****Trigger warnings: Death of a spouse, domestic abuse, physical abuse and interrogation****
One of the hardest things I find with science fiction is making an emotional connection to the characters an author presents. It’s one of the genres I do find myself coming into and facing more morally grey characters who I typically still enjoy but don’t necessarily get all the feels for. Not so much with Winter’s Orbit. These two main characters stole my heart in seconds of opening the book.
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.
There’s a wonderful increase of scifi focusing on more hopeful, comforting stories. Becky chambers is the first example I think of with her Wayfarers series which recently just ended. I think it’s safe to say what Everina Maxwell has achieved here with a story of two princes on two sides of a galactic empire and the focus on their relationship as a place of communication and healing has cemented her in that section of hopepunk (more on that here.
The book itself however is definitely more character focused over everything else. This does however pay off with the world building later on. We meet Kiem, the hopeless disaster that is the Prince of the Imperial Royal family of Iskat and take part in his processing the news that he’s to marry his cousins widower, Count Jainan of Thea. These two are absolute disasters and I love them both for it. Their drastically conflicting personal perspectives and activities are the perfect catalyst for equally entertaining and tender moments.
Kiem is the biggest mess of the two, being well known for his public debauchery, string of lovers and his media image generally being that of a typical rich party boy. I think Kiem is an excellent point of affection for anyone reading the book since not only is he a very genuine, caring person but just how much of the comic relief he carries for more serious instances later on in the book. One moment, from the very start of the book that won me over since it essentially boiled down to the ‘”I wasn’t that drunk” meme;
‘The Emperor glanced at the shifting pictures….”Press Office informs me that you put on a troll costume, joined a carnival procession group and fell in a canal in the middle of the parade.”
“It was a kid’s group,” Kiem said…’
Where I found Kiem was definitely a great character to meet first in the book just for his jovial nature, Jainan is the one I found myself really starting to care about. Jainan is the opposite of Kiem in many ways, being an academic and an engineer being one aspect. The other is his far more guarded nature which leads many to believe he is grieving the loss of husband, Prince Taam. I won’t lie and I’m not claiming I spotted it before anyone but within a few chapters of reading about and from Jainan, I was very aware of why he acts the way he does. I have put a warning on this review and you are encouraged to check here on the authors website for content details with spoilers.
With that, I felt a lot more for Jainan than Kiem in places since it does become clear why he is so obsessed with controlling his image and how people perceive him. There’s also moments where it’s clear he doesn’t have the luxury of exposing himself as much as Kiem might. It’s made clear that his political position is very fragile, many of the Iskat thinking that all from Thea are savage rebels and vandals. Those from Thea thinking of him as the closest thing to a traitor due to his second marriage to an Iskat Prince and because he never displays any discomfort being at the Empire’s beck and call. It’s exhausting and he is clearly struggling internally while trying to heal and learn to navigate life with Kiem. Despite the focus on the two leads, there is a lot put into building the world very subtly around them and it’s something done so carefully and well that I had to think of a similar book that I found this with.
One of my favourite books of all time is The Left of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. I fell in love with the story the first time I read it, detailing the journey of one man to a planet where a gender binary was unheard of and his conflict of trying to understand this. The part of the book that stays with me most is the journey Genly Ai and Estraven make across the ice separating two cities on the planet. Winters Orbit has a similar moment where Jainan and Kiem are making their way across a terrain after they are left without a ship and puts them both finally alone. Up until this moment, both have had to mind every move they make in the presence of others to not damage either their fragile image or the even more fragile treaty. That section of the book where it’s showing the way they manage as a pair (yes there is only one bed in case you need to know) out on their own where they need to confront a lot of things is where you realise how small details have built this so well. I did also find that most of our understanding of this Empire does come from Jainan’s perspective. He is the one who was sent here, he is the one who is still learning how to live with the Iskat but it’s still done in very small details even when coming from his eyes.
I would say the plot is the lacking part of this book. There is definitely a point where the pacing is upped and things definitely become more intense and it definitely delivers from there on, but what you’re getting here is the story of two disaster royals falling in love, one of them trying to heal both himself and an entire leg of a treaty while the other supports him as awkwardly as possible. It will melt your heart and live in your feelings.
Thank you to Nazia and Orbit books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for review. Winters Orbit is available now.