Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell, surprised me in a lot of ways. For starters, it is one of our Dark Horses for 2021, so I knew almost nothing about it other than its plot synopsis. Then there is the fact that I wasn’t particularly sure I would like Winter’s Orbit given its stated plot. It contains a lot of story elements I don’t particularly gravitate towards (romance, trauma, and arranged marriage to name a few), but I am also not adverse to. But when I dug in I found myself reading a book about characters that anyone can relate to, a story that is as clever as it is entertaining, and a novel that is likely going to be one of the strongest debuts of the year.
I would describe Winter’s Orbit as a romance first, science fiction political thriller second. The book follows two male protagonists, Kiem and Jainan – who are obviously going to fall in love. If you think this is a spoiler, I don’t know how to help you. The set up for their awkward relationship is a politically arranged marriage to save the Iskat Empire. The Iskat Empire has long dominated their system through treaties and political alliances – but is trying to pass a sort of galactic inspection in order to maintain their place on a larger scale. Part of this inspection involves Iskat proving that it is treating its vassal planets well and that people are happy. So when an unfortunate tragedy befalls Kiem’s cousin, Taam, and disrupts a high profile marriage between an Iskat prince and a Thean consort, there is a sudden rush to smooth things over and make it look like there aren’t any skeletons in the closet. Enter Kiem, a charismatic sop who has never done anything of any importance for his imperial family and has always been unimportant. He finds himself suddenly married to his cousin’s widow, Jainan, with instruction to just make it look like things are going well until the galactic auditor leaves. But, as Kiem and Jainan attempt to navigate their uniquely awkward situation they begin to suspect that Taam’s death may not have been an accident and try to sift through the political morass for the truth.
One of the things I really like about Winter’s Orbit is its approach to romance. The focus is on the sweet and heartfelt parts of love – not the passionate lusty parts – though there is a presence of both. The story felt akin to an origin story of two best friends who are into each other sexually rather than some torrid affair that is supposed to get the reader hot and bothered. As someone who doesn’t like too much sex in his stories, this greatly appealed to me. I don’t care much for on-page boinking, but I do love affection and friendship. Orbit does a remarkable job showing what I think are the best parts of the relationship – those first moments you are getting to know someone and starting to feel that there is wonderful chemistry.
Speaking of chemistry, Kiem and Jainan are lovely. Kiem is boisterous, loud, charismatic, messy, and warm. Jainan is patient, tenacious, kind, quiet, calculating, and cerebral. They both are such interesting characters that don’t feel quite matched for one another, but Maxwell slowly maps out their powerful bond over the course of the book. The supporting cast is also fun, but most of our time is spent solely with the two lovebirds. The plot of the book has nice political elements that will keep you entertained – but the true appeal is definitely the romance. What is particularly impressive is how Maxwell parcels out and gifts the reader little pieces of Kiem and Jainan’s backstories while keeping you in the dark as to what exactly is going on. There is some very nice and subtle exploration of past trauma and relationship baggage that was extremely well handled and got me to sit back and just bask in how clever the writing was.
There was only one issue I ended up having with Winter’s Orbit is that it ends up having noticeably unbalanced POVs. For the first quarter of the book, there is this fun back and forth between the two leads as they assess and start to feel each other out. It’s very satisfying to hear both internal monologues back to back like a secret conversation that only the reader is hearing. But as the book progresses one POV (which will remain unnamed) starts to dominate the storytelling because of the needs of the narrative, and while it was still great, I definitely missed that powerful back and forth from the start of the book.
I was wildly impressed with Winter’s Orbit across the board: as a debut, as a romance, and as a strong contender for one of the best books of 2021. The characters are relatable and complex, the romance is different and compelling, and the world and politics are imaginative and fun. Cast aside any hesitation you have about this romantic story and give it a spin. I guarantee you will find yourself over a moon with joy.
Rating: Winter’s Orbit – 9.0/10