OK, so Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit had a lot to live up to, as it was sold to me as ‘Red, White and Royal Blue meets Ancillary Justice’. DID IT DELIVER? Yes, although it leant hard on the Red, White and Royal Blue part of that equation – I’d have gone for ‘Red, White and Royal Blue set in space’ if I was publishing this. Indeed, Maxwell’s space opera is so SF-lite that it occurred to me that it would have worked just as well if she’d gone for a fantasy setting. Don’t expect Ann Leckie’s fascinating world-building here – though it has much to offer in its own right.
Winter’s Orbit kicks off when dilettante Prince Kiam of the Iskat Empire is instructed to enter into an arranged marriage with Jainan, whose previous husband Taam was recently killed in an accident. The match is diplomatically significant because Jainan is an ambassador from vassal planet Thea, and Iskat is due for an inspection from the mysterious figure of the Auditor, during which they have to prove that their alliances with all their vassal planets are sound. And although Kiam comes off as a political lightweight, he is determined to do his duty and horrified that Jainan is being forced into marriage so soon after the death of his previous husband. Jainan, meanwhile, appears to Kiam to be very serious, scholarly and grief-stricken, but having experienced serious abuse from Taam, he’s actually desperate to please Kiam and keep his mouth shut. The growing feelings between the two men are at the centre of this novel, and Maxwell pulls this familiar romance trope off beautifully. For once, it actually makes sense that their wires get so crossed – there’s no reliance on the annoying kind of miscommunications that I hate in romance. And although Kiam and Jainan are positioned as opposites, they have much in common, which makes them more complex than an Opposites Attract cookie-cutter plot – they’re both intelligent, fast-thinking, and deeply considerate of others’ emotions.
Reviewers have disagreed about how far this is ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ or whether the science fiction takes centre stage, and I suspect your opinion on this will depend on your own relationship with SF. Maxwell whips up a decent political intrigue plot but the book certainly seems to have been structured around the romance rather than the politics. As someone who reads a lot more SF than romance, though, I guess why this felt so SF-lite to me wasn’t the focus on romance but the lack of any really interesting ideas to explore. (Maxwell tells us roughly a thousand times that people in Iskat signal their gender identity via the jewellry they wear, and that’s about as far as the ideas in this novel go.) This wasn’t a problem for me, on the whole, because this was such a lovely character-led novel. However, the book made a lot more sense when I found out in the author’s note that it was originally published as serialised fiction on A03. Although this is original fiction, there’s definitely a serialised ‘fanfic’ feel to it, especially in the fanservicey final chapters. The writing also feels pretty uneven between the first and second half of the novel – a lot of awkward info-dumping and repetition simply vanishes later on, as if Maxwell wrote the second half of the book more smoothly and coherently and the first half in smaller bits. I’m really interested to read her new novel, Ocean’s Echo, which I assume wasn’t written in installments – I’d hope it would be even better.
There are all sorts of holes that you could pick in Winter’s Orbit, but I found it a fun and joyful read that also deals quite seriously with emotional trauma. One I’d recommend to fans of Becky Chambers as well as the aforementioned R,W&RB.
If you’re a SF reader, what makes a book ‘primarily SF’ for you? If you’re a romance reader, would you ever pick up a romance with a SF setting? And if you’ve read Ocean’s Echo, how does it compare to Winter’s Orbit?
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