Winter’s Orbit Review: A Cornucopia of Bliss

Winter's Orbit | Raphael Corkhill | Macmillan

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…

Verdict?

If you’ve been sitting on an Audible credit, I say make it rain on Winter’s Orbit.

6 Best Books of 2020

I seem to have recurrent amnesia for how much I love writing about books I’ve read. Since I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell regarding my fiction, please excuse me while I belatedly celebrate my 2020 reads.

I should amend the title of this post to the 6 best books I read in the year of 2020, not the 6 best books of 2020. Most of my favorite reads were backlist, but I am also reviewing 7 2020 releases, with some, ahem, possibly controversial opinions.


**Look out for my upcoming reviews on these 2021 releases: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab, and Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I have much to say.**


2020 Releases I Read

Amazon.com: In a Holidaze (9781982163631): Lauren, Christina: Books

In a Holidaze (Romantic comedy) by Christina Lauren

Release date: October 6, 2020

A cozy Christmas romance a la Groundhog day. Christina Lauren has done it again. Initially, I was not interested in reading this 2020 CLo release because of the gimmicky/holiday wrapping, but I did and I don’t regret it one bit. I snuggled so deep in the found family and friends-to-lovers tropes that I was blissfully lost in its cozy folds for the six hours it took to consume this piece of transportable Christmas spirit.

Memorial (Contemporary) by Bryan Washington

Release date: October 27, 2020

When I was writing my graduate thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there was a quote I kept coming back to:

“In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence…in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.”

All this to say, Washington bequeaths his characters and their every moment, triumphant or tragic, with an optical democracy. Each horrific reality is given no more or less weight than any beautiful revelation. This works to elevate the beauty of the work as a whole. I was not expecting what I got with Memorial, which is neither good nor bad. It is exactly what it is, which is kind of what it felt like Washington was trying to say.

Amazon.com: A Deadly Education: A Novel (The Scholomance Book 1) eBook:  Novik, Naomi: Kindle Store

A Deadly Education (Fantasy) by Naomi Novik

Release date: September 29, 2020

You know I had to review my girl Novik’s newest–a lush original take on the magic school genre where the school is…well, essentially trying to devour the students. After Uprooted and Spinning Silver, Novik can do no wrong with me. A Deadly Education throws you into some heavy world-building right off the bat, which settles comfortably into place as the plot gains speed. The characters totally slap. And the promise of budding, forbidden romance in the next book of the trilogy sweetens the deal of course.

Loveless (YA) by Alice Oseman

Release date: April 30, 2020

I did not particularly care for this book, which surprised me given how much I adore Heartstopper, I Was Born For This, and Radio Silence. I am not entirely sure whether the  opinion I walked away with was mostly due to seeing Oseman’s struggle so hard with creating this novel on social media. I’m not saying artists shouldn’t be transparent about creation or illuminate how hard the process can be, but I feel as though seeing her suffering regarding this book may have made me see all the faults with it. Despite its faults, the characters were thoroughly filled in, and the dynamic between Rooney and Pip was FIRE–peak sapphic sexual tension.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Boyfriend Material (Romance) by Alexis Hall

Release date: July 7, 2020

This was 2020’s sweetheart release, a cuddly romance we all desperately needed. I loved these two characters. Mostly Oliver if I’m being honest, but to be fair, Luc is a self-admitted berk. This story was just the right timbre of sweet for which I was aching. The build-up of the romance and the construction of the characters’ lives—mostly Luc’s, with his work mates and group of friends, was spot on and hilarious.

But sometimes you read a book and it’s not at all what you thought it would be from the blurb. Boyfriend Material was this for me, which was partly a good thing and partly a teensy bit disappointing, only because it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. From the premise, I expected a strangers-to-friends-to-lovers scenario in which there was a painful slow burn saturated in miscommunication. And *there was all of this*, but because these characters Arc and Grow, they reveal their hands a lot sooner than I expected. They play off of this place of mutually acknowledged interest in being more than fake boyfriends from almost the halfway point in the book. Which was actually refreshing for the genre, rather than the story’s tension riding on the MCs’ complete ignorance of each other’s feelings.

…Let’s talk about the sex.

Wait. There wasn’t any, aside from the slow fade out before anything really happens (You know what I’m talking about). Let me be clear; I am not decrying this book over its woeful lack of sex. I was merely caught off guard after the other five Alexis Hall books I had read. 

Thank you NetGalley for an Advanced Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.



Without further ado, here are my

 

6 Best Books of 2020

Piranesi (Fantasy) by Susanna Clark

Release date: September 15, 2020

Synopsis

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.


Piranesi is a labyrinth of a tale, breathtaking in scope, told by a heartbreakingly human narrator.

A fantasy to give you the exact feeling you’re hoping to find when delving into a fantasy read. At least that’s what it was for me. This was my first foray into Susanna Clarke, and I can say with supreme confidence that I will be giving her other work a read very soon.

