Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit is a romantic sci-fi novel and the premier work of the author. It is, for the moment, standalone, and a well paced, narratively satisfying volume. The setting features a combination of interplanetary travel and detailed political marriages, resulting in a combination reminiscent of great classics such as Dune. Fortunately Frank Herbert’s homophobia doesn’t leak into Maxwell’s work, and the volume feels fresh and interesting throughout.
The first of our leads is Kiem, a prince of the royal family of Iskat. Mostly an irresponsible type, he finds himself summoned to a meeting with the Emperor in which she explains that he is to enter into an almost immediate arranged marriage with a Count Jainan of Thea, a subject but unstable planetary system.
Jainan is the second of the leads, and an exceptionally intelligent man who seems very timid and hesitant in all of his interactions early on. He has a focus on duty, yet seems exceptionally concerned as to the possibility of displeasing anyone. The power imbalance between kingdoms is a clear part of it; however, the chances seem slim that there would be no other reason.
The initial interactions between our two leads are interesting, and while the idea a romance might bloom would hardly surprise anyone, it is handled with a great deal of delicacy. Kiem wants to make his new partner comfortable, and while he is attracted to Jainan he does his best to avoid anything physical. This is both out if a desire not to have relations for reasons of duty as well as an assumption that Jainan would be in mourning for his previous partner, a cousin of Kiem’s who is only about a month dead.
There is a great deal of fascinating world building even in the earliest pages, with terms like Prince and Emperor clearly being gender neutral yet extremely familiar, as well as explanations of the interplanetary political situation and the difficult timetables. The decision to make one of the leads, Kiem, particularly clueless about the politics makes it far easier to dump information the reader needs into conversation. Several different figures explain such matters to him and others, in a way that feels impressively natural.
A number of mysteries quickly build, elements of a political thriller stacking swiftly into place. The two leads initially have difficulty learning to trust each other, and even more problems determining who they can trust out of those who offer them aid in untangling the layers of intrigue and corruption they face. Friends such as Kiem’s assistant Bri seem utterly trustworthy at first glace, while the Emperor is far busier making it clear she will do anything she believes will protect her treaty with an outside power.
There comes a moment that is quite interesting from the point of view of modern sexual assault and domestic partner issues. A character is accused of being a domestic abuser, and is very understanding about the situation to those who wish to cut ties. Indeed, perhaps appropriately one of the main features of this is the explanation given by the perceived victim, as to the actual situation. The political situation between two regions makes this somewhat understandable, and the overall writing of the situation is handled remarkably well.
Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit is a brilliant piece of writing. It features a well thought out world, compelling characters, and enjoyable romance, all fitted surprisingly comfortably into less than 450 pages. It is highly recommended, and Everina Maxwell is an author to watch out for; this first novel is a good running start.