Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.
by Everina Maxwell
Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.
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.
This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.
So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.
I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.
This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.
But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.
I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.
But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good