While overall hopeful and happy, this book deals pretty heavily with the fallout from emotional and physical abuse. I found it to be handled well and not graphically detailed when described, but this theme is not something I would have picked up from the blurb so readers should be prepared.
Bitchery, I feel personally attacked by how good Winter’s Orbit was. I feel that this book could only be the result of someone, somewhere, telepathically spying on me and then tailoring a book directly to my personal interests. I mean, this is a bona fide queer science fiction slow-burn romance with an arranged political marriage, interplanetary political intrigues, a murder mystery, and a creepy and mystical intergalactic bureaucracy that must be placated. This book manages to twine a lot of plot threads together into one coherent, thematically consistent whole as well as providing a love story with a beautiful focus on mutual emotional healing and growth.
The setting of this book is an interplanetary empire, the Iskat empire. The planet of Iskan V rules over several vassal planets, and imperial marriages are used to cement ties between Iskan V and the vassals. The book opens with somewhat feckless Iskat Prince Kiem being told by his grandmother, the Emperor, that he needs to marry his cousin’s very recent widower, Count Jainan of Thea, literally tomorrow to maintain the interplanetary alliance/vassalage relationship. (One interesting thing to note about the world-building here: all honorific titles are gender-neutral. More on the gender system of this world later!)
While Prince Kiem balks at the haste with which a newly bereaved person is going to be rushed into another political marriage, it has to happen quickly so that the empire’s agreements with an enormous intergalactic space bureaucracy called The Resolution can be renewed. The Resolution basically protects the relatively small Iskat space empire from being conquered by the much larger and more advanced space empires in different galaxies. I found it kind of fun that while the stakes in this book were very high for the planets of the Iskat empire, it’s also clear that within the broader scheme of the Resolution, Iskan V and its vassal planets are considered a small-potatoes backwater. A backwater interplanetary empire! Love it.
The narration alternates between Kiem and Jainan’s perspectives in classic romance-novel fashion. Even though each person thinks the other person is quite cute and does not completely hate the idea of the union, the marriage gets off to a pretty awkward start. In also classic romance novel fashion, this is mostly because of a series of misunderstandings. Kiem is quite cognizant of imposing himself on Jainan, and Jainan interprets this as Kiem finding him lacking, which makes him further withdraw from Kiem, which makes Kiem more conscious of respecting Jainan’s boundaries. These (incredibly respectful but unfortunately misguided) misunderstandings pile on until they are each convinced that the other person is REPULSED by them while also having a secret pining crush on them. If you like pining, Winter’s Orbit has you covered.
This delicious sense of smothered yet intense attraction between the two principals is clear from the get-go. The first time Kiem meets Jainan in person, he thinks:
Kiem had the photo in his head, but it was still a shock to see that grave stare right in front of him. Jainan’s dark eyes gave a hidden spark of electricity to an expression that was otherwise entirely proper.
Shock me with your hidden eye-sparks anytime, Jainan!!
I loved both of these characters, separately and together. Kiem had a wild, party-boy phase in his late teens and early twenties after the death of his father (#coping) but has more recently tried to do positive things with his social skills and royal wealth, like engage in charity work. He sort of buys into the myth that he’s a little bit not-smart and not good for much, when he’s actually an incredibly savvy person who can read and understand most people immediately (except Jainan, womp womp). He is also a legitimately good, kind, accepting person who does not seem to realize how rare these qualities are in the elite milieu he is in. His personal journey is about realizing that he’s not a total f*ck-up/embarrassment to the royal family and that he can use his skills (and innate personal goodness) in BIG ways, not just smaller-scale ways.
And Jainan. Oh, Jainan. My sweet, serious, scholarly little cinnamon roll baby who does not believe he is worthy of love and must be protected at all costs. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes spoilers here, because to me it was clear almost immediately what was going on with Jainan. But since it’s not explicitly laid out until far later in the book, I’ll tag it:
Jainan’s deceased husband, Prince Taam, was an abusive partner. The specific extent of the abuse is revealed slowly throughout the book, but the way Jainan acts and thinks from early chapters made it crystal-clear to me that Taam was controlling and cruel.
For example, Jainan is terrified that if he disappoints Kiem in any way he will be punished somehow, and basically all of his self-talk is negative in a way that is common among people who have received consistent verbal abuse from a family member/partner. On a certain level, he thinks it’s his own fault that he was abused, and he’s determined to hide the abuse from Kiem at all costs as he thinks it means he is defective. While everything resolves happily, it’s really, really heartbreaking to see Jainan trying to figure out how to respond to someone who genuinely only wants to have a healthy, supportive, mutually fulfilling relationship, and how confused Jainan and Kiem make each other in the process.
One thing I loved is that while Kiem does of course ultimately find out the truth and he wants to be supportive, he can’t (and doesn’t) “fix” things for Jainan. Jainan has to do that for himself, by realizing that he is a worthy, lovable person. This personal journey for Jainan, while painful to read about, was my favorite part of the book. I think Winter’s Orbit does a great job showing a message that I think is core to romance as a genre: love can’t save you, but it can be a catalyst to get you to save yourself.
