Publish Date: 02 February 2021
Page Count: 420 pages
While my desperate pleas for an ARC of Winter’s Orbit went unanswered, I was still lucky enough to receive an eARC via Netgalley. So my last read of 2020 was one of my most anticipated books of 2021! Yay!
There’s been a lot of hype around Winter’s Orbit by Everina Mawell, which was originally published as an online series. Comparisons to Ancillary Justice, Gideon the Ninth and A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (and Red, White and Royal Blue, which I haven’t read) set my expectations sky-high, but the author has definitely delivered.
Maxwell balances a complicated m/m romance with engaging interstellar politics. While romantic fic fans will likely be sold at the mention of ‘arranged marriage’, for me it was the notion of two gay male characters featured front and centre in an exciting sci-fi story (and yes, maybe a little because of the romance).
The book begins with Kiem, a free-spirited Prince who is irrelevant to politics, except when he appears in Iskat’s tabloids for making a fool of himself. As the Emperor’s least favourite grandchild, Kiem expects beratement when he receives a royal summons. Instead, he leaves with a surprise engagement to a representative of Thea, a planet subjected to Iskat rule.
Since Count Jainan’s husband died in an accident, relations between Iskat and Thea have been volatile. So, in a legal system that ratifies treaties through marriage, Prince Kiem’s last-minute wedding with Jainan is intended to ease the tension between the two planets. And with an Auditor recently arrived to renew an agreement between the Iskat Empire and the Resolution – an intersystem governing body – this unification is all the more urgent.
Winter’s Orbit can be divided rather neatly into two parts. The first half of the novel is where we get most of the ‘will they/won’t they?’ action, and it’s as adorable as it is pleasantly frustrating. Kiem and Jainan’s relationship is complicated; their awkward alliance develops mostly out of necessity rather than through episodes of moon-eyeing one another, which makes the romance feel well-balanced with the greater plot. The two men are incredibly different people, so it’s a lot of fun seeing them attempt to figure each other out. Maxwell’s characterisation is well-developed, and Kiem and Jainan are both full of surprises.
While I enjoyed this set up to the story, I did feel that it was perhaps a little light on sci-fi detail. But then the second half came along and completely changed my mind. Suspicions around Prince Taam’s death come to a head, and the newlyweds find themselves investigating a murder while racing against time to prevent an interplanetary war. The action escalates nicely, and there are a few unexpected developments that I loved.
The overall story of Winter’s Orbit is so freakin’ good, and its orchestrated perfectly. Maxwell has offered a fantastic entry in a subgenre of science fiction that I’m going to dub ‘bureaucratic sci-fi’ (okay, stay with me for a sec). Complex politics come hand-in-hand with space opera, but the term ‘politics’ often boils down to impending/on-going conflict and shady characters with ulterior motives. So, a plot, that happens to involve government officials. However, Maxwell gets into the actual nitty-gritty of court procedures, law, trade, public relations and even government auditing. I don’t think I made that sound very sexy, but it’s SO interesting and adds a different aspect of realism to this sci-fi book. This worldbuilding tactic reminded me of A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and aspects of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.
Regarding the other comparisons I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the only similarities to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Gideon the Ninth I noticed were some lovely moments of friendship, and badass queer characters respectively.
I do wish that this was the first book in a series, not only because I already miss Kiem and Jainan, but because I still have a few questions, especially about the nature of the mysterious Galactic remnants. In the extras, Maxwell points out that Kiem and Jainan have ‘earned their happy ending’, but does say that she will be returning to this universe in future books.
I’d recommend Winter’s Orbit to fans of any of the titles I’ve mentioned, or who are looking for a great sci-fi read with a healthy dose of drama, humour and romance.
Massive thank you to Orbit, Netgalley and Everina Maxwell for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warnings: Physical and emotional abuse
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