Book Review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (February 2, 2021)
Length: 432 pages
Well, this wasn’t awesome, but it was still pretty good! If you are looking for a fun and engaging sci-fi read that goes down easy, like a big bucket of buttery popcorn, then Winter’s Orbit might just fit the bill. That said, managing expectations is sort of critical with this one, as is being aware of its origins on Archive of Our Own, the open-source fanfiction website. For while you can take the book out of AO3, you can’t always take the AO3 out of the book, and this is a story where its fanfic roots are plain to see.
The main focus of Winter’s Orbit is on two princes, Kiem and Jainan, who must enter into an arranged political marriage in order to quell the hostilities rising within a beleaguered galactic empire. As the novel opens, an important peace treaty called the Resolution is in jeopardy when Prince Taam of Iskat suddenly dies, prompting swift action by the emperor to mend the broken alliance with the planet Thea, home of Taam’s widower Jainan. As a last resort, Taam’s flighty and disreputable playboy cousin Kiem is called upon to wed Jainan, so that the allegiance of the Theans is ensured and amiable relations between their two sides can continue.
Thrown together by duty and circumstance, our two protagonists try to make the best of the situation, understanding the importance of their roles in maintaining peace. However, as new evidence comes to light suggesting that Prince Taam’s death was no accident, and that Jainan himself might have been involved, the alliance between Iskat and Thea becomes threatened once again, leading the empire down a path of war. With the fate of worlds hanging in the balance, Kiem and Jainan must come to terms with their feelings for each other and learn to trust one another despite their differences, for only then can they begin working towards solving a murder and eventually uncover the greater mystery at hand.
So, let’s just get the negatives out of the way first. I’m going to preface this by saying there’s legitimately good fanfiction out there, speaking as someone who has enjoyed reading her fair share of them over the years. That’s also how I know there’s a bunch of silly tropes—tropes that might be perfectly fine if you’re bored and looking for a bit of escapism with some of your favorite characters based in some of your favorite worlds, but are admittedly not so ideal when you’re picking up a novel with the expectation for more pretext. My main issue was that, even from the very start, every major plot point in Winter’s Orbit has already been telegraphed, and so for the entirety of its four hundred plus pages, I chafed with sensation that we were simply going with the motions and witnessing theater. As a result, the intrigue and action elements were lackluster, mostly because I already knew everything that was going to happen, not to mention the romance itself was pretty shallow, permeated with manufactured conflict.
That said, I enjoyed the two central characters, for all that they were your standard cardboard cutouts playing predictable roles. Kiem reminds me of a big, adorable puppy, always bounding around getting into trouble because he’s a clueless, awkward, and larger-than-life goofball, and yet his heart of gold and his capacity to love is just so strong, you can’t help but find him endearing. Playing on the “opposites attract” theme, Jainan is far on the other side of the spectrum—quiet, introspective, and more prone to take a step back in any situation to analyze before acting. Again, it all just feels so put-on and fabricated as an excuse to inject unnecessary drama or create conditions rife for misunderstanding and miscommunication, though to be fair, I know plenty of other traditionally published romances that also utilize these very same tropes, for the very fact that they are entertaining, cute, and comfortably familiar.
Incidentally, those are also the words I would use to describe Winter’s Orbit. It’s science fiction lite, but while world-building may be on the sparser side, the story itself super easy to get into, and the good news is you won’t need multiple spreadsheets and character charts to follow along with the political machinations and intrigue. I also liked how the romance featured prominently but wasn’t overbearing or too distracting from the overall plot. Will this be the most original or inspiring novel you read this year? Probably not. But it certainly comes packaged with all the ingredients of mass appeal, which means readers looking for a fun, casual sci-fi read with a good balance of story elements will find plenty of enjoyment.