I’m not usually drawn to Science Fiction/Fantasy or Space-Opera Romance but I may have to rethink that after reading Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell.
Kiem, Prince Royal of Iskat, has been asked to marry Count Jainen, the Thean representative to the federated empire ruled by Iskat. Jainen was recently widowed when his husband’s spacecraft crashed. Kiem agrees to consider the idea but is shocked at the rush. His grandmother, the Emperor explains:
“Tomorrow?” Kiem blurted out. He sat down hard on the uncomfortable gilded chair. “I thought you meant in a few months! The man lost his life partner!”
“Don’t be absurd,” the Emperor said. “We have precious little time before the treaty is signed on Unification Day. Everything must be watertight by then.” “The Auditor may conclude Iskat does not have sufficient control over the rest of the Empire to keep our Resolution treaty valid. There must be a representative couple in place to disprove this, with no visible concerns, smiling at the cameras. You are good at appearing confident in pictures. This should not strain your capabilities.”
Every few years, Iskat has to prove to the Resolution that they have control over their sector of the galaxy. If the Resolution Auditor decides Iskat does not, Iskat and the planets it oversees will lose the benefit of Resolution protection and access to the link networks throughout the galaxy, without which Iskat and its vassal planets will be left on their own in a hostile space. The primary way Iskat provides proof of those strong relationships is by uniting a member of Iskat royalty with representatives from the planets. Iskat cannot afford for the Resolution to question the bonds, so Kiem has to marry Jainen and he has to make it look like a love match.
Jainen is still spinning from losing his husband Taam so suddenly. He agrees to the marriage – he sees that it must occur – but he is reserved around Kiem as he can’t imagine that Kiem had any choice either. They try to put a good face on things but in private they tiptoe around each other, both assuming the other is not interested in a real relationship; as long as they can make it through the Auditor’s visit, they’ll figure out the rest later. But there is unrest on Thea – half of Iskat’s military mining is based there, and the Theans are unhappy with the Iskat base and all the resources it’s taking. The Theans are also upset that their access to Jainen over the past few years has been so limited.
Kiem wonders about that too – but when he starts to question this and other things, Kiem and Jainen suddenly find themselves uncovering conflicting details about Taam’s death and the work he did at Kingfisher – the mining operation on Thea. The more they investigate, the more disturbing the details of Taam’s work become and, if Taam was murdered by a member of the Iskat federation, the likelihood of a successful Resolution treaty is nil. It’s up to Kiem and Jainen to uncover the truth and convince the Resolution that all is well with Iskat and its vassal planets.
Kiem and Jainen are great leads. Kiem is everybody’s friend – he remembers names, connects with everyone, always has a ready joke, and is much beloved – although he’s sorely underestimated. He is much smarter than the Emperor believes him to be, and it’s a delight to see him mature and come to see his own value. He feels deeply for Jainen’s loss and would do anything to make him more comfortable. Jainen, in contrast, is quiet and controlled – at all times, seeing it as his duty to Thea to make sure the Resolution stays in place. He is completely bound by duty – to the point where it eclipses his own needs and rights. He is shocked to discover that Kiem values him as more than just his assigned treaty partner.
The journey of Kiem and Jainen to discovering their own worth – to the federation and to each other – is well crafted and I enjoyed the subtle chemistry between them. I loved the way they value each other as people first, both putting the other’s needs ahead of their own. And when they finally realize how dear they have grown to each other, it was beautiful to watch their relationship go to the next level.
The main focus of the story is on Kiem and Jainen’s relationship. Being science fiction, a degree of worldbuilding was needed, but it was on the lighter side – which I appreciated for the most part. But there were parts of the world that were never satisfactorily explained – such as what are the remnants that the Resolution insists on collecting from their members when they are found? Why do the remnants cause Jainen to hallucinate? And why does the Auditor wear a strange, glowing mask? I was disappointed when these things were never explained. I still loved the book but these omissions pulled it out of DIK territory for me.
When I was trying to categorize this book I found it labelled as ‘gay space opera’, ‘Ancillary Justice meets Red, White, and Royal Blue’, and “intergalactic political drama”. Yep, it’s all that and more. Intrigue, drama, murder, treason, interstellar treaties on the line, family politics, and romance. Yet, it doesn’t get at all bogged down in the details. Maxwell is a talented writer and ends up weaving a believable, delightful ‘Space-Opera-Romance’ – that’s the label I’m giving it! Amazingly, this is Everina Maxwell’s début book, and I’m excited to see what she does next.
Note: This book contains mention of past domestic abuse and mind-altering torture devices
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