The only (slight) critique of the romance that I have is that I think the pacing is ever so slightly off. Kiem and Jainan spend the first half of the book becoming both more baffled by and more attracted to each other. It starts to feel increasingly unlikely that they will EVER find a way to bridge the widening gap between them. Because of this, once they do have an honest conversation about their feelings, the quick transition from “oh we actually do like each other” to “lets have sex” feels a little abrupt for me. Since there is so much awkwardness leading up to the feelings confession, I wanted to see the relationship spend a little more time in that space of “we know we’re into each other, but we are still kind of feeling everything out together.” I still found the overall romance arc very satisfying; I just wanted it to have a little bit more room to breathe and grow slowly in the middle part of the book.
While I do think the romance is the central plot, a substantial portion of the story concerns court and military political intrigue. Jainan believes Taam may have been murdered, and Kiem and Jainan’s moderately clumsy attempts to investigate get them embroiled in all kinds of plots and counter-plots. Meanwhile, The Resolution’s representative, a mysterious figure called the Auditor, is putting up obstacles to the renewal of the Resolution treaty in a pleasingly obscure, procedural manner befitting a mid-level intergalactic space bureaucrat. The courtly intrigue aspect was sufficiently twisty and fun to keep me engaged and highly entertained. A lot of intersecting people and concerns are deftly handled in the story and come together without feeling confusing or messy.
In addition to the romance and the political plot, which I loved, Winter’s Orbit has a few other strengths I want to highlight. The secondary characters are delightful, especially Kiem’s aide, Bel, who is scarily competent and dryly humorous. I hope she gets her own book!
There’s also a lot of humor in this book that lightens up some of the heavier emotional content. For example, one the first page, when Kiem meets with his stern and foreboding grandmother:
The warm rays that lit the wrinkled Imperial countenance should have softened it, but even the sunlight had given that up as a bad job.
Finally, Winter’s Orbit does a great job conveying how mystical any technology is to people who don’t understand it. The Resolution’s technology is strange and terrifying to the people of the Iskan empire, and the Auditor comes across like nothing so much as an implacable, eldritch angel. I love science fiction with some element of mysticism entwined with all the super science-y stuff, so this was delightful to me. Here we meet the Auditor:
The most startling thing was the shell of illumination that cut off his eyes and most of his face. It wrapped around his forehead and eyes like armor, a color that Jainan’s visual receptors refused to parse. Jainan thought he could see human features through it but couldn’t quite make them out; he felt nauseous when he looked at it.
I am here for this freaky light-helmet action.
I do have one world-building note here that I found to be both a strength and a source of some consternation for me at the same time. On Iskan V, individuals indicate their gender via their choice of personal adornment (e.g. earrings/hair clips/bracelets/etc): wooden for man, flint for woman, glass for nonbinary. Thea seems to have its own gender-indicating system involving scarf tying, but it is basically the same in that it uses a system to “flag” one of three genders.
While I was quite intrigued by this and I appreciated seeing a gender system different than the typical Western gender schema that is often reproduced more or less without alteration in sci-fi, I did wish it was further explored. There seemed to be nothing else to this gender system other than the ability to self-ID into one of three categories, which struck me as strange, because no gender system has categories and nothing else. What I mean is, even in a three-gender system based entirely on self-ID, it seems as though there would be norms of some kind associated with each of the three genders for dress or behavior or something and this seems absent. It almost feels like the reader is left to just mentally substitute in whatever norms about men, women, and nonbinary people they are familiar with, which somewhat undercuts the attempt to do something different with gender here.
Second, and in my opinion even more important, all gender systems have within them people who do not conform to the system, no matter what it is. This is absent from Winter’s Orbit. I wonder why we never see any character who wears multiple different gender-signifying adornments, or switches them up from day to day. Granted, I am probably thinking way harder about this than most readers because I am both a nonbinary/genderqueer person and my master’s thesis was literally about how gender is theorized, but I think underneath that is a legitimate, though small, hole in the world-building. I guess TL;DR on this is that I was psyched that there was nonbinary representation and a world with no stigma associated with being nonbinary in this world (yay!) but from a craft perspective I like to see these kinds of worldbuilding schema completely built out with the implications fully explored.
Taking into account my minor nitpicks around pacing and worldbuilding, this was still an amazing book. I think it managed to take on a lot both in terms of the sheer amount of plot and the emotional weight of the content, while still creating a fun, gripping reading experience. I loved the characters, the intrigues, the humor, and most of all, the romance. Honestly, if I could join any fictional couple to make a throuple, it would probably be Kiem and Jainan. If you enjoy sci-fi, arranged marriage/marriage of convenience stories, courtly intrigues, and/or slow-burn romance, I think Winter’s Orbit is a great choice.