Title: Winter’s Orbit
Author: Everina Maxwell
Genre: Science Fiction
Kiem is a prince of Iskat, so far down the line of succession that his most important jobs are appearing at charity events and keeping out of trouble – not necessarily in this order.
Jainan is a count of Thea, previously married to prince Taam and recently widowed, and he needs to tie a new connection to the crown quickly in order to sedate the unrest on his own planet and secure the alliance with Iskat.
But when it comes to light that Taam’s death might not have been an accident, the newly married couple has to join forces to face the imperial court, a possible murder, and their growing feelings for one another.
A closer look
You know a book really gripped you when you go back to check your notes to write a review and realise you only jotted down the protagonists’ names. This will be interesting.
Let’s start from the plot.
Kiem is a prince of Iskat, the planet/empire in charge of a small group of planets in a corner of the universe. His grandmother, the emperor, has called on him to fulfil one of the duties of a minor prince: to marry for political reasons and for the empire’s best interest.
Not only Kiem does not like the idea of getting married at such short notice, but the bridegroom is none other than count Jainan, recently widowed partner of one of Kiem’s cousins. The emperor ignores his complaints and explains the situation to him: the big heads of the universe are coming to renew a peace contract that keeps their corner of the universe safe from attackers, and in order for the treaty to be renewed, they have to show a united front with representatives of every planet.
Thea, Jainan’s planet, it’s starting to chafe under the empire’s rule, so now more than ever it’s vital that their representative has a strong tie to the imperial family – a marriage. Being unable to renew the treaty might mean war for everyone.
The wedding takes place and Kiem and Jainan found themselves bound for life even though they barely know each other. Their interactions are tentative in the beginning, while they are still trying to take the measure of one another. But when some files hint that Taam’s death might not have been entirely accidental after all, they start putting their mistrust apart and work together to discover the truth.
The plot revolves both around the protagonists’ evolving relationship and the secrets behind Taam’s death. I think the relationship part was a bit more explored than the other one, but that might be because I had an interest in the characters getting together and I paid closer attention to it. If you like a slow burn romance, this book might be for you.
I appreciated that, even though an open conversation could have helped things along, the character’s misunderstandings had reasons to exist and were not just excuses to keep them apart. Kiem is convinced that Jainan is still grieving, and so he feels that revealing his attraction to him might force Jainan to respond purely out of his sense of duty. On the other hand, Jainan’s previous relationship was not as idyllic as it looked from the outside, and that has made him afraid of opening up and sharing his ideas and opinions.
This situation goes on for a bit more than half of the novel, but while the purely romantic side of the relationship suffers, we see how they learn about each other while working on the mystery behind Taam’s death. Kiem slowly uncovers all the unfairness Jainan went through in the past, and his support is what helps Jainan to regain his confidence a little at a time. I loved how they grow to know each other in little steps, almost without realising it. They are both soft characters, but for different reasons; and while in the beginning the relationship felt a bit unbalanced, it really evolved throughout the story as they came to wholly trust and appreciate each other.
The part of the plot that revolves around Taam’s accident is also interesting, and even though it propels the character to action, I still feel like it fell to the background a few times. Not that I mind; after the last book I read, I was looking for something lighter and a bit of romance, if well done, always manages to pick me up.
The differences in the protagonists’ characters are even more in contrast during their investigation: Kiem relies on winning over people with his charisma and his cheekiness, while Jainan is way more comfortable behind a screen, making full use of his knowledge of machines and technology.
It was not easy to guess what was going on with Taam’s before his death and who was responsible for it; I feel like his story in particular would have benefited from a little more worlbuilding, but it was still interesting and there were times when I suspected half the cast of characters.
Well. I never said I was good at mysteries, so maybe take that with a grain of salt; all I can say is, it worked for me.
Speaking about technology, the world-building was done with just the right amount of details: enough to paint a vivid picture of the world and make it feel a bit alien, but not to the point of overtaking the story or becoming confusing.
I would have loved to have a little more insight on some of the less-mentioned planets and cultures, and a better explanation of what the relics are and what they are capable of, but all in all it was a satisfying experience.
So was this a perfect read? Well, no, but few things are, and I’ve started to think that perfection is overrated. If you’re looking for hard sci-fi fiction, this might spend a bit too long on the romance for you. It was a quick, interesting, and at times touching story, and in my opinion a very strong debut novel. Personally, I will be keeping an eye out for whatever this author writes next.