Winter’s Obrit | Everina Maxwell | Published by Tor | Date Released: 2/2/21
One match can light up an empire? No. One match can light up the desiccated husk of my soul after reading this.
Let’s see. What can I say about Winter’s Orbit? Well, it turns out…quite a bit.
I felt inexplicably drawn to this book. Could it have been the drop dead gorgeous cover? Or maybe the promise of a m/m royal marriage arrangement set in SPACE? Or perhaps the hint that the novel was heavier on the romance than the sci-fi–the latter of which I am an admittedly poor study. Regardless, I did dive in with some doubt that it would be for me. I am usually drawn to more character-driven fiction, while this synopsis promised political intrigue at every turn (and boy did it deliver). But it delivered the political machinery in such a way that made it engaging for even the likes of me.
So what’s this gorgeous piece of space romance and interplanetary politics about?
Let’s turn it over to Goodreads, because I am abysmally bad at synopses:
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.
When I realized I could get my mitts on this new release with my Audible credit, excitement mounted. I began my listening for a quick diversion while doing other things, doubtful that I could become as emotionally invested in a sci-fi novel as I am in my usual genre haunts.
“Well, someone has to marry the man.”
…is how this lovely courtship begins. What I mean, is my courtship with this book. At first I was intimidated by the erudite British accent of the narrator, Raphael Corkhill, but was quickly won over by his talent at depicting the counterpoint of Kiem’s goofy charm to Jainan’s stoic practicality, and the dynamic between these two against the tense political landscape. Given that I am not a reader of much sci-fi, the last being The Need—does that count as sci-fi?—and before that, Annihilation (both excellent), I adored that the tech was so seamlessly integrated without clunky, overwhelming explanations, but rather just enough to pique my interest.
The plot deliciously gains traction the deeper in you get. I cannot help but be intimidated by multi-threaded plots of political intrigue like this (see also my review on Six of Crows in a discussion of e-books vs books), but it is truly a testament to Maxwell’s storytelling savvy that I was able to follow along just fine and quite enjoy the ride. Maxwell’s prose was clean and elegant, with incisive metaphor and simile, blessedly void of the overly wrought exposition I feared going into this genre. Bonus: the novel demonstrated pitch perfect use of gender pronouns for the story with the lovely and logical freedom of beings in Maxwell’s universe to choose their expression via glass (nonbinary), wood (male), or flint (female) ornaments.
Things Winter’s Orbit delivers via gut punch after gut punch: tension, layered plot, psychological acuity, as shown in Kiem’s growth from the self-depreciating charismatic reformed party boy royal and Jainan’s struggle with being cut off from his clan and planet as the Thean diplomat, not to mention–well, rather than spoil anything for you, let me just leave you with this juicy morsel:
“Pain had its uses, Jainan thought. It put things in perspective. There was something clean about the way it cut through the emotional tangles and reminded you that things could be worse.”
But the main winning aspect in a cornucopia of bliss is the tentative, budding romance between Kiem and Jainan, rife with all the fanfic tropes you’re dying for–bed sharing, arranged marriage, misunderstanding–executed so beautifully and so naturally. Remember that strangers-to-friends-to-lovers I said I was expecting with Boyfriend Material in my last post? Winter’s Orbit was exactly this. This book gives an entire new perspective to the slow burn trope. These two orbit one another, learning each other’s nuances so gradually, it is like watching two people realize that by a fortuitous turn of events, they have been married to the exact person made just for them. I was moved to tears at one point just by this unfurling romance, like a flower opening at the first lick of the sun’s warmth (I was also 2 glasses of wine in by that time, but the point stands).
Regarding the format in which I consumed this
I feel that there is a big difference between experiencing a book on audio versus reading it. Some books present better in audio format, for me at least. I have no idea if this is one of those books, because audio is the only way I’ve experienced it and want to re-experience it in the future. It must be said here that the Corkhill did such a brilliant job of portraying both Kiem and Jainan, their distinct voices were sounding in my head with crystalline clarity for days after I finished the novel. Also, audio books are versatile. You can listen to this book: in bed, working out, at work, in the car, while doing mindless tasks, while imbibing, while staring into the middle distance, wondering how you got to this place in your life where you wished you had a therapist just so you could talk about all the Feelings this book awoke in the cobwebbed annals of your heart…
If you’ve been sitting on an Audible credit, I say make it rain on Winter’s Orbit.