‘Winter’s Orbit’ is a sci-fi romance advertised as ‘Red White and Royal Blue’ meets ‘Ancillary Justice’. It’s brilliantly written with adorable characters and intriguing, complex worldbuilding – but it’s also got a darker side, and I feel like readers should be aware this isn’t quite the fun, lighthearted read they might expect.
Every twenty years, the treaty between the seven planets of the Iskat Empire must be redrawn. As the deadline approaches, the unexpected death of Prince Taam – the husband of Count Jainan, a representative of Thea – threatens hostilities between Thea and Iskat, casting doubt over the treaty. To solve this, a marriage is hastily arranged between Jainan and Prince Kiem, a minor royal with a reputation as an irresponsible playboy. However, it quickly comes to light that Taam’s death was no mere accident – and Jainan is the prime suspect. With the treaty on the line, Kiem and Jainan must learn to trust one another and figure out the truth before the Empire comes crashing down around them.
Kiem is one of my absolute favourite characters. He’s a social butterfly, a man who loves a good party and an adrenaline rush – but he has a heart of gold, throwing his soul into charity work and trying to make everyone happy. He knows his reputation and wields it like a shield, taking the blame for everything so others can live their lives in peace. He’s not particularly smart, constantly missing obvious signs – especially about Jainan – but he’s a real people person with an exceptional ability to network. He’s also hilariously clumsy, which leads to some truly brilliant scenes whenever he attempts to do anything practical (I love the bear scene so much).
Jainan is initially a hard character to warm up to. He’s stiff, cold, and formal, and constantly falling over himself to apologise for every menial slight – but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s scarred beyond imagining. Many of Jainan’s scenes are very difficult to read. His thought patterns are exceptionally accurate of someone who’s suffered prolonged abuse, and the way it affects his self-worth and demeanour is heartbreaking. Jainan is the main reason why this isn’t the light-hearted romance that some publicity makes this book out to be – for anyone with sensitivities around domestic abuse, this makes a powerful but harrowing read.
The worldbuilding is incredibly complex, and even after finishing the book some aspects are hard to fully understand. The story primarily focuses on Iskat, a planet with a monarchy which controls a seven-planet empire – but there are allusions to other empires and organisations, and the overall hierarchy is hard to parse out. That being said, the worldbuilding is still exceptional. Iskat itself is beautifully portrayed, and the complex politics between the monarchy, the military, and the intelligence service are intricately described. Everything feels real and plausible. The futuristic technology is neatly slotted in, and overall there’s incredible potential for future books to expand on the universe.
The plot has several threads – the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainan, the mystery of Prince Taam’s murder, the politics of trying to organise the treaty – all of which slot together very neatly at the end. The complexity and scope means the start is very slow, with a good third of the book passing before things kick into gear – but it’s worth it to have a backdrop and understanding as the action ramps up. At times, it can be a challenge to keep track of each thread, but it’s worth it for how clever the denouement is. There are many twists and turns, and whilst by the end some things are obvious, others come completely out of the blue. Maxwell’s writing is clever with lots of red herrings, but also plenty of foreshadowing of the brutal climax.
Perhaps the most impressive part is how truly fifty-fifty this is a romance novel and a science fiction novel. The two threads compliment each other beautifully, neither detracting from the other, and primary readers of either genre will likely find something to enjoy.
Overall, this isn’t always a lighthearted read, with graphic mentions of domestic abuse and torture – but it’s an exceptional debut, so with prior warning it makes an enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing what Everina Maxwell does next.
Published by Orbit
Paperback: 4th February 2021