Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.
But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.
Trigger Warning: abusive relationship, violence, murder, gaslighting, emotional trauma
Tor Books sent me an ARC via Netgalley. This does not change my opinion.
Everina Maxwell’s debut is a space delicacy of operatic and gay delights. It started out that way.
When Prince Taam dies, Prince Kiem is set to marry into a political marriage to the beautiful yet bashful Count Jainan. On the cold planet Iskat, with its snowy mountains and glittering ultramarine seas, Kiem and Jainan must solve its imperial treaty with Thea to access their link network.
When the emperor makes the final decision that Kiem is to marry Prince Taam’s widower, Count Jainan, Kiem is shocked by that pesky romantic thing called attraction. It’s the marriage ceremony that caught me. A prince spilling ink and stealing gazes over his new husband while trying to sign a contract is just so endearing. The way Maxwell slows down a scene is like a cameraman carefully zooming in just so lightly as to get the right emotion hit at the right time.
In Kiem, we find the puppy dog version of a space prince. He talks too much when he’s nervous and overthinks every little thing. He doesn’t know how to act around his beautiful new husband. Kiem misinterprets his new husband’s ‘shyness’ and ‘nervous’ behavior at every turn.
In the midst of attraction and romance, Kiem and Jainan must solve a mystery. They must restore the treaty but first they must sort out the culprits and corruption current in their surroundings. As the cards laid out before them start to make more sense, Kiem and Jainan iron out their personal relationship. Kiem has a hard time listening to Jainan’s body language. Kiem is one of those people that does not listen to when someone is having difficulty with their past. Eventually, he finds out just how much he did not listen, and continues to disregard his new husband’s space.
With dialogue as fresh as orange juice and the political atmosphere of Star Trek, Everina Maxwell’s abilities are magnificent. Or they could have been.
The miscommunication trope is hinged upon Kiem misunderstanding Jainan and his behavior. I love the miscommunication trope for being such a relatable addition. But with all tropes, it depends on what is being said or misinterpreted. If, for example, that author interprets an abuse victim’s trauma as an easy thing to misunderstand than I’m not a happy camper. This is where we have to have a conversation on how an author perpetuates stereotypes about abuse. Everina Maxwell makes me torn between loving and hating this book. It’s just such a fun read and yet I felt like I was being flung into all the old and overused tropes about abuse. I am between that place of being a fantasy romance reader and an abuse victim. I love the yearning in between two characters with the backdrop of a breathtaking secondary world. Transforming awkwardness into a story of abuse is an underhanded tactic. It is an easy way to build up drama.
Writing abuse takes expertise and sensitivity. If not done well, it seriously lacks the nuance of real people’s lives that have been impacted by this. Abuse victims have a hard time wanting to publicly address our trauma. Talking to a therapist is difficult but having the world know is something that invites panic attacks, shock, and even more traumatic experiences. It is irregular to see a character do this, not only that but it is insulting that the abuse victim is doing more work than their partner. To even consider such a public display requires a massive amount of work. This type of trauma transforms your mind and nervous system. In order for Maxwell to deserve this storyline she needed to not only put Jainan and Kiem’s relationship on hold but do some emotional work with her characters. Trauma is not fixed with a bandaid.
Just to clarify, I am a romance reader in addition to a science fiction & fantasy reader. I love romances that feature trauma victims fighting for their right to deserve healthy love. But, I don’t see that in Winter’s Orbit. It is on the sidelines and unrecognizable to the reader. Trauma is never well written when it is done so with a bandaid.
Maxwell could have added abuse in her novel but she needed to understand how to depict abuse before throwing a love interest that cannot comprehend why his partner would take such abuse and deliberately disrespect an abuse victim’s space. Narrative perspective allows us to understand the failings and bias of the characters. This book proposes a large backstory of mental health and fails to actually pull through on that promise.
I am deeply disturbed by how much I loved the rest of the novel versus the trauma, something that effectively lifts the entire book up. The characters and perspective fail to analyze the characters faults. Ultimately this is the part that destroys everything else of worth in Winter’s Orbit.
Winter’s Orbit takes off beautifully but crash lands with a poorly executed story of trauma and abuse, unfortunately taking the whole book down. Ultimately Everina Maxwell’s debut is overwhelmed by such a heavy subject matter, leading to a book lacking in nuance and any possiblity of a well written romance. I do look forward to what else Maxwell has in store in the future but this one is a disappointment.