book it is the only thing I can think about.
For readers that likes a fast paced story you’ll have to be patient with this book and dissect each chapter like an onion. Maxwell’s masterful ability to weave the world and politics around the relationships tying it together that is both emotionally evoking and well balanced is impressive.
What I am also a fan of is the vibe of being kept in the dark and utter confusion caused by bureaucracy that reminds me of a series I read last year, The Poison Wars series by Sam Hawke. The dread of not knowing who’s behind the many incidents which threatens the peace while on a time crunch in which everyone could be a suspect is the thrill that I have longed for.
The enormity of Galactic politics seemed to be pressing on him like a gravity well, as if the unfathomable distance and terrible strangeness of the other Resolution systems were clustering in low orbit above them.
A factor that takes the forefront of the story along side the character relationships is the political machinations. Iskat is an Empire that thrives through it’s alliances with it’s six conquered allies and every few years the treaty is renewed to solidify their alliance.
When it comes to alliances it doesn’t come easy especially with six other planets. What I find interesting about the political sphere is its multi layered administrative obligations and procedures that is the bulk of the story. These procedures ties close to the treaty proceeding that doesn’t only cover Iskat but other galactic government bodies outside of it as executed by the Resolution represented by the Auditor.
The story thrives through its many political scheming, conspiracies, cover ups, and back stabbing. The most entertaining scenes includes these factors that come into play in attempt to disrupt and shake the Empire.
It’s fascinating how one incident opens a can of worms that keeps on unraveling into a ball of tangled mess. The process of disentanglement peaked my interest as well because it is placed into our two main protagonist’s hands; though one is more capable yet internally incapacitated while the other is a golden retriever that doesn’t understand the complexities of inter-galactic politics, so it will surely entertain you if you like chaotic confrontations with lots bluffing and manic realizations all the while processing trauma.
The political and diplomatic catastrophes contained in the story is a magnificent display of the domino effect that is engaging and amusing to read. There seem to be no end to the turmoil that is thrown at our two main characters and Maxwell does so with a level of calculative precision and well intent notion to further progress the story to a painfully high stakes climax that parallels the turning point of Kiem and Jainan’s relationship.
“Jainan,” he said into his fingers. He pulled his hands down until his dark agonized eyes met Jainan’s. “You’re beautiful.”
As I said in the previous paragraph that the relationship is the main focus of the story. Because of this, during my read, I’ve come to realize that the character development of both Kiem and Jainan are tied together as a pair. They are polar opposites that share the same problem of seeing each other as lacking and unworthy of each other (cue d’awww sounds).
Both of them are complex and well fleshed out with distinct personalities that are believable and compelling. Kiem and Jainan bounce of each other in the most un-harmoniously awkward fumbly way during the start of their marriage but soon—with time—they slowly synced together and grows stronger. But if I do have to mention development the only evidence can be seen through Jainan.
I will not go into details on how he developed but it is the subtle hints in his behavior and words that he says that points to a history of trauma.
Maybe tomorrow Jainan would find out that Kiem didn’t mean any of this as he seemed to, that he hadn’t meant to look at Jainan as if Jainan were the only source of beauty in the world. But tonight Jainan owned Kiem’s gaze and the touch of his hands, and everything else was irrelevant. Tonight he could do nothing wrong.
The themes of trauma and abuse within Jainan’s character arc is done with care and nuance by Maxwell. His behavior and decisions is something readers have to piece together to fully understand him as a character. Kiem, on other hand, is the support system that gave the space and time for Jainan to open up to him without pushing boundaries or seem intrusive that might worsen Jainan’s current state. Dare I say, Kiem is the perfect match because of his unconditional and unbiased compassion towards others that helped Jainan to confide in him.
You couldn’t love someone when you had trawled through their sordid problems like this. They were only an object of pity. He was an object of pity.
Though the interaction between Kiem and Jainan missed many marks at first because of this; leading to misunderstandings which undoubtedly at a glance fall into the category of a miscommunication trope. This factor, I recognize, could make or break a story for a few readers aside from it’s slow pacing. In short for future readers I’d like to warn that this book can be well loved or loathed by some readers but I encourage readers to give it a chance because one match can light up an empire (see what I did there? haha).
Their relationship is heartfelt, endearing, and soft; something about the vulnerability they share and through their pain staking effort, a relationship blossomed that tugged my feelings enough to make me cry tears of both joy and sadness.
A ripple went through the room—half shock, half amusement, but the only sound Jainan focused on was a low, involuntary noise from Kiem beside him and the way he pulled his wrist out of Jainan’s grip so he could take Jainan’s hand. Jainan clasped it tight, and it buoyed him up like a wave.
Final thoughts, Winter’s Orbit is the queer space opera filled with twists, slow yet gripping pacing, and political intrigue which focuses on relationship development between two characters set in a diplomatic galactic landscape.
At it’s core Winter’s Orbit is a story about healing and love; how patience and care is shown at it’s purest form through acts and words of reassurance that needs to be repeatedly conveyed. Though in Kiem’s case he needs practice to not be distracted by Jainan luscious locks so he wouldn’t fumble his words. It is a sci-fi stand alone that shows a refreshing take in the arranged marriage trope by emphasizing on relationship growth and processing trauma all the while engaging in endless space political debacles.
If you like a slow build up, inter galactic planetary politics, relationship focused, and intricate stories that is complex, layered and full of depth that is unapologetically queer this is the story for you.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication