This review is so late, because I’ve been suffering from the most ironic of blogging curses: when you adore a book so much you can’t bear to actually put it into words! Winter’s Orbit is one of my favourite books I’ve read so far this year!
Book: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Read before: No
Release date: 4th February 2021
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Orbit. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: discussion of spousal abuse, both physical and emotional, and recovery from it (which I will discuss in some detail in this review); secondary character death; minor violence and injury.
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.
God, I loved this book. These are always the hardest reviews to write – it’s so hard to distill your feelings into words when every single aspect of a book is brilliant. I’m going to try to be slightly more articulate than screaming AHHHH at you, but please know that’s really what I’d like to do. This is exactly the kind of sci-fi that I like – plenty of space flavouring and clever worldbuilding, but ultimately a novel about people being people.
I adored both main characters. Kiem is wonderfully drawn, the emperor’s least favourite grandson and the kind of rebellious playboy who’s trying a little too hard to pretend he doesn’t care about his reputation. I loved him and his awkwardly charming voice instantly, to the point where I was a little disappointed the first time the perspective switched to Jainan. But I shouldn’t have been! I actually ended up loving Jainan even more – he’s a serious man, very loyal and with a strong sense of his duty as the face of Thea, but as you get to know him, it becomes clear there is way more going on beneath the surface. The characters are one of the best parts of this already brilliant book, and I cared so much about their development – they will stay with me for a long time. There are so many brilliant side characters too, all of whom feel like real people. This world just feels alive!
A mildly spoilery paragraph now, so skip ahead if you want to go in completely cold, or if you don’t want to read about the depiction of abuse in this book…. My spidey senses were set off early on, and it was very clear to me from the way Jainan behaved around Kiem that there was a deep trauma that had crushed a lot of his sense of self. There are such accurately observed, tiny behaviours of someone who’s spent time living under the thumb of a controlling partner, and they are acutely well-described, to the point that I found some of Jainan’s chapters far more intense and claustrophobic than the actual on-page action felt like it warranted. It’s exquisitely well done as a character study, but I would be careful going into this one if it’s a subject you find difficult. Jainan’s development is extraordinarily rewarding, so it’s well worth pushing through, but before I read the book, I saw a lot of people gushing over the cuteness of it and really neglecting to talk about the sharpness of the depiction of domestic abuse, which I think is doing a disservice both to the book and to readers; while it is, ultimately, a hopeful and comforting story, that happiness comes from building on darkness, and to ignore that would be wrong.
What I loved about this book was that blend of wholesome and dark, of quiet character work and intense politicking. If I had to describe it to two different friends, I think I’d end up highlighting totally different elements of the story, but it’s so deftly blended that it works beautifully. It’s simultaneously a really sweet tale of two idiots falling in love, and a searingly honest look at recovery from abuse and the dangers of rulership. The intrigue and political manoeuvring is just *chef’s kiss* good – it’s one of my favourite genres of fantasy, and I never thought to see it done so well in science-fiction! The dualities of the action and the character development, and the dark themes and the fluffy love story, are magnificently done, and make this book even more than the sum of its parts. Imagine if Becky Chambers wrote an outline of a novel, then handed her notebook to Elizabeth Bear to actually write the thing. It is fluffy and uplifting, but somehow simultaneously dark and intense, like a marshmallow full of emotions.
Obviously the fact that there’s an arranged marriage between two men here speaks to the queer-norm worldbuilding, but I thought that this was cleverly woven into the story through other ways. Gender isn’t binary, and the customs of Iskat reflect this beautifully, with people signalling their gender through specific use of materials in their outfits, which is clever and leads to much less ambiguity than trying to guess from appearance. However, what really elevated this to the next level for me was seeing this custom through Jainan’s eyes, as well as Kiems; as a Thean, Jainan wasn’t raised with this Iskan custom, and has to remind himself this is how it works here (though he’s no less accepting of any gender). This diversity between cultures adds so much realism to the setting, and also takes the queer-normity to another level – of course, different cultures would deal with it differently. The issue isn’t painted over as simply sorted in this world, but it’s shown to be a living, breathing part of the world. I’m only highlighting this one tiny aspect of the worldbuilding here, but this is repeated throughout lots of different aspects, and it helps to create the feeling of a really realistic and diverse empire.
Fans of Becky Chambers should immediately read this book, but I also think those who loved Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (review here), or A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine will enjoy this too. It would also be a great first sci-fi for romance readers, or for those who love political fantasy like The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison or Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran (review here), or for those who love fun and fluffy queer arranged marriage fantasies like A Deceptive Alliance by Sydney Blackburn (review here), or Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst. It’s kind of not really like any of these, but I think if you enjoyed any one of them you’ll find something to love here – it’s just a wonderful, wonderful mix of all the things I love in a book. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t in my top few books of the year, and even though it’s early in the year, I’m giving it ten out of five cats!