Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

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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.

There is truly nothing the restive embrace of a good story cannot fix.

I had the opportunity to read an early copy of Winter’s Orbit a few weeks ago, while caught in the dreary throes of finals and deadlines, and the story was like a rope thrown into a churning sea, mooring me to some semblance of sanity. Those moments when I would step outside myself, and step inside the story were the only moments my mind shut off its rigor, and everything in me settled like silt. I yearned for the escape I knew the story would bring, and for the space of a few hundred pages, I felt weightless, like all the trouble in the world had lifted from my shoulders.

Ironically, trouble finds our characters from the outset of the novel, and quickly begins to pile up like mountains on their shoulders.

The high concept of “a wayward, scandal-magnet prince and a staidly serious, duty-bound scholar are drafted into a political marriage and forced to work together in order to prevent an interplanetary war” tells you all you need to know about this book, but it only scratches the surface of the story’s unstinting delights.

Winter’s Orbit represents everything in the genre for which I have an unaffected fondness: an extraordinarily believable and imaginative world with varied forces forming a tremulous web of fraught coexistence, complicated political machinations, the racy, adventurous feel of a mystery left unsolved, deftly rendered characters that drive straight to your heart, and an ineffably tender romance that wraps around you like a thick wool robe—all woven through a superbly assured prose to create the kind of masterful storytelling that wells up to pull the reader into a unique and unforgettable experience. The novel is also, thrillingly, just as emotionally satisfying. Maxwell explores emotional wreckage with a keenness both terrifying and touching, making her way through the stripping rains and stinging winds of human emotion with the grim purpose of a ship battened against the storm.

(slight spoilers ahead)

Winter’s Orbit most painful and deeply wounded sections reside in Jainan’s chapters, and I wanted so desperately to reach through the page and hug him tightly. From the beginning, Jainan carried himself with the flinching weariness of a man who bore memories that required iron cages, kept still and quiet and captive lest they pounced and devoured him whole—and it sent a dreadful pang of foreboding lancing through my heart. It started with a whisper of wrongness: how timidly Jainan seemed to move through his life, always guarded, always careful, like he was waiting for a blow, how he carried his duty before him like a shield, how often he has to realign his whole world around an unexpected kindness, how he was both agonizingly aware of himself and shrinkingly self-effacing, how everything he thought and did often tended towards an all-pervasive self-loathing, and most chillingly: how those private, repeated mantras bore the echo of someone else’s voice.

The full picture soon begins to bloom like a stain across the paper: the full arc of Jainan’s traumatic relationship with his abusive ex-husband, who, for five years, had used his position as an imperial prince to etch the knowledge of powerlessness directly into Jainan’s heart, cutting all Jainan’s tethers—his family, his friends, his passions—and making sure Jainan had no ally but his abuser, which is to say, he had no ally at all.

Through Jainan’s character, the author plumbs the cavernous depths of domestic abuse, tracing the interwoven strands of shame, anger, guilt, and sometimes even grief, that cling to survivors as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock. It’s a devastating topic, and it hit me like the waves hit the shore, but Maxwell handles it with sensitivity, complexity, and so much care. Abuse, the novel hauntingly illustrates, carves a wound so deep and so hidden it often takes a very long time to find and address. It casts a vast, horrible shadow over your relationships, and leaves you unmoored, unsteady as a shadow, and it’s a very long time before you can feel like you have a firm grip on yourself, like all your tethers are drawn taut once again. There are so few literary accounts of domestic abuse in queer relationships (something I read a while ago still knocks around in me: “when your love is taboo, so are its violences.”) and I firmly believe that stories like Winter’s Orbit are crucial in expanding the scope of the queer experience.

Prince Kiem slid into my heart as easily as breathing from the very first chapter, and I couldn’t not love him. Kiem constructed his reputation as the evanescently charming, scandal-prone prince who leads an unfettered and feckless life and has no desire to exert himself one bit more than he absolutely had to in much the same way one might erect a brick façade, or drape armor around their body. One piece at a time. But soon we see Kiem with his defenses lowered, his shields abandoned on the ground, the barricades abraded; and standing in the shifting rubble, is someone so achingly familiar, someone whom you can’t help but feel an upswell of immediate protectiveness for.

Kiem is like springtime distilled into a person. He was gentle in his optimism, dogged in his pursuits, reassuring in his untroublesome, take-everything-in-stride attitude—and it’s what held the story together when the feeling of a precipice became too great. By his own admission, Kiem had not cared for the intricacies of war and politics, and had banished from his thoughts all of the Empire and its tumultuous affairs, but when the fog of complacency and ignorance lifted, forcing him to confront several uncomfortable truths, Kiem throws himself headlong into the perilous enterprise of unearthing the secrets lodged under the Empire’s skin, holding them into the light and calling for wrongs to be set aright. It was quite a remarkable feat of character-development for Kiem, but if there was a sport Kiem had trained for, it was self-deprecation. Kiem had refined it like a high art: he often acknowledged his triumphs with a self-effacing laugh, and a dismissive wave of the hand, as if distractedly swatting a fly. He accepted people’s unfavorable opinions of him, let them set and cut and fester, then slashed the wounds wide open, and pretended the howling pain didn’t even sting. But throughout the story, a fragile little sprout of confidence starts to grow in Kiem, and it warmed my heart to see it.

As for the romance between Kiem and Jainan, it was like a balm upon raw skin, and I long to slip inside the story once again and nestle into the warm cocoon of their happy, loving and healthy relationship. Jainan and Kiem could not be any more different— Kiem was loud and chaotic and drew all eyes like a flare, while Jainan was a world unto himself, intense and quiet and with a shadow’s talent for passing unremarked—but both of them kept an invisible barbed wire between them and the rest of the world. I loved how Kiem fell in love with Jainan in one swift motion, clear and unmistakable, and how he slowly eased open Jainan’s heart like a book, mindful of the places, still tender and aching, where the past had left its bruises. I loved how Jainan slowly learns to let go and trust that Kiem’s embrace would break his fall, and how he always stood by Kiem’s side. Throughout the story, Kiem and Jainan wrestle with a longing as sharp as swords, and something about their relationship felt as delicate as a sigh, something to cherish and cradle like an infant in your hands. It made my heart ache. They also make such perfect partners in crime—I enjoyed seeing them navigate the treacherous pathways of Empire with war’s breath hot at their necks, and I was left wondering how they, and everyone else, would find a home in the dangerous tumult of the newborn world they found themselves in.

All in all, Winter’s Orbit is a smart, tender, and deeply rewarding gem of space opera. I could have gladly spent twice as long with Jainan and Kiem, and still longed for more!

CWs: domestic abuse (in a prior relationship)

Thank you to Tor Books and NetGalley for providing me with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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