Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

The Course of Honour has been on my TBR pile for so long that it has been turned from fanfic into the published novel Winter’s Orbit. But despite the long wait and all the hype, it turned out to be not the story for me.

Count Jainan’s home planet of Thea is barely able to keep the Iskat Empire from taking over. So, when the Imperial Prince Jainan’s married to dies suddenly, he allows himself to be rushed into another arranged marriage with the prince’s cousin, Kiem, in order to preserve the alliance. Although Kiem doesn’t exactly take his duties as an Imperial Prince seriously and has a reputation as a bit of a playboy, he proves surprisingly helpful as Jainan starts to investigate the possible murder of his former husband.

This story had a lot of elements I enjoy. I’m a sucker for reserved/sunshine pairings. I also love a good slow-burn romance. And I am all here for political intrigue. But although it was an entertaining enough read, it ultimately left me feeling rather ambivalent.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly why. It may be that it was trying to do too much, because I found that neither the romance nor the science fiction elements were all that robust. There’s a lot of miscommunication between Jainan and Kiem. While there are some good reasons for that, it means that the physical aspects of their relationship jumped from no to go very quickly. (Readers concerned that some of the smuttier aspects of fanfic have made its way into the book should know that the sex scenes fade to black). Any intimacy between the characters is very limited, sandwiched between disasters. Which keeps up the pacing, but isn’t entirely satisfying as a romance.

As for the science fiction elements, aspects of the worldbuilding also felt shaky. There are passing references to God, despite it being unclear if this was in any way tied to our world, emphasising the flimsiness of the religious systems mentioned. But on a more grounded level, a large reptile makes an appearance in a snowy environment without any clue as to how a cold-blooded creature survives such a landscape (magic, I guess?). It’s supposed to serve as a joke (after all, bears are supposed to have four legs and fur), but just jolted me out of the narrative.

(Incidentally, for a while I was wondering if Iskat is meant to be Australia. Case in point: all the wildlife is constantly trying to kill the characters. But the presence of snow conclusively says not.)

That said, there were aspects of the worldbuilding I enjoyed. I’m always here for societies where gay relationships are normalised. The presence of nonbinary characters in this world was also normalised, although this could have used some work. The most prominent of the nonbinary characters (as well as one of the other minor nonbinary characters) was something of an antagonist in the narrative. It would have been good to have this balanced out with a few more nonbinary characters in more supportive roles.

Another thing I enjoyed was that there were lots of women in positions of power (including the Emperor and the Crown Prince). Often in stories that focus on gay relationships, the presence of women seems to disappear entirely. That definitely wasn’t the case in Winter’s Orbit. One of the stars of the show was Kiem’s assistant Bel, who proves herself a total badass on a number of axes (including administration, be still my beating heart). Word is that there’s set to be a companion novel and I have my fingers crossed that it will feature Bel.

This story should come with a content warning for intimate partner abuse. I am not the best person to judge, but it seemed to me to be handled reasonably well. There were times when I thought the good-with-people character should have picked up on it faster. But on the other hand, I think it’s realistic that people attribute the signs to other stories they already have about the victim. And the narrative also makes it clear that it was to certain others’ advantage for them to ignore those signs.

All in all, Winter’s Orbit was an entertaining enough read, but ultimately unmemorable.

Published: February 2021 by Tor Books
Format reviewed: E-book (mobi), 384 pages
Genres: Science fiction, romance
Source: NetGalley
Available: Abbey’s ~ Amazon (AU, CA, UK, US) ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Book Depository ~ Booktopia ~ Dymocks ~ Indiebound ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.