 

The Goldfinch (Contemporary) by Donna Tartt

Release date: October 22, 2013  

synopsis

After losing his mother in a horrific bombing, Theo Decker embarks on an urgent odyssey through survival, love, and far too many goodbyes. Tartt presents us with a modern day bildungsroman that destroys and rebuilds in equal strokes.


God, this book. A book about art and humanity that Tartt says began with the intertwining of a dark New York and dark Amsterdam mood, and I *clap* was *clap* here for it. Definitely one of my all time favorites. Others have decried this book for its wanderings, but I loved every single word of its 771 pages. I basically got my master’s in English–not to intelligently discuss moving literature, no–but to ecstatically absorb and find myself muted in the face of their greatness. For me, The Goldfinch rivals The Secret History. 

“Caring too much for objects can destroy you.”

Yes, Ms. Tartt. It certainly can, as I am writing this from the grave.

 

The Queen of Nothing (Fantasy) by Holly Black

Release date: November 19, 2019

I don’t want to put the synopsis here for anyone who has not yet read the first two books, but let’s just say this was the close of a expertly woven, completely transporting trilogy, in my humble opinion. It is important to note that I’ve put the Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition here, and with good reason. *Whispers* It includes the letters Cardan wrote to Jude while she was in the mortal world, drowning in feels.

All hail the queen of faerie, Holly Black. That is all. 


 

We Contain Multitudes (YA) by Sarah Henstra

Release date: May 14, 2019

synopsis

Jonathan Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are partnered in English class, writing letters to one another in a weekly pen pal assignment. With each letter, the two begin to develop a friendship that eventually grows into love. But with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl struggle to overcome their conflicts and hold onto their relationship…and each other.


Look, I didn’t even know what to do with myself while listening to this book. Stunning. Heavy. Shattering. Euphoric. I listened to it on audio (a few times), which might bias my experience here, because the voice actors were legit phenomenal, and so real, and it just felt so tender and devastating hearing them right in my ear. 

I’ll Give You The Sun (YA) by Jandy Nelson

Release date: September 16, 2014

synopsis

At first, Jude and her twin brother Noah, are inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them.

Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways… but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor. The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.


Another amazing art book. And romance book.  And sibling book.  And family book. I had no idea this book would beat me up and steal my lunch money, but here we are. If you enjoy experiencing exactly what it feels like to have hearts in your eyes while simultaneously ugly crying, then read this book. 

Radio Silence (YA) by Alice Oseman

Release date: February 5, 2016

synopsis

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances has been a study machine with one goal. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside. Then Frances meets Aled, and for the first time she’s unafraid to be herself.

So when the fragile trust between them is broken, Frances is caught between who she was and who she longs to be. Now Frances knows that she has to confront her past. To confess why Carys disappeared…

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.


I had to give the Oseman a fair shake. Though I did not enjoy Loveless, I loved this book. Coincidentally, I had concurrently discovered the fictional podcast Welcome to Night Vale, so this book had an extra layer of gravity. The novel was like a blanket to wrap around your heart to cushion it against the feels of friendship and resurgent teenage angst. 


 

What do my fellow readers think? Love any of these? Disagree that The Goldfinch rivals The Secret History? Let’s duke it out in the comments discuss.

8 Black Voices to Read for Pride Month

To uplift black voices as much as possible in light of George Floyd’s murder, a new hashtag was created for PitMad today: #BVM for Black Voices Matter. As I was trying to think about what I could possibly do to help, I realized books were the answer for me. Racism trains people to not see a certain group of people as fellow human beings, whether in almost unconscious ways or blatant, intentional ways.

As author Matt Haig has eloquently stated,

reading “is how human merge. How minds quietly and deeply connect and expand. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

Hearing black voices and “merging” with their experiences is so important as we fight to overcome racism (This is an eye-opening thread on the development of racism in a baby’s brain). While I was thinking of doing a list of recommendations for pride month, I tried to think of black voices I’d read in this genre, and I was disappointed in how little there were. So I’ve compiled this exciting list of books to read representing black voices in LGBTQ literature.

1. The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum

I read The Wicker King by Ancrum–another great book for Pride Month–and was blown away by what Ancrum captures in such short, breathless chapters. I don’t read as much f/f as m/m books, and that needs to change. So why not start with a delinquent-meets-loner enemies-to-lovers romance with space themes? And it’s only 2.99 on Amazon right now!

2. Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I am a sucker for mental health books. This Stonewall Book Award Winner with Suzette returning home from boarding school to be there for her bipolar step brother and—not intentionally—fall in love with his crush had me even before that gorg cover. Nicola Yoon calls it “beautifully insightful, honest, and compassionate. Brandy’s ability to find larger meaning in small moments is nothing short of dazzling.”

3. Real Life by Brandon Taylor

An introvert Southern black queer trying to eke out his post secondary education in biochem has his walls unexpectedly broken down by his community of classmates and friends. Goodreads says Real Life has been “named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment WeeklyHarper’s BazaarBuzzFeed, and more.” I need this book in my life immediately.

