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Winter's Orbit

Review

Winter's Orbit

In Everina Maxwell’s WINTER’S ORBIT, a hastily arranged marriage appears to be the swiftest way for the Empire to maintain peace with its newest, most contentious vassal planet.

Prince Kiem is a minor royal and the Emperor’s most disappointing grandchild. Something of a raucous party boy with a scandalous reputation, he never has had to trouble himself much with Iskat’s politics and their involvement in the peace treaties --- until his distant cousin, Taam, dies in a freak flybug accident. Taam’s marriage to the Thean ambassador, Count Jainan, had been a cornerstone in the renewal of the treaty agreement with Thea, and Kiem is the most eligible royal for the duty. Jainan does seem to be all about duty.

Businesslike and apparently standoffish, Jainan commits to the marriage one month after being widowed. Kiem, hopelessly attracted to his new husband, only wants to make life as easy for him as possible. Despite their tenuous partnership, they’ll have to work together, as they discover not only that Taam’s death might not have been accidental, but that there may be a deeper plot at work --- one that could shake the Empire itself to its very core.

"The book feels primed for an adaptation; I’d love to watch interpretations of this galactic adventure play out on screen.... Exciting, cathartic and desperately romantic, WINTER’S ORBIT is a tenderly healing joy."

WINTER’S ORBIT is a tender romance propelled through a sprawling space opera. This is a husbands-to-friends-to-lovers romance, a slowburn that features a lot of pining-while-married, but it’s also about healing from abuse, and an emerging disillusionment with the very empire that’s given you everything you’ve ever known. Ultimately, it’s about two partners brought together by circumstance who fall in love by bringing out the best in each other, and falling for the complete versions of the other person. I appreciate that their relationship is never the central conflict --- that they get to fall in love while unearthing a political conspiracy and navigate the fallout together. The central conflict between them is miscommunication, but only because each thinks the other doesn’t want him. Kiem and Jainan hold each other’s hearts so carefully and tenderly, each finding himself unworthy of the other.

Kiem, who has never taken anything too seriously, will have to prove himself worthy…to himself. But Jainan’s internal journey is more complicated. It’s hardly a spoiler to mention that his previous relationship was an abusive one; it becomes heartbreakingly clear early on that his defensive, deferential behaviors are a trauma response. He also is eventually forced into an experience of outright mental manipulation. Other readers are, of course, entitled to their own perspectives on how Maxwell handles the storyline of abuse in this novel. Some may find it to be a plot device that is not given enough weight amid galactic politics and burgeoning mystery.

But to me, WINTER’S ORBIT explores the process of working one’s way out of internalized victim blaming with sensitivity. It shows the scope and depth of trauma: how it spirals, how it reshapes a person, how it affects everything they do, and how they manage themselves in other relationships. It also clearly expresses that survivors of domestic abuse are worthy of love. That letting love in after trauma is also a process, one that requires patience, kindness, and a partner who genuinely will adjust their behaviors to do whatever is needed to make you feel safe, seen and whole.

This novel is queer in the very fabric of its making, and it feels quite fitting for a space opera. Just as sovereignty is unfair and unsustainable in an interpersonal relationship, it is equally so within an interplanetary one. So Kiem, Jainan and their companions must find another way to pursue peace. I appreciate how Maxwell’s empire has varying gender traditions per planets, and how none of them use gender to assign role or power. The entire novel is queer-normative and trans-inclusive, and the side characters are compelling, especially Kiem’s royal aide Bel and a Thean student named Gairad. The book feels primed for an adaptation; I’d love to watch interpretations of this galactic adventure play out on screen.

On interpersonal and intergalactic levels alike, Jainan and Kiem’s past had been fraught with imbalance and cruelty. Together, they move toward a future of communication, care and hope. Exciting, cathartic and desperately romantic, WINTER’S ORBIT is a tenderly healing joy. I look forward to Maxwell’s next book.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on February 19, 2021

Winter's Orbit
by Everina Maxwell

  • Publication Date: February 2, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250758831
  • ISBN-13: 9781250758835