Reviewed in India on 30 June 2021
'There is something wrong with you', he told himself, because there was no loss, and now he was sounding quite insane. But it was like an echo of someone else's voic
Winter's Orbit is a new favorite! It was such a strong and solid debut novel with layered and complex characters, a very well developed plot, and a really sweet romance story. Maxwell's writing was wonderful and so easy to get into - Winters Orbit is a Sci-Fi romance rather than Sci-Fi with romance.
I was looking forward to reading based on pre-release advertising and hype, but I was not expecting something so exciting, fun, and polished from an unknown debut author. Again, Maxwell has done an equally good job of building a nuanced world of intergalactic intrigue as she has of making her characters lovable and believable.
The Iskat Empire controls its political relationships with the vassal planets with a system of treaties and often alliances with marriage. After the death of the Iskat Imperial prince Taam, who is married to a representative of the planet Thean, the Emperor needs to reinstate this alliance as soon as possible ahead of the imminent visit from the Auditor for the signing of the Resolution, which will guarantee peace among empires for decades. She decides to marry the Thean widower, Jainan, with her most problematic grandchild, Kiem, within only a day. He's told that above all else, this marriage must succeed because their Empire's status in the intergalactic Resolution treaties is at stake. There can be no broken links in the chain to show the Empire's weakness.
Jainan, diplomatic ambassador to his home planet, Thea, is currently reeling from the recent death of his former husband, Taam. Taam was a member of the Emperor's royal family and one of the realm's key military players. With Taam's—supposedly accidental—death, Jainan is told that his new political alliance is going to be secured with a new marriage. Jainan has never heard of Kiem, but he can only hope that Kiem will be better than Taam—even if Jainan would never admit those words aloud. He's been punished for breaking his silence before.
This is very much an opposites-attract type of romance with Kiem as the easygoing, charming, and extroverted flirt while Jainan is the quiet, socially awkward, and stone-faced academic who's more into duty and numbers. It is a delightful slow burn that is at times hindered by miscommunication and insecurity, but not extreme enough to be annoying. There's a good reason for it and I'd like to include a content warning for mentions of past domestic violence/abusive relationships. All in all, handled very well, in my opinion. I liked Jainan but I loved Kiem. Kiem is the typical social (galaxy) butterfly, he got in trouble so many times in the past and he is forced within only 24 hours into marrying someone who is grieving his previous partner. He is not educated like Jainan, but he is someone I would identify as 'street smart'. Thanks to all his networking connections, he knows how to survive in this society full of journalists always ready for the next royal scandal. I loved how he was super conscious of Jainan’s grief and feelings at the beginning of their relationship.
Both aspects, the politics, and the relationships are tense and page-turning. The marriage of the two main characters, in particular, is challenging as a reader because the POV switches from one to the other and their miscommunication makes it so they never manage to get on the same page, despite my internal screams toward them. Maxwell does a good job playing on those frustrations.
There are unexpected twists and betrayals and lots of political maneuvering that makes it a very interesting read that’ll keep you engaged.
We have some very beloved fanfic tropes like an arranged marriage, only a single bed, the unlikely couple getting stranded and bonding over it, and also lots of miscommunication and yearning because of it. And one of the most fascinating parts of this world is how moralizingly queer it is - gender is chosen by every individual and they can present themselves as whatever they want using symbols on their person, and relationships between any genders are just part of life. It’s just so lovely to read more stories like this where homophobia and gender binaries don’t exist.
But the strength of this book is definitely the characters. They are definitely opposites, which means the attraction is inevitable. While there was a lot of communication between them for a while which made me quite tense about what was gonna happen, it was also so lovely to see them slowly become reliant on each other and then able to talk about their feelings. I was literally sobbing with happiness seeing them get together and then work with each other to figure out all the mysteries. The ending was particularly very amusing and I was full of joy seeing the proceedings play out.
I especially loved Kiem’s assistant Bel who was a total badass with an interesting backstory and was such a supportive figure throughout the mystery solving. The Auditor and Agent Rakal also turned out to be fascinating despite me doubting their motivatives. Gairad was a sweet addition while the Emperor was kinda subtly funny. But it was Taam, Jainan’s dead husband who felt like a constant presence despite not being alive and the author did such a great job creating and solving all the entanglements.
Kiem and Jainan are lovely together, complementing each other in a lot of ways. Kiem charming, social, and empathetic, always feeling he’s not smart enough, and Jainan thoughtful, anxious, and distant, always afraid to do wrong. Their relationship builds up slowly, although Kiem immediately thinks Jainan is attractive. They get to know each other pretty quickly and start working together when they find out Taam might be murdered. From the start, it’s clear that something happened in Jainan’s past that made him anxious and obedient. As a reader, I felt that way earlier than Kiem. The first part of the story is directed to the world-building and the growing relationship between Kiem and Jainan, while the second half of the story is more fast-paced with a lot of action. Now it's up to Kiem and Jainan to juggle all of the political balls in the air, navigate their relationship, and somehow solve a murder and avoid getting murdered themselves... See what I mean? It's a LOT, y'all!
I did wish that the plot and the pacing were slightly adjusted, however. This story had a lot going on in it. But despite how much was spinning in the plot, the pacing took forever to get off the ground. I felt that the first third of Winter's Orbit draggggggged on, and then the last third was a wham bam! Of action sequences and an extremely rapid conclusion. This story could have been easily expanded into a trilogy—which would have allowed the author to expand on the world-building, the politics, the side plots, and character motivations, and the romance. In a way, all of those elements suffered for me given how much had to fit in such a limited space.
If you're a reader who wants detailed world-building and a narrative that adheres strictly to the plot rather than meandering for personal & romantic character developments, Winter'S Orbit may not be the perfect read for you. But if you like your romance and your science fiction, then hurray!!!