The Upshot: An emotional romance butts heads with a dull, occasionally baffling conspiracy plot in this uneven but ultimately rewarding space opera.
Winter's Orbit, by Everina Maxwell Published February 2nd, 2021, by Tor Books 431 pages (Kindle Edition) Finished Reading April 1st, 2021
Kiem, troublemaker prince of Iskat, is compelled by the Emperor to enter into a political alliance with Jainan, the reserved prince of Thea. This interplanetary alliance is vital to preserve the complex treaties that maintain balance in the system. There’s just one problem: Jainan is a widower whose Iskat husband, Taam, just died in a freak accident. Navigating this complex situation, along with their own growing feelings for one another, is one thing; it becomes even more difficult when they discover Taam’s death may not have been an accident after all…
Winter’s Orbit is a sci-fi romance where one half of that equation works substantially better than the other. To put it bluntly, I found the intricate conspiracy at the heart of Taam’s death to be occasionally baffling and mostly boring; it all coheres in the end, but stretches of this are a slog. The worldbuilding feels thin, and the more I think about how the plot was developed the messier it seems.
Here’s the kicker, though: I still heartily recommend Winter’s Orbit, mostly for the outstanding romance at its center. It’s not a spoiler to say that Kiem and Jainan develop feelings for one another, and that the sequences where they’re falling in love, getting close, and clumsily fumbling their way through expressing their feelings are the best. The plot felt tiresome to me precisely because it just doesn’t feel as compelling at the relationship between Jainan and Kiem.
Telling you what makes their relationship so compelling would tip us a bit into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that Jainan’s chapters, in particular, are hugely affecting, emotional and cathartic and heart-breaking in equal measure. The journey that Jainan goes on is handled so delicately and with such finesse that I got emotional multiple times while reading. And there’s one moment that made me full-on ugly cry in a way that very, very few books ever have.
Other characters are intriguing and fun – I grew particularly fond of Bel (Kiem’s … assistant feels way too limiting for all that Bel does and is) and Gairad (an old acquaintance of Jainan’s).I was gratified to see both of them play prominent roles in the climax.
Obviously, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, the politics and the conspiracy end up feeling like window dressing. In fact, the best sequence in the book strands Kiem and Jainan in a situation where they just straight-up can’t engage with all that stuff, and it’s great. On the other hand, I found the romance genuinely affecting, and in particular found Jainan’s journey to be emotional in all the right ways. I felt so many emotions while reading about his journey, everything from intense sadness to anger to catharsis. In some respects, I think it’s because I was so invested in the romance that I didn’t care for the politics, which felt like a distraction.
So yes, I recommend Winter’s Orbit. Imperfections aside, it’s a thrilling book that will make you feel all the things. And who knows, you may enjoy the political and conspiracy elements more than I did.
One final thing: I don’t usually do content warnings (in part because I don’t feel qualified to do so, I’ll leave that to folks who are better-informed than me), but in this case, assuming you’re okay with some light spoilers, you might want to take a look at Everina Maxwell’s content warnings for the book.
Next Time: Firebreak, by Nicole Kornher-Stace [Advance Book Review]