Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.
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.
432 pages (paperback)
Published on February 2, 2021
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I’ve been meaning to read this book but life happens and I forgot. Anyway, I was at the library the other day and it was on the “Reader’s Choice” table so I grabbed it and read it in short order. This book is a SciFi, which some might find daunting, but it is one of the most accessible SciFi books I’ve run across in a while.
Winter’s Orbit is easy to slide into. It’s warm and comfortable, like buttery popcorn while watching a Friday night movie. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. It was extremely easy for me to get into the story being told, and feel engrossed in the characters and their trials. With some lighter world building, readers who might find SciFi daunting will probably enjoy the ease with which world-specific terms and political machinations are presented to readers. You don’t need fact sheets or diagrams in your head to grok this one.
Instead of focusing so much on the world and all the details of it, Maxwell focuses on her characters, their relationship with each other, and their relationship with the world around them. Prince Kiem, a playboy and in and out of trouble, gets thrust into a marriage with newly-widowed Jainan. However, we soon learn that not everything in that previous relationship was what it was presented to be, nor was the death of his previous partner, Prince Taam. With a peace treaty between two powers on the horizon, and this marriage essential to solidifying the deal, a lot rides on the union.
So of course it’s going to have problems.
There were a few things that pleased me about the romance and the mystery at the center of this book. First, I need to talk about representation. There are a lot of LGBTQIA+ characters and themes in Winter’s Orbit, which delighted me. More, I enjoyed seeing these parts of the book as a natural aspect of the world rather than something that needed fanfare. Normalization like this can be a powerful thing indeed, and I think the author went about it very well.
The romance itself didn’t overwhelm the plot, rather they both advanced hand in hand at a natural pace without feeling forced or overly dramatic, and maybe this is both the book’s greatest strength as well as its greatest downfall. Presented to us is a universe perched on the edge of a galactic war, and I never really felt that intensity. It was painfully easy for me to forget how dire the situation actually was. While things are happening and intrigue is present, it never really resonated with me because that aspect of the plot just wasn’t present enough to come through as much as I would have preferred. That being said, the situation was constantly changing and evolving, and the fact that Maxwell managed to keep the Big Danger both personal and ever-present without overwhelming everything else needs to be lauded. Part of what will attract people to this book is the fact that the conflict is so easy to absorb.
Romance, I think, is likely why readers will pick this one up. SciFi romance is always a plus. Maxwell hits all the sweet spots on the romance (though romance readers will find the beats a bit off, which is to be expected as this is not strictly a romance book). This is a slow-burn and an arranged marriage, two tropes I tend to have a very hard time with on the get-go. Knowing that I went into this one pretty skeptical, and I was surprised by how easy it was for me to keep reading.
So many of the issues between the protagonists could have been sorted with ten minutes of conversation. They spent so long being awkward and assuming things about each other, that by the time the relationship actually did strike off, I was filled with this really weird mix of “finally” and “seriously?”. I have a real issue with miscommunication tropes because they are just so easy to avoid if people sit down and speak directly. A lot of that aspect of the book came off as “for the sake of the plot” rather than a natural evolution of the relationship, and that was unfortunate. Due to how much of the book they spend not talking or only surface-level talking, by the time they do hook up I was almost stunned by the fact that they were, in fact, attracted to each other. What I wanted were fireworks and I just didn’t quite get that.
The ultimate result of these two points did dramatically impact my overall enjoyment of the book as a whole. Did I like it? Yes. Will I read it again? Maybe. If there’s a time when I want to turn my brain off and just enjoy a relatively comforting, predictable read, then this is absolutely a book I will go to. However, at the end of the day, it just fell a little short of its target. Entertaining, yes, but about a half-note off on some aspects which left me feeling, overall, like this was a bit discordant.
That being said, I love science fiction and I think it can be quite intimidating to new readers. This book would serve as a great entry point for those looking to explore the genre. It’s comfortable and a bit softer. The author keeps her world just built enough to really highlight the characters in it, and her direct, no-nonsense prose works in her favor to keep this from ever getting too bogged down in the minutiae.
Is it worth reading? Yes, but know what you’re getting into first. This isn’t going to break the genre, but if you need something comfortable and warm, a soft blanket during a snowstorm, then pick Winter’s Orbit up.