4. By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery

by any means

Stories about kids trying to rise from their rough beginnings will always have a special place with me. Throw into that a late beloved uncle’s bee farm at risk for foreclosure and a boy navigating first love while trying to pin down a college major, and I am THERE.

5. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Black

Nominated for the Lamda Award, best horror novel for the Locus Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Speculative Fiction (Ray Bradbury Prize), this African history and myth-inspired novel appears to dispense universal messages while providing an engrossing adventure. I can’t believe I haven’t already read this book.

6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Color Purple

I wish I had explored more novels by authors whose short stories I loved in school. “Everyday Use” had such a powerful effect on me—I haven’t read it in years and my throat just got tight thinking about it. I had no idea this novel had LGBT themes though!

7. Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell it On the Moutain

Another one of those authors who I wish I had checked out their novels after reading their short fiction. I loved “Sonny’s Blues”, like exactly every single other person who has ever read the story, right? I am eager to read this passionate coming of age classic about a 14 year old stepson to a minister, exploring his identity in 1935 Harlem.

8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible

I picked up this novel years ago and was absolutely engrossed by Ellison’s prose. I never  got as far as the horrifying sequence of the narrator’s story, however, so I will be changing that and picking this book up again.  In researching, there is some intriguing literary criticism regarding homoerotic undertones depicted in the novel. I look forward to unraveling it all. I think the novel’s difficulty renders it indispensable to this list.


Have you read any of these? Or do you have another favorite LGBTQ novel by a black author? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments! 

2019 Book Awards

I read 50 books in 2019. I rated many of them 5 stars, which is kind of a rare situation for one who avidly reads. I think it just means that in my advanced years, I am able to gauge what I will like. While I’m sure you’d love to hear me talk about all 50 of them, I will merely forcefully recommend all of the awards winners here with gorgeous cover thumbnails and vague categories that leave you salivating for more, and of course, my favorites at the bottom. A fellow Instagrammer inspired the Oscars-style roundup layout, without which, this would have been a much longer post.

 Longest Book & Best Worldbuilding

Strongest cast & Most Unique

Best Female Lead

Alice Proserpine, The Hazel Wood
or
Cassie Maddox, Into the Woods and The Likeness

Best Male Lead

Sean Kendrick, The Scorpio Races
or
Declan Lynch, Call Down the Hawk

And the winner, for my

Best Read of 2019

is

scorpio races

“It’s the surf in your face, the deadly magic of November on your skin, the Scorpio drums in the place of your heartbeat…it’s life and it’s death or it’s both, and there’s nothing like it.”

 

That’s it. That’s the book.

 

My favorite thing about this stunning fantasy is that you can reach out and feel the November iciness of the break, the steam rising from the horses’ flanks. It’s legend breathed to life. If this wasn’t already featuring as my favorite novel last year, it would be boasting the award for most atmospheric with Stiefvater’s fictional island, Thisby, and all of its traditions and prejudices. In an interview, Stiefvater said she traveled to cliffs all over the world to find the exact ones she saw in her mind:

 

“I went to four sets of cliffs. You didn’t believe me when I said I was obsessed. California, Yorkshire, and Dover, England are the other three. And then last year, I was in Paris with my husband in December, and it was snowing. It was the first time it had snowed in Paris in years and years. I’m with my husband, without the kids, in the City of Love. I have a day off from doing author things and I told him, ‘Rent a car. We’re driving to the cliffs in Normandy.’ “

 

 

That is serious dedication to building atmosphere. Like my favorites of Stiefvater’s novels, if you go into it a little bit blind, you’ll reach the end seeing in technicolor.

 

 

Other 2019 favorites

  • The first four in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series
  • Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
  • Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer

 

What were your favorite reads last year? If you read any of these, what did you think? Any special 2020 reading goals?

Reaffirmation

With the newest publication of a beloved author on the horizon, she’s been live-tweeting as she reads one of my favorite works of hers. Naturally, I am comparing myself to her and finding myself lacking. Yes, folks, you can make negative, unhealthy comparisons to someone for which you hold pure admiration.

As I sit here making my mental comparisons, I  wonder why I even bother. What do I even have to say that’s worthy of anyone’s time? Does my work have any Meaning? (I promise the tone of this post turns around).  But as I cuddle my sick toddler, I open one of my poems on a whim, Nest.

That poem still makes me so proud. My epiphany, however, was noticing the poetic devices I employed, some intentionally like the image of home, but more importantly, some unintentional, like my partial rhymes. And then the end of it, how everything just came together and…happened. How I had written no less than 10 poems before this poem, trying to capture my emotions about being a new mother and having lost my father, and that final stanza expressed everything I felt more clearly than all of those attempts combined.

I think that, that final marriage of meaning, form, feeling, and rightness is a key to this whole “what do I even have to offer anyone” question. That poem almost created itself, using me as a vessel; I didn’t have the option to not create it. Is that enough to give work meaning? To say, I HAVE to write, therefore it has meaning. I don’t think so. What I have to offer is how much I enjoyed creating it, and THAT gives it meaning, because if you did it right, others can feel that coming through.