Prince Kiem and Count Jainan have been tasked with a vital political project by the Emperor: to marry one another. Cementing the union between the Iskat Empire and its vassal planet Thea has become more pressing by the day. Not only is the Resolution judging the worthiness of their coalition, but the former imperial representative to Thea—Taam, Jainan’s late partner—appears to have been murdered. With protests breaking out on his home planet and a spouse to mourn, the last thing Jainan needs is to become a murder suspect. He knows his role as a political pawn well. And marrying the charming and handsome Kiem is sure to fix the emerging cracks in his—and the empire’s—foundation.
Queer romance, space opera, and political intrigue combine in Everina Maxwell’s 2021 novel, Winter’s Orbit for an immersive and sparkling adventure. Whether you’re here for the Star Trek fanfic vibes or the clever worldbuilding, Maxwell is sure to deliver—but it’s the combination of the two that makes Winter’s Orbit such a delight.
The novel follows the charismatic Kiem and taciturn Jainan as they struggle with typical newlywed worries: forestalling war, uncovering treachery and treason, and withstanding mind control technology among them. To survive and to understand the nefarious forces at play, they must learn to trust one another in spite of the awkwardness and death (and, of course, unspoken attraction) between them. Kiem is sure that Jainan’s detachment is inspired by grief, but as they bring to light more and more of his late partner’s crimes, it becomes obvious that more is at play. And as they both become more deeply entangled in the political threads connecting their planets, they are forced to reckon with the vastness of universes both internal and external.
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The romance at the center of Winter’s Orbit is immensely tender and sweet, even with the pressing tension of politics and abuse. Kiem and Jainan are thrown together by outside forces, but work their way into love with such generosity and warmth. The various tropes of romantic misunderstanding hurt in all the right ways (including the evergreen “there’s only one bed”). And of course, it’s always nice to add to the corpus of queer books not focused on coming out or “dealing with” being gay. In fact, it’s really nice to read a book where queer desire and attraction is presented exactly for what it is—no shame or taboo or conflict attached to the desire in-and-of-itself. Kiem and Jainan genuinely think one another is hot. And I love that for them.
This romance does not come at the expense of fantastic worldbuilding. Winter’s Orbit has a deceptively simple premise that Maxwell cleverly spins out, gradually zooming out from one interpersonal relationship to one insular planet to an empire to an even bigger network of political players, etc. The true scope of the novel’s conflict isn’t clear until much later in the story. But instead of erasing the stakes, this zoom-out simply changes them, making each political actor seem simultaneously small and monumental. Despite some of my unease with the actual political resolution in the novel (discussed below), this gradual reveal of Winter’s Orbit’s staggeringly vast universe makes for delicious storytelling.
One of the smaller pieces of worldbuilding that stands out is the way that Maxwell presents gender—not only including nonbinary characters, but also creating a series of new visual (accessory or fashion-oriented) cues to mark a character’s gender identity. The novel and its inhabitants explicitly recognize that gender is performed or marked rather than simply innate, and, as with Kiem and Jainan’s queer love, it’s never made into a thing. Though I found some of the way this plays out to be flawed (i.e. nonbinary seems to be presented as a kind of stable “third gender” rather than a sprawling catch-all term for lots of different identities), it overall added a lot to the story by making the interpersonal power dynamics that much more stark and political, irreducible to (cis)sexism. Plus, the fact that the Empire enforces its own gender markers on its satellite planets (also a brilliant detail) perhaps means that the Empire itself is to blame for oversimplifying a multiplicity of genders.
And speaking of how terrible the Empire is: as a reader, I was fully on the side of the Thean rebels persistently hovering off-page. Besides my own knee-jerk hang-ups related to real historical empires, Iskat itself didn’t do much to regain my trust as a reader. It was frustrating to read about the machinations of diplomacy when I thought the whole system should be brought down (thank goodness for characters like Gairad). Other readers, of course, may well find pacifist diplomacy comforting. Regardless, the novel is certainly successful at getting its readers invested in its politics.
With fantastic side characters, sophisticated storytelling, and compelling readability—and even a hint of sexiness—Winter’s Orbit is not to be missed. We all need some warmth and love this long winter, and Everina Maxwell has written an action-packed romance that contains just that.
Em Nordling is a writer & PhD student in Atlanta, GA.