Thursday, November 25, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Winter’s Orbit is an unusual read for me. It’s a debut novel with a story that straddles two genres: fantasy and gay male (m/m) romance. The story apparently started life with the title “The Course of Honour” on a website better known for fan fiction (Archive Of Our Own) in the original works section. Eventually Tor Books agreed to publish Everina Maxwell’s story reworked as a space opera with a queer romance (instead of the original which is apparently primarily a queer romance with some SFnal elements). I’m generally not a huge fan of romance, but I am gay, and gay male romance is something I very rarely choose (mostly because I think it will be cheesy). That said, I was completely devastated by the m/m romantic themes in Madeline Miller’s A Song for Achilles when I read it earlier this year. Plus it’s also rare for a book in one genre to overlap with another, so a m/m romantic space opera is very rare, like finding a Black, gay mathematician (oh, wait…).

Winter’s Orbit has received significant acclaim for its insightful writing and emotional resonance. The central plot revolves around the tried-and-true romance trope of the “fake-dating scenario.” This is when the two protagonists have to demonstrate for external stakeholders that they are a romantic couple when in reality they are complete strangers to each other. Of course, the two strangers get to know each other better as they spend copious amounts of time together in order to bolster the verisimilitude of their fake relationship and (inevitably) romantic sparks fly in reality. It’s another iteration of “Love Conquers All.”

In Winter’s Orbit the main characters are Kiem and Jainan. Kiem is a grandson of the Emperor and has the title of Prince. Jainan was married to Kiem’s cousin Taam, another Prince. The Jainan-Taam marriage also served the diplomatic purpose of uniting the two worlds of Iskaat and Thea, respectively. However, when Prince Taam is killed (which may or may not have been an accident) the Emperor asks (read: commands) Kiem to marry Jainan in order to maintain the appearance of good positive relations between Iskaat and Thea. This is important because the decennial review of the treaty that Iskaat has with a galactic superpower called The Resolution that provides interstellar communication, trade and travel is upcoming and political stability and domestic tranquility are factors the Resolution will consider during the treaty review process.

The emotional resonance of Winter's Orbit is primarily provided by the clash of personalities of the two main characters. Kiem is a fun-loving, n'e'r-do-well who was one of the more scandal-prone members of the extended royal family. Jainan is a very studious (he has an Engineering doctorate) foreigner to Iskat from Thea who takes duty and fidelity very seriously. They are both hunky but don't think the other will find them attractive. (Kiem because he thinks Jainan is too smart and serious, and Jainan because he knows from the celebrity  rags that Kiem has had LOTS of prior short-term relationships with others guys). Seeing the two reconcile with their arranged marriage and working through the misconceptions they have with each other and learning from (and getting over) their pasts is one of the central plots of the book.

Structurally, the author provides access to the inner thoughts of both primary characters (Kiem and Jainan), which primarily allows the reader to see what the two think about each other. That’s how we the reader knows that each of them is misinterpreting the words and (in)actions of the other. Because both Jainan and Kiem are essentially public figures, their marriage is first and foremost a diplomatic act, and is made available for public consumption. But of course this makes any private moments more fraught between the two.

In addition to the romantic plot, another key feature of the book is the political intrigue storyline. Both Kiem and Jainan represent their individual nations in their diplomatic and marital union, and they are pressured by representatives from their countrymen to demonstrate their loyalty in different ways. These political concerns play a role in what and how decisions are made, especially by the Emperor and the partisans from Thea and Iskaat.

One aspect of Winter’s Orbit that I really appreciated was the complete absence of homophobia. There’s never any stigma or questions about the fact that the royal marriage is between two men. This is extremely refreshing; it’s lovely to read a book where one’s existence and/or worldview as a gay man is not up for debate.

Overall, although I liked Winter’s Orbit and I enjoyed the same-sex romance storyline, as a space opera I was underwhelmed. In my opinion, the science fiction element of the book was under-developed. The good news is that even though the story in Winter’s Orbit is very self-contained, there are enough loose ends that a sequel would be reasonable. I would be interested in reading a sequel, which in some sense means that even though my overall reaction to Winter’s Orbit is muted, the book was a success since in the end I am open to reading more.

Title: Winter's Orbit.
Everina Maxwell.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published:  February  2, 2021.
Date Read: October